Time consuming and laborious, hand-written letterbooks were employed to keep a record of correspondence before modern technologies such as photocopiers, scanners and computers became commonplace tools. As part of the Williams Ethnological Collection, the Burns Library holds two letterbooks that belonged to Stephen Fuller. Fuller (1716 – 1808) was the British Agent for the Caribbean island of Jamaica in the late 18th Century, which was under British colonial rule from 1655 until 1962. Fuller held this post from 1765 to 1795 and these letterbooks cover his correspondence during the years 1762-1773 and 1776-1784. Thus, the books include transcriptions of letters regarding Fuller’s application for the position in the months leading up to his appointment. Fuller cited many well-connected potential supporters, including William “Alderman” Beckford—Lord Mayor of London in 1762, owner of two lucrative plantations in Jamaica, and father of the important author William Thomas Beckford who was then only an infant.
Fuller’s relationship to Jamaica was also cemented by family ties. His mother, Elizabeth Rose, was in fact born in Jamaica in 1680. She was the daughter and co-heir of Fulke Rose, a prominent Jamaica planter. The letterbooks help to illuminate the entail of the Rose family’s Jamaican estate across the generations: including a copy of a letter from Fuller’s cousin Ambrose Isted to his own brother Rose Fuller, detailing the manner in which their mutual aunt bequeathed the property to Ambrose Isted and his heirs upon her death. This letter is one of a select few that does not involve Stephen Fuller directly as either writer or recipient. Accordingly, this letter stands out as an important family record. Due to these family holdings in Jamaica, Stephen Fuller found himself forced to navigate accusations of conflicting interests. He attempted to reassure the “Jamaica gentlemen” that he strove only to serve the island, not his family’s personal fortune. On January 29th, 1765, Fuller sent multiple letters with nearly identical contents, asserting his dedication to Jamaica’s prosperity rather than his own.
The letterbooks also provide important historical information about Britain’s colonial exploits, seen through the lens of figures laid out in neat tables, messy calculations, letters regarding land ownership and indenture disputes, and correspondence regarding the passing of Parliamentary Acts and Bills to manage colonial trade. For example, from one table of figures we learn that in the year 1763, 10 gallons of rum were exported to Ireland. The amount increased to 9000 gallons the following year. The Fuller letterbooks, however, contain much more than facts, numbers, and business correspondence. At times, Fuller used his letterbooks as a commonplace book, recording interesting occurrences, recipes, and even pasting in snippets from newspapers. He even included a short newspaper article about how to treat the bite of a mad dog. There are recipes for making home-made adhesive strips and sausages.
Fuller also provided a detailed account of an eye surgery that he witnessed. His account of the surgery, which appears to be a cataract removal procedure, fills nine pages with small, dense script and illustrations. But after those nine pages, Fuller returned to the day-to-day business of Jamaica’s imports and exports. These letterbooks provide rich insights—both anecdotal and informative—into the life and work of an Englishman firmly embedded in England’s colonial affairs in the late 18th Century. The Stephen Fuller Letterbooks are part of the Williams Ethnological Collection (MS2009-30). If you are interested in learning more about this collection, take a look at the finding aid or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Alison Fanous, Burns Library Reference Assistant & B.C. Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English