The Measure of a Mann

Margaret Mann was an English housewife whose drawing teacher was the renowned Trinidadian artist Michel-Jean Cazabon..

St Ann’s Valley. Photograph courtesy National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and TobagoView of San Fernando, painted by Margaret Mann. Photograph courtesy National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad and Tobago

Margaret Mann, a girl from Guernsey, sailed to Trinidad in 1847, with her husband Gother, a soldier and civil engineer. While her husband worked, Mann took care of their daughter, and later the son who was born during their West Indian posting. She ran their house at the St James Barracks, sewed and mended their clothes, and taught Sunday school.

More importantly, for the 21st century, at any rate, she also wrote to her relatives at home in the Channel Islands. Her letters, part of a larger family collection, found their way to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where they were recently unearthed. Edited by Danielle Delon, Mann’s letters have now been published and have aroused great interest because for three months in 1849, Mann took painting lessons with Michel-Jean Cazabon. To her he was merely a coloured drawing teacher, but he is now hailed as the great recorder of 19th-century Trinidad scenes.

The letters are accompanied in this book by watercolours from an album of her paintings. These are so good that an expert took some time to decide that they were all by Mann herself, and none were works by Cazabon that he had lent her to copy – a common practice at the time. In a lecture earlier this year in Trinidad, British art historian Timothy Wilcox concluded that the paintings are probably all copies from originals by Cazabon. But that is a harsh judgement, and not a convincing one. Mann wasn’t just studying with Cazabon to while away empty hours, or so that she could include dabbling in watercolours among the “accomplishments” that a young woman was expected to have in her day. She was a keen amateur artist who would spend several hours a day working on her paintings, and undoubtedly very talented (or it would have been obvious that the paintings were hers and not Cazabon’s).

Mann loved the landscape of Trinidad, and saw as much of it as she could: she writes about walking to the hilltop Fort George, to the signal station on the north coast, and riding up to the Saddle in the Northern Range. She had begun painting on her own, and describes a large sketch of St James (“very successful”), one of St Ann’s (“rather a failure”), and her plan to do a pencil drawing of Port of Spain. All of these, even if not completed on the spot, must have been based on personal observation. Many of the scenes in her paintings were from places she writes about visiting – North Post, Arima, Maraval, the five islands – and there are several of the St James barracks, near which she lived. Cazabon painted these locations too, but often from a different perspective.

What’s more, even though he’s revered now, Mann didn’t think much of Cazabon. Socially, as a coloured man and of French descent, he would have been considered beneath her; and after a month of lessons, she concluded that he was “not competent to form an opinion” on her work, while his own was “decidedly inferior” to that of her art teacher in London. In addition, he was, she wrote, “a man of very narrow mind and is extremely conceited”. In light of all this, would she have been so keen merely to copy his works?

Mann’s letters shed some light on Cazabon’s methods, and serve as a contemporaneous counterbalance to the present adulation of Cazabon, but they are more interesting for other reasons. The seventy-three published in this volume were almost all written to her mother, sisters and mother-in-law, and generally cover topics suited to these recipients – domestic and social events, which in any case made up the whole of Mann’s extremely circumscribed life. That the letters are so long and detailed shows how much Mann missed her family, as she often told them, and how limited was her contact with other people. She had a close, companionable marriage, but her social circle was restricted to the families of other English officers and civil servants, and a few locals, almost all of English descent.

Mann wrote about larger events only occasionally, when they impinged on her life: the financial crisis of 1848 that led her husband to resign as colonial engineer; a yellow-fever outbreak in the British garrison at Barbados; the riots in 1849 over a new regulation that debtors as well as ordinary convicts should have their heads shaved. (As a soldier, her husband was involved in quelling that disturbance, and in any case the European population lived in terror of a mass uprising.)

Margaret Mann was painfully aware how confined a life she led, as she wrote of cleaning the house (she did it herself), looking for a reliable cook, juggling the tight family budget, or hunting for the eggs laid by the household’s wayward chickens. In her free time she wrote verse, read theology, geology and history, and discussed what she had read with her husband, with whom she took a walk every day. But he was busy and unsociable, and despite her efforts to stay occupied and intellectually engaged, Mann couldn’t conceal her ennui; she herself often describes her letters as “stupid”. Though she struggled to be content with her lot (“Dear Mamma, be assured that I never indulge in ‘the blues’”), at times her unhappiness was so deep that it made her ill, and the family had to go down the islands for her to convalesce. It’s startling to remember, reading about her onerous domestic responsibilities, or the strict social mores she felt bound to observe, that these letters were written by a girl in her early twenties.

She notes the price of coconut and whale oil, complains of having to eat beef every day because she can’t afford to buy any other meat. She asks her mother to send thick-soled shoes, or muslin for dresses. She describes the places she visits, the behaviour of the “magnificent” caterpillars on a shrub. She speculates about the age of her servant “old Peter”, a former slave who remembers his original name, Nemineh, before he was kidnapped at 12, and sold to the Spanish, then captured by the British in a war. That must have been in 1762, she reckons.

Mann was an intelligent woman with her own opinions, which were especially strong because of her youth, and yet for the same reason she had not yet shaken off some of the fixed ideas of her time. She had all the class and race prejudice one would expect of a woman of the period, although she appreciated the hard work and the company of her children’s nurse, who had come from Guernsey with the family. But she disparaged local servants, whether black or Portuguese, as lazy. She singled out two coloured children in her Sunday school class as “incorrigibly idle”.

But she added, “in point of personal appearance [they] far outshine the English members of my school: their fine clear bronze complexions contrasting very advantageously with Phoebe’s sickly pale freckled European skin.” She saw everyone with this dispassionate, painterly eye, commenting on the beauty and grace of the recently arrived indentured Indians, or “the coloured native population varying…from ebony to gamboge with intermediate shades of every possible variety”. She turned this clear gaze even on her own children. Of her eldest, Alice, she says: “With a good nose she would have been a beauty, with her present potato-shaped little nasal organ, she is yet very pretty.”

Her child-rearing methods, by the way, are surprisingly modern. Children should wear as few clothes as possible, she believed, and Alice is allowed to run about in the sun and get brown. The baby is not punished for amusing himself by throwing things off the gallery of the house. He was previously kept manageable, however, by doses of a patent medicine called Dalby’s Carminative, which contained opium – until the family doctor put a stop to it.

The letters don’t need Mann’s apologies: they are interesting precisely because of the amount of detail they give of her everyday routines. There are numerous records of the public life of her time, but far fewer of the cloistered lives of middle-class women.

The letters deserve rather more thoughtful editing. One undated letter, for instance, describes Lord Harris’s wedding the previous day, yet the suggested date is “circa April 1849”. It was April 16, not a hard fact to discover. But Delon is to be commended for bringing these fascinating and valuable records into the public domain.

The Letters of Margaret Mann, Ed Danielle Delon
(National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad & Tobago, 976-95106-8-8, 475pp)