the miss morris correspondence

The Miss Morris letters

The three letters below were sent from Batavia in 1819 and 1821 from Robert and Eliza Morris to their sister Nancy in Scotland. The merchant Robert Morris arrived in Java in 1818. The letters provide some interesting insight into the challenges of correspondence between Europe and the Far East, mentioning for example the delays in communication, the practice of writing duplicate letters, and the use of forwarding agents at a time when the postal system was not fully developed.

Other themes in the letters are the trials of voyage at sea (a journey from England to Java is said to last 5 months!), the constant worry of health in the tropical climate, and the tedium and lack of variety of life for western merchants and their family. A letter from Robert Morris is not free from the condescension and downright disdain with which many westerners regarded the native population of such far-flung territory.

Above all, the communications are examples of the skills and eloquence of letter writing that were widespread among people from several social classes in the nineteenth century - a conventionalized art of private communication now lamentably scarce.

A complete folded letter sent 3 June 1819 from Batavia to Campbeltown in Scotland. The letter shows no postal markings and must have been been forwarded privately or by an established forwarding agent. In the letter the writer recommends use of the forwarding agents Mess. Porter and Co.

The letter from Robert Morris to his sister is written with a fine dose of humour and touches on concerns foremost on the minds of Westerners in the Far East at the time; the challenges and delays of letter writing, the use of forwarding agents, health, financial transactions, and the difficulty of finding stimulating female company so far from home.

Batavia 3 June 1819

My Dear Nancy,

It is now very near a twelvemonth since I landed on Java and I have only received since my departure from England a single letter bearing dato the 27 May upwards of a year ago. This long silence causes me considerable uneasiness, but it is a considerable time since any ship has arrived from England. I shall attribute it to that cause & not to negligence on your part & I would be uncharitable to put any other construction upon it… I have reports from all my other friends & had you followed my directions in writing occasionally to the care of Mess. Porter & Co. I might have received your letters with theirs – I look for the next arrival with impatience & I trust it will compensate for past disappointment. I now enclose you a bill drawn by this house upon our friends and correspondents in London for £100 payable at (?) to your order, which I hope you will easily get value for in Campbeltown.

I have now seen a great deal of Java having travelled East… though a fine island it is inhabited by a miserable lazy lot of wretches who do not deserve so fine a country. I am acquiring a fine standing colour – something of a coffee complexion, but here we care little for shades of colour – unless that of burning (?) black – I hope I shall preserve enough of my native hue to enable you to distinguish me from a Malay or Javan when I return & this is all I can hope for.

Being now a little beyond the Hour of Youth & in a situation where female society is seldom attainable I begin to think marriage a nice institution & a lifemate a very desirable thing – but when I look around me I see nothing but Dutch women & Malays – the former little better than the latter. I find that I must look for a wife elsewhere. I shall, one of these days, send you a description of one that will (?) this market & commission you to send her out by the first ship taking care to give me advice of the shipment that I may be in readiness to return the goods!

I beg my most affectionate regards to Mother – I intend to write to her, but she really gives me so little encouragement that I am half afraid to begin – Remember Jos. Maxwell – Bothey – Mrs. Mr. McLeod & in short all friends & tell them if not happy – I am at least content & by this time they will know as much of the world as to be satisfied that the former is a vain shadow & that latter depends upon ourselves.

Adieu my dear Nancy until I hear from you & believe me to remain Your most affectionate Brother

Rob. Morris

Part of a letter from Batavia to Scotland, sent 6 days after the above letter. The correspondence mentions the common practice of sending duplicate letters by different ships to ensure as timely an arrival as possible. This letter entered the postal system and shows apporpriate tariff marks and handstamps from London (29 Sep. 1819), Glasgow (2 Oct.), and Campbeltown. It was readdressed to the small town of Aros on the island of Mull off the west coast of Scotland.

"Batavia 9 June 1819

My Dear Nancy

The enclosed is the duplicate of a remittance for £100 which I have made to you by another ship (the Lander) but as I expect the present opportunity will reach port being a fast sailing light vessel… As I have written to you pretty fully by the above ship I shall only in the present express my disappointment at the non arrival of letters from you, having only received the one dated 27 May"

The simple address "To Miss Morris" and the absence of postal markings indicate a letter sent privately, probably together with, or inside, another letter to the same recipient.

The correspondence is from Eliza Morrison to her sister Nancy in Scotland (whom she had never met) and is dated Batavia 12 May 1821.

My dear Sister

The kind letter which I received from you on the 5th May was more gratifying to me than I can express, and let me assure you that it does not contain one kind expression but that my heart feels and replies to. I thank you very much for your congratulations and good wishes!  I only hope I may in some measure merit the tenderness and affection, I have hitherto met with from your dear brother – we certainly had the advantage of a long acquaintance, before that event occurred which has greatly added to my happiness.

I regret much that I have never had the happiness of seeing you, but I have very frequently heard of you, and I look forward to the happy day when we shall be personally and intimately known to each other. When this may happen is at present very uncertain, but I think at no very distant period. I wish I could render my letter interesting to you by any means – I can only rely upon the kindness of your feeling towards me to make it in the least so, for my present mode of life affords so little variety that I have little to communicate.

Your dear brother is not looking very well at this moment, but this is entirely owing to his exertions in business, and this sad climate, which it must be confessed is a great enemy to a healthy appearance.

Our voyage from England  was considered a tolerable one – rather long, and I am such a bad sailor that I suffered dreadfully from seasickness – it is a tedious thing to be confined for 5 months on a voyage – it affords so little variety & almost too much time for thinking. It has decidedly one advantage, it enables me to give due value to our comforts on shore, and we know better how to enjoy them. Let me beg whenever you have an opportunity, you will favour me by writing – and pray excuse the brevity of mine to you – let it convince you that my best wishes are yours and that I ardently desire a continuance of the kind regards your letter contains – You may rely on most grateful return of feeling from Your Affectionate Sister

Eliza Morris