steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Extracting even from the hot-bed of illicit intercourse a plant of inestimable and eternal fragrance

Print on demand is a rather lovely thing for the impecunious researcher. If I wanted to buy a first edition of my great-great-great grandfather Weeden Butler's book Zimao the African (1800) it would cost me £3,000 on Abebooks, but a perfectly decent facsimile is now mine for just over a tenner. I've been curious about this anti-slavery story for quite a while. Apart from the intrinsic interest of the contents it comes with two intriguing literary mysteries attached.

zimao frontispiece

The contents first. The main part of Zimao is the first-person story of the narrator's visit to his friend in Jamaica. The friend, a Philadelphian called Wilmot, owns a slave plantation, but unlike most of his neighbours he treats his slaves well and regularly grants them freedom after a certain period. In return, he is beloved by them, and when there is a revolt by the Maroons they help to protect the household. This impresses the Maroon leader, a young man called Zimao, who later goes on to tell his own story of being captured in West Africa, transported, and separated from his wife on arrival in Jamaica. Zimao impresses everyone with his eloquence and good looks (which approximate to European standards of classical masculine beauty), and happily he is reunited with his wife, who happens to be a slave on Wilmot's plantation. Everyone ends the best of friends. It's like a eucatastrophic version of Behn's Oroonoko - a strange blend of zeal and complacency. Far more powerful is the 32-page Appendix (i.e. about half the length of the story) in which Weeden supplies some pretty horrendous details of the middle passage, including many first-hand accounts...


On to the mysteries. We can probably take it that Weeden was responsible for the Appendix, since it's drawn from evidence presented to Parliament, but did he also compose the main narrative? He's described on the Frontispiece as a translator, but where is the original, and who was its author? It may be that "translator" was a title he assumed for modesty or self-protection. It certainly seems a pretty Anglophone narrative in terms of its actors and setting.

The really weird bit is the dedication (which you can read here). The Monthly Review in its notice of Zimao in September 1800 noted that "The dedication of this work is very peculiar in its nature, but we choose to forbear from commenting on it." We, however, need not be so squeamish. It is addressed to "To a lady eminent for her private qualities and her public station", and beseeches her to use her influence on her royal lover to get him to repeal the slave trade. The language is indeed peculiar, and makes me wonder whether Weeden had ever really tried to get into the head of a royal mistress:

Far, very far from these pages be the language of obloquy and abuse. To descend to coarse and ribbald descants on your intimacy with a prince, were vilely foreign to the purpose. Fain would I behold you extracting even from the hot-bed of illicit intercourse a plant of inestimable and eternal fragrance.—Be the fair advocate of outraged nature, and I will rank you with the good.

The truly illustrious personage whose favour you enjoy, patronizes the sale of his fellow-mortals. Exalted rank, extensive revenues, exhaustless pleasures,—to which last you, madam, so very largely contribute,—all divert his attention and suspend his feeling, if they do not, alas! stifle his humanity. His royal heart is kind and generous. Too long, however, has his royal ear been open to rich and crafty individuals, hackneyed in the traffic:—to men, whose whole fortunes are exhaled from the holds of slaughter-houses, and whose avarice is drenched and glutted with blood-potations.

Later, he imagines her reflecting on her good deed after the event: "Then stepped I forth, the champion of offended virtue……I placed myself between the lamb and the tiger. In a moment of dalliance I obtained from the Duke his princely promise; and the violence of oppressors was chained down by law."

Who was this lady, and who was her lover? Mrs Fitzherbert and the Prince of Wales have been suggested, and they certainly seem very plausible candidates. But are there others? That reference to "the Duke" seems a bit odd as a way of referring to George - although I wouldn't be surprised if he had a dukedom or two in his portfolio. But he had ducal brothers, and they had mistresses too. On the other hand, I don't think any of them was such a libertine. The big question is, did the Prince of Wales patronize the sale of his fellow-mortals as of 1800?

So there you have it - another leaf from the peculiar plant that is my family tree. I don't know whether Mrs Fitzherbert ever acted on Weeden's hint and took advantage of a moment of dalliance to tackle the Prince of Wales on the subject of the slave trade - but you can't blame him for trying.
Tags: books, family history
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