It’s a cold wet Sunday (12 degrees outside, in late July!) so I was doing what people have been doing in England (on cold wet Sundays) for more than 250 years, reading about a somewhere warmer. In my case reading Lady Nugent’s Journal of her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805. A couple of passages struck me.
First, one of the commonest things a re-enactor is asked, when standing on a bright summers day wearing, for example, frock coat, and top hat, is. “Aren’t you feeling hot in that?”, you admit you are, then they wonder how people got on in the past. Disbelieving that they could ever have worn similar garb in the tropics, well of course they did, and got very hot.
Lady Nugent (wife of the Governor of Jamaica)
July 30th 1801
At 5 o’clock we found a numerous party assembled in the drawing-room. There were only two ladies, Mrs. Rodon and Mrs. Drew, the first old and plain, the other the reverse. All the gentlemen, civil and military, were introduced to me before we sat down; I scarcely recollect the name or visage of any of them, only they all looked very bilious and very warm. One gentleman seemed to suffer exceedingly: for, in spite of his constant mopping, the perspiration stood like drops of crystal on his face the whole time we were at dinner. All took their leave soon after nine. No suppers are given in this country, and I am glad of it, for I have neither strength nor inclination for late hours.
The second passage I like deals with heavy rain, and the purchase of a very poor quality umbrella.
July 12th 1802
Up at 4, and set off for the Decoy.! Mr. Murphy’s estate, in St. Mary’s Parish. A dreadful hill to mount, and the heat beyond description. A tremendous thunderstorm met us, just as we were in a narrow road, with a great precipice on one side, and a hanging rock on the other. The flashes of lightning, and the rain, beating in our faces, almost blinded the poor horses as well as ourselves. We were wet through, for General N. was obliged to throwaway the umbrella which collapsed about me.
Arrived at the Decoy about 2,but so stiff and heavy with the weight of water about me, my shoes even being full, that I was obliged to be lifted out of the carriage. My clothes were immediately taken off by the ladies of the house, who thought I was all over bruises; but soon found that the green and yellow stripes on my skin proceeded only from the dye of the umbrella having run in streams down my back. I was washed all over with rum, and then took some warm soup, and in two hours I was as well as ever and as gay.
The idea that someone would make an umbrella of a fabric with dye that would run when it got wet is wonderful. I wonder if washing Lady Nugent in rum was to get the dye off her skin, or was a traditional Jamaican way of warming someone up if they had got badly soaked in a tropical storm. I would have thought internal application would be better for the latter condition, but I am sure our ancestors had their reasons. I throw it out as a subject for an experiment, the next time you get soaked through, or dye runs from your clothes all over your skin – Try Rum!