Servants and Household Expenses
George Canning Backhouse
Judge for Slave Trade Suppression in Havana
Pre-Dates Abolition in Cuba by Twelve Years
Havana, 8 April 1853 – 12 February 1855. Manuscript register of expenses for the household of George Canning Backhouse, which includes names and describes incidents with his indentured servants, recorded during his residency in Cuba while he was serving as Her Majesty’s Judge in the “Havana Mixed Commission for the Suppression of the Slave Trade.” Most entries made in a fine hand by his wife Grace; some entries also made by George Canning Backhouse himself. With 32 pages in manuscript concerning their domestic life and household expenses in Havana, featuring detailed explanations of servants hired and wages paid to them, most pages being marked with a cursive swirl likely to indicate accounts reconciliation. Inversely, an additional 34 pages in manuscript tally household expenses from the year before, and leading up to the voyage to Cuba, these dating from 29 May 1852 to 12 February 1853; and yet 7 pages more being an account written in George’s hand in pencil, of a tour of Hanover in October [circa 1851] possibly when he was attaché in the British Legation at Frankfurt. 8vo. Vellum boards ruled border in blue ink, marbled endpapers. A simple binding measuring approximately 16.5 x 11 cm. Slight age-toning to boards, one ink drop to front, otherwise in very good condition, a fascinating window into the workings and finances of a colonial household.
Together with an inventory of household furniture and equipment purchased shortly after their arrival in Havana in 1853 after having found a home in which to settle. Local shops and streets are named, including the “Meubleria” on Calle de Lamparilla, another “Meubleria” on Calle de Cuba, “La Cometa” and one other on Calle de San Ignacio (now in Old Havana). Handmade folded notebook, comprised of 4 leafs watermarked “J. Gree 1834,” folded and fastened together with a brass pin at spine, containing 9 pages with manuscript entries, measuring approximately 10 x 15,5 cm.
Together with a pocket-size Almanack by Peacock & Mansfield with Memoranda leafs, containing 4 pages of manuscript diary notes by George Backhouse for the year 1840, offering a glimpse into his early life, fourteen years prior to his appointment in Cuba. This little volume was kept by him when he was following in his father’s field, working as a clerk in the Foreign Office at 16 Downing Street, and living at 28 Hans Place in Chelsea, London, at twenty years of age. In it he jots bills paid, purchases, and accounts settled. Being of the upper-middle class, he enjoyed sojourns, dining out, private parties, and equestrian riding. He mentions his younger brother Johnny Backhouse, who would become a was Vice-Consul at Amoy [Xiamen], China, in the 1850s (at the same time that George would serve as judge in Havana).
The lot contained in a custom made clamshell box in a style representative of period bookbinding, taupe cloth with bright marbled edges, printed paper label to spine.
[Cuba ended its participation in the slave trade in 1867 – a decade after these private records were kept – although indentured slavery continued for some time. Finally, on 7 October 1886 slavery was officially abolished by a Spanish royal decree which also rendered the indentured servitude system, known as patronato, illegal. Beginning in the 16th century, more than a million African slaves had been brought to Cuba as part of the Atlantic slave trade, mainly to work the sugar cane plantations.]
George Canning Backhouse (1818-1855) was a notable figure in the British Foreign Office, who served as Commissionary Judge at Havana in Cuba, where he was murdered during a meeting in his home, then only 37 years of age. At his father’s suggestion, and following his legacy, George had entered the Foreign Office in 1838 as a clerk, holding this post for fourteen years until the Cuba appointment. For several years he had been seeking posts abroad, applying for posts as consul in Lima, Peru, in Tripoli, and also in Elsinore, Denmark. For a brief time, circa 1851, he had served as attaché in the British Legation at Frankfurt, Germany, which may be the period when he toured and wrote about Hanover in the present volume. Still, he longed for travel and adventure to be a more integral part of his career.
Despite his limited knowledge of the slave trade, George was overjoyed at the opportunity that was presented him – a notable post in Cuba. On 17 December 1852 he was offered by Malmesbury to take up the title and responsibilities of Commisssary Judge at the Anglo-Spanish court in Havana for an annual salary of £1600. Retirement, with pension of £600 per annum would be granted after only twelve years of service. His wife Grace supported his wishes, and dutifully followed.
Regrettably, the fanciful imagery of Caribbean life faded rapidly upon arrival. There George and Grace were met with conditions unexpected, prolific illness such as yellow fever spreading through society, insects and reptiles unknown to them and not considered charming. Their first lodging was sub-standard, and the cost of setting up a home was more than anticipated. In 1853 they made arrangements to rent a house from an indigenous cigar manufacturer, allowing an old African man to reside on the property at the same time, in a small room situated near the stables. The home was about one mile from Havana, near Cerro, which at the time was a small community for the affluent.
It is interesting to note, that while the purpose of his employment was to suppress the slave trade, servitude of the lower classes was common practice in the day, even with abolitionists, and George seems to have employed at least six local servants.
Mostly born in Cuba or the Canary Islands, they were higher ranking than the ‘free blacks’, therefore, while the servants were treated with more dignity than slaves, it is clear that they had high expectations placed on them for a pittance of a wage. For example, it has been documented that George requested that the landlord’s slave would live in their home and work in the gardens without earning a wage. The request was granted without question. Any slight infraction by a servant, perceived or real, would result in arbitrary repercussion including reduced payment or loss of employment altogether. Scenarios such as these are described in the present volume. Servants were also segregated at meal time and such, as were slaves.
Entries in the present volume end on 12 February 1855, only weeks before Grace left for England, thus recording some of the last events and financial decisions made together in their Havana home.
Within two years of finally having settled, early April 1855 Grace decided to take respite in England for six months, then pregnant with their third child, and intending to return in November. George saw it fit to stay in Havana and work, however his foreign adventure and noble anti-slave pursuit would end abruptly and violently, when on 31 August 1855, an intruder entered his home and stabbed him with a knife, causing a fateful wound. At the time, George was dining with his acting secretary Thomas Callaghan. The assailant was not caught, nor has the motive for the assault been confirmed, though one of the suspected party was apprehended. Before passing, George described the man as a mulatto or Chinese, which was corroborated by Callaghan who had been overpowered and tied up. George Canning Backhouse died at approximately 11 pm 31 August 1855, reportedly from severe difficulty in breathing, as a result of the wound, although it is also documented that the physician ordered bleeding and leeching, which may very well have exacerbated the body’s weakness. Some sources reported it simply as a robbery, although no theft attempt was described by the two men who were attacked. Grace and other contemporaries with firsthand insight into the slavery conflicts of the time, were convinced that George’s murder was the result of a “slave dealing conspiracy.”
Grace Margaret Backhouse, née Sandham (1822/23 – 1904), primary writer of the volume, was the daughter of John Mullins Sandham, a barrister-at-law. Circa 1850/51 she married George Canning Backhouse and in 1853 the couple emigrated to Cuba. Together but a few short years, in 1855, George was murdered in their Havana home while she was in England. Several years after she was widowed, in 1861 she would marry her second husband, William Jeudwine, a vicar at Chicheley, Buckinghamshire. They had at least one son, born at Chicheley the following year, being a notable army officer, Sir Hugh Sandham (1862-1942).
The Duke University’s William R Perkins Library in Durham, North Carolina, holds a collection of George Canning Backhouse papers containing letters and diaries from Havana 1852 to 1855, as well as correspondence and papers of his father John Backhouse dating from 1812-1845.
The present volume and accompanying papers serve to illustrate the ambiguity between slavery and hired or indentured servants – through the private notes of an aristocrat who would be considered sympathetic in the period, a man hired by the British Court to aid in the suppression of the slave trade – a man who would be killed for the cause during the heightened campaigns of abolitionists fighting slavers. The receipts recorded make the lot of twofold interest by also providing economic details of colonial life in the West Indies.
George Canning Backhouse served in Cuba from 1853 to 1855 as Her Majesty’s Judge in the “Havana Mixed Commission for the Suppression of the Slave Trade,” to judge over cases relating to captured slave ships. George and Grace Canning Backhouse lived between Havana and El Cerro, in a house for let by a Cuban cigar manufacturer.
[El Cerro was an affluent district on the outskirts of Havana, chosen by the wealthy for their residences and for summer retreats. The first homes were built there in 1803. Today it is one of Havana’s most impoverished municipalities.]
The little handcrafted notebook demonstrates the “upper class” foreigners settling in Havana, with expectations of English amenities. Comprising lists of furnishings and household items purchased, examples include a wardrobe, a dining room table and 12 mahogany chairs, washstands for several rooms, a case for dripstone, several simple painted chairs (probably for the servants), 2 toilet tables, looking glasses, brooms, brushes, and other cleaning items, and a long list of items for the kitchen and the crockery including a lamp, colander, coffee pot, flour dredge, ladle, plates, tumblers, wine glasses, and so on, not forgetting the all-important mosquito netting as a barrier to the yellow-fever-breeding beasts. For George’s office, papers and cupboards are on the list, the cupboards and a few other items being second hand purchases made at an auction.
The main interest in the present documents, however, are in the pages of the journal which are devoted to the servants working for the household. In their retinue of hired help, George and Grace Backhouse employed an under nurse, a cook, a washerwoman, a housemaid, a gardener, a service boy, and possibly others. Most had come from the Canary Islands, the source of many indentured servants, or they were indigenous Cubans. Two women were from England. Hilton, for example, was a young Englishwoman employed as a nursemaid who came to Cuba in January 1853 accompanying the family. For a short time, another English servant named Caroline Langley worked for the family before her health gave way. Grace Backhouse had considerable trouble keeping her servants, some of whom appear to have been indentured servants. Several confrontations and incidents are recorded in the principle journal. In her notes she names the servants, jots their dates of arrival and termination (or in one case, disappearance), and sometimes includes her impressions of them. Their wages were paid in dollars and/or reales fuentes.
[Before 1857, Spanish and Spanish colonial silver reales and gold escudos worth 16 reales circulated in Cuba.]
Excerpts from the text:
“Amicacio, a boy, or young man, black, & Rose a black washerwoman & Matilda a black nursemaid with Pauline the cook formed our first establishment they all left very soon – except Pauline – amongst Amicacio’s accomplishments may be reckoned cleaning my beautiful new plates with cinder ashes !!!! spoiling it quite – the wretch.”
“Concha our housemaid came to us Thursday June 23rd 1853… Concha was paid a month’s wages & sent off because she would not fill a water bottle! Saturday Oct.r 29 1853″
“Pedro the Canary boy came to us Tuesday Aug 2 1853… & to be retained by us until he has worked out his passage money paid by us to the Real Junta di Fomento… Pedro was… sent away because he refused to beg my pardon for having laughed when I scolded him for breaking an egg cup… Pedro came back to us & entered into the profession of gardening… he begged my pardon… Pedro obliged to leave & hide himself on account of his having taken a stone in his hand and knocked a man on the head with it.”
[The Real Junta de Fomento was the institution responsible for the promotion and development of agriculture and commerce in Cuba from 1832-1854.]
“Ferdinand man-cook came to us Oct.r 19 1853… he has proved himself a very bad cook indeed so on Saturday Oct.r 23 we paid him his 4 days wages and dismissed him.”
“Paid Pauline… & sent her off because she fought with Pedro and was in a towering rage – 2nd offence of the kind. Manuel and she did battle one day.”
“An old n****r man cook came into our service Monday Dec.r 12th- Dirty old fellow & bad cook too. Paid him off Friday Dec.r 16 1853.”
“Assumption came into our service as cook… went off suddenly without saying a word to me… taking with her bed and baggage.“
“Martina came to me as under maid at 8 ½ dollars a month – she is the Toline’s slave and the agreement I have made is to give her 1 $ a month for her own use out of the 8 ½ – 1 pr of shoes is the allowance a month.”
“I gave Martina only ½ a $ in Oct.r because she had disobeyed me about coming home at night the other ½ $ has nothing to do with her mistress I give it entirely on my own account.”
[Cuba stopped officially participating in the slave trade in 1867, but the institution of slavery was not abolished on the island until 1886. The demand for cheap labor never abated, and plantation owners in particular sought other ways of obtaining workers. They followed the lead of the British and the French by importing contract laborers (indentured servants) they called colonos. Free people, either voluntarily or through coercion, signed a work contract that stipulated the term of service and the pay they would receive. In theory, the colonos could leave the employ of their owners at the end of the term of service, but in practice the conditions for the colonos were not much different than those endured by the slave population. The majority of the colonos came from China (Chinese Coolies) but they also imported people from the Canary Islands, Mexico, and Africa.]
George Canning Backhouse was the son of John Backhouse, Esq. (1784-1845), a respected merchant succeeding in his own father’s trade until being hand-picked by British Prime Minister George Canning who appointed him to a newly created title, to protect important commercial and trade interests. As such, in 1822 he was appointed to a clerkship of the India Board. Two years later he became Commissioner of Excise. In 1827 he was made Receiver-General of Excise and around the same time also made Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs, until 1842 when he became ill. In his sixteen years of public service, he worked for several notables, including the Earl of Liverpool, the Earl of Rippon, Earl Grey, and, most significantly, he was private secretary to George Canning, after whom his son George Canning Backhouse was named. He died at his home at Hans Place in 1845 at age 62 – only ten years before his son’s tragic death in Cuba.
On 13 October 1855, the Illustrated Times published this account of his death:
Murder of Mr G.C.Backhouse, The Commissary Judge.
“The recent advices from Cuba inform us, that the assassinations had become rather frequent. Among the victims was Mr. George Canning BACKHOUSE, Queen Victoria’s Commissary Judge of the Mixed Commission for the Suppression of the Slave Trade. He was sitting at his house after dinner, with a Mr. Callaghan, on the evening of Friday, August 31st, when a gang of negro ruffians, accompanied by two white men, entered the premises, and secured the servants in the outer apartments; two of the ruffians (negroes) entered the room in which the two gentlemen were, and commenced to tie their arms behind them and also to gag them. Callaghan, who must from his own account have been very frightened, was thrown to the ground, his arms tied, and his watch taken from his person. The unfortunate Backhouse made a more manful struggle. He attempted first to throw his assailant on the ground; but finding the latter was too powerful a man for him to do this, he next endeavoured to take away the monster’s knife. Whilst attempting this, Backhouse received a wound in the left side, which splintered one of his ribs, and went entirely through his lungs and spleen; and in about four hours he passed from life into eternity. The unfortunate gentleman has left a wife in England to deplore her loss. The murderer and all his confederates have been captured, and there is reason to believe that sufficient proof to condemn at least a portion of them has already been adduced. The cause of this terrible crime remained unknown when the latest accounts left Cuba”.