Henry De la Beche

Most of Sir Henry De la Beche’s papers are held at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.  Check out the De La Beche page on the museum’s website. There are pictures of De la Beche as a young and as an old man, and the full watercolour Duria Antiquior.

A very fine catalogue of this collection exists:  The Papers of H. T. De la Beche (1796-1855) in the National Museum of Wales. By Tom Sharpe and Paul J. McCartney (National Museum of Wales, Geological Series No. 17, Cardiff: 1988)

cartoonThis meticulously-indexed 257 page volume includes short extracts from the 2,283 items in the collection, a three-page list of De La Beche’s own publications from 1819 to 1855, and 79 figures—reproductions of De la Beche’s satiric sketches, landscape drawings, fossil illustrations, and old photographs.

Only one biography exists to date, a 70-page overview of De la Beche’s life. Henry De la Beche: Observations of an Observer by Paul J. McCartney. (Friends of the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 1977).

I really wondered . . .

What actually happened to Letitia?

By 1825 Henry De la Beche and Letitia had formally separated, and by 1826 she was openly living with Henry Wyndham, forfeiting her financial settlement from De la Beche by doing so. Notwithstanding their divorce in 1826, Letitia assumed the title “Lady De la Beche” when Henry was knighted in 1843. Letitia and Wyndham’s relationship ended when Letitia invited an impoverished Irish cousin into their home as a guest; before long, the cousin and Wyndham had taken up with each other, and Letitia was out on the street (literally, on a rainy night).

We know the sordid details of this break-up (the cousin bribing the servants, Letitia’s portrait as Mary Queen of Scots being painted over with the cousin’s face, etc.) thanks to a monograph Mrs. Auriol wrote and circulated to publicize her daughter’s predicament (Statement and correspondence on the ill-treatment of Lady De la Beche by Major-General Henry Wyndham, compiled by her mother, Anne Auriol). Letitia’s personal copy of this book, with notes in her handwriting in the margins, is held in the British Library, and offers a fascinating glimpse into her personality.  (“Mine is a heart that unfortunately vibrates to every breath of feeling and I have not been gifted with the crafty power of concealing it” etc.)  Henry De la Beche’s final moving letter to Letitia is included; he seems to have been the only player in this drama who conducted himself with any dignity.

How did Henry De la Beche live with himself as a slave owner?

Henry De la Beche was such a progressive thinker (an iconoclast, even) that he must have felt morally compromised about deriving his income from slavery, especially since the Abolitionist movement was very active by the time he inherited the plantation. In letters, William Conybeare confronted De la Beche on the subject (Conybeare is not very sympathetically portrayed in Curiosity, but he was in fact an abolitionist). In reply, De la Beche expressed regret about the plantation, but  described his position as “enlightened self-interest” . . . “You know that I am a well-wisher to the slave population, but I wish their condition to be gradually bettered, and not suddenly.”

When De la Beche visited the plantation in 1824, he wrote a monograph he described as a neutral study on the condition of the slaves, based on his observations at Halse Hall.  Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes in Jamaica by Henry De la Beche (London: Cadwell, 1825), a 64 page pamphlet, can be found at the National Museum of Wales and at the British Library.  The account emphasizes the social aspects of life in “a negro village”—nursing mothers sharing childcare, the provision grounds the slaves were given for their own farming, the elaborate dances and feasts at Christmas, the practice of obeah. De la Beche’s reforms included renouncing the whip, bringing in missionaries to educate and baptize the slaves, and having “good conduct” medals cast with his profile on them.

It’s an interesting study in how vested interest and prejudice can shape observation. De la Beche notes without comment that the provision grounds the Halse Hall slaves were given were ten miles away from the plantation. Observing the women’s determination to avoid pregnancy, he speculates that they procured abortions when possible “from their dread that child-bearing will interfere with the pursuit of their favourite amusements.”  His  monograph uses language about his workers that is difficult to read today, but he writes, “I enter into this study with the dislike of slavery natural to every Englishman and the accidental circumstances of inheriting the West Indian property. . . . I trust I will be judged fairly.”

Was Henry De la Beche a happy man?

The best picture of Henry De la Beche in his middle years is found in the fascinating diaries of Caroline Fox (1819-1871), which are published as Memories of Old Friends, Horace N. Pym, ed. London: Smith, 1882. Caroline Fox was 17 in 1836 when Henry De la Beche first visited her family in Falmouth. Her April 7 entry described him as “a very entertaining person, his manners rather French, his conversation spirited and full of illustrative anecdote. He looks about 40, a handsome but care-worn face, brown eyes and hair, and gold spectacles. He explained and exhibited geological maps which he is now perfecting for the Ordnance. Accordingly, he is constantly shifting his residence that he may survey accurately in these parts.”

On April 25, 1836 Caroline Fox wrote, “Henry De la Beche and his daughter Bessie spent the day with us, and we took a merry country excursion, the geological part of which was extremely satisfactory to all parties. Bessie is a bright, affectionate girl, devoutly attached to her father, with whom she travels from place to place. She is about fifteen, fond of books, but her main education is her father’s society.”

As De la Beche settled into the household, he takes up more and more space in Caroline Fox’s journal, and a picture emerges of a bright, lively man, almost manic in his efforts to charm.  He regaled them with accounts of “his juvenile depravities and their fitting punishments,” talked about spearing alligators on the Nile (likely a fabrication), and defended his radical politics. He drew cartoons, he  stuck paper cigars on the solemn portraits in the drawing room. “Henry De la Beche came in at breakfast and was a regular fun-engine,” Caroline writes.

But after a year’s acquaintance, she writes,  “On his return to England, he had many troubles, which accounts for his low views of mankind, for the artificial spirits in which he so often seems to be veiling his griefs and disappointments.” Fox’s sense of the darkness under his ebullience is born out by De la Beche’s pessimistic observation in his final letter to Letitia: “Misfortune has followed me from my cradle and it will follow me to my grave.”

Henry De la Beche never remarried, but did father a second child.  A photo on the Museum of Wales’s page shows an elderly De la Beche with two young women. The woman by his knee is his daughter Bessie, born during his marriage to Letitia. The figure standing is Rosalie Torres, born in 1834. Henry De la Beche acknowledged Rosalie as his daughter, but no one has ever discovered who her mother was.