This Thing of Darkness: Reading Atmospheric Disturbance in Matthew Lewis's Journal of a West India Proprietor
On the death of his father in 1812, Matthew Gregory Lewis, the infamous author of The Monk (1796) and The Castle Spectre (1797), inherited 'two Jamaican sugar estates, six or seven hundred human beings, and the problem of slavery' (Macdonald, The Isle of Devils, 1998). Lewis embarked on the first of two voyages to visit his plantations in early November 1815. His journal entry for November 8th records the 'black melancholy' of his residence in Gravesend whilst awaiting embarkation two days later. In the final entry of his journal (2 May 1817) Lewis notes the perturbation that follows his final command as a West India Proprietor, 'the whole air' being 'rent with noises of all kinds and creatures'. The phrasing recalls the dispossessed Caliban's isle that is 'full of noises'; but the noises of Shakespeare's isle take the form of 'sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not' where the noises of Lewis's residence are sounds of tempest that disquiet: they are a cacophony that might be understood to represent the meteorological and social turbulence experienced by the Proprietor during his Residence in the Island of Jamaica. They might also represent the strain of Lewis's entangled position - the jangle of the conflicted mind/heart of a reluctant slave-owner. But more, the disturbance registered in this personal record of a voyage into darkness that ends with Lewis's death from Yellow Fever on the return home, might be understood to draw on a social, political and literary climate of turbulence in which the Revolution and Reign of Terror in France and associated British response are entangled with consternation and debate about slavery from the late 1780s through the 1830s. The eruption of Tambora in 1815 was a geological disturbance that mirrored and exacerbated the unsettled political and social weather that would result in climate change - real and ideological. Lewis's Journal not only recorded the unsettled 'weather' of the years 1816 through 1817 - a period that came to be recognised as effected by climate change, it was published in 1834, the year in which the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 took effect - the year that marked a social and political climate change in Britain and throughout the British Empire.