National Army Museum

The Overseer of British Guiana

In 1861 a young clergyman’s son arrived in British Guiana to oversee a sugar plantation. Over the next 30 years Henry Bullock’s letters home caught the texture of life in a remote backwater of Empire – though they don’t tell the whole story, as Gaiutra Bahadur explains.

The main street in New Amsterdam, of which Anthony Trollope wrote in 1860, 'three persons in the street constitute a crowd'. Getty Images/PopperfotoOn March 22nd, 1869 a young plantation manager in the West Indies wrote an expansive letter to his sister in Essex. Often Henry Bullock only managed to scribble perfunctory notes to his family, but this letter probably satisfied their hunger for details about his life, running a sugar estate far from home on the remote coast of British Guiana (now Guyana). He reported what he had done that day: as part of a jury in a capital murder trial, he had reluctantly sent a man to the gallows. He described his regular companions, a married couple who lived nearby and their baby daughter. Although he generally had little patience for children, he was fond of this little girl. The toddler liked to put a hat on Henry’s head and a pipe in his mouth and pretend she was hurrying him out the door. His sisters often had to coax from him such scenes, sketching his everyday, domestic existence. In that letter he must have made them still happier by providing an inventory of his desires from England: socks, music, a copy of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ in green cloth binding.

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