This is an exceptionally rare edition of an almanac for St. Christopher (St. Kitts), printed in Basseterre by John. A Howe, the scion of the island’s oldest publishing dynasty. It was published for the year 1842, during a period when St. Kitts and its related islands (Nevis, Tortola (British Virgin Islands) and Anguilla) were undergoing a difficult economic transition in the wake of the abolition of slavery, while enduring a succession of natural disasters of almost biblical proportions.
The present example of the almanac has a stellar provenance, having belonged to
Francis Spencer Wigley (1805 – 1872), who served as the Attorney General and, later, as President (essentially the lieutenant governor, or chief executive) of St. Kitts. It was handed down in the family to his grandson, W.G. Wigley, who served as the island’s Crown Attorney in the 1920s.
As one would expect from a colonial almanac, the work features a vast wealth of information on St. Kitts and its related islands, predicated upon the best sources. Its contents include Key Dates; ‘Celestial Phenomena, 1842’; Table of the Weather; Phases of the Moon; Calendar (pp. 7-18); Brief History of St. Kitts (p. 19); Dimensions of Pall-Mall Square, Basseterre (p. 19); Chronology 1841 (pp. 20-22); Seasons for Fruits; Table of Presidency (organization of the St. Kitts Government); Census of the Population (1838) recording a total of 21,608 residents (p. 25); the Leeward Islands Government; the St. Kitts Establishment (pp. 26-32); Forts and Fortifications; Banks; Masonic Lodges; Military Establishment: Ecclesiastical Establishment; Length of Roads on the island (p. 42); Abstract of Revenue, showing that the island had a balanced budget totaling £9614 and change (including £221 and change for printing costs) (p. 43); Duties, Value of Coins; Abstracts of Legislative Acts (pp. 47-51); Information on related islands, being the Nevis Establishment (pp. 52-57), Tortola (British Virgin Islands) Establishment, (pp. 58-61) and the Anguilla Establishment (pp. 62-3); Information on the British Government (Whitehall); other British Colonial Governments, the Royal Family; the West Indies Military Staff; List of Colonial Agents in London; Information on Steam and Mail Packets (pp. 70-2); and, finally Postal Information and a table of distances between key points in the Eastern Caribbean (p. 74).
A Note on Rarity
Howe’s Almanac, for 1842 is exceedingly rare; we cannot trace any institutional examples or sales records for another example. The only mention of the work we can find is a reference in the sources of a history work on the Leeward Islands (Douglas Hall, Five of the Leewards, 1834-1870: The Major Problems of the Post-emancipation Period in Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts (Ann Arbor, MI, 1971), p. 183), suggesting that there may be another example somewhere.
All St. Kitt’s almanacs, of any year or publisher, are great arities, many are known in only a single example and issues of many years are not known to survive at all.
St. Kitts during a Difficult Period of Transition
St. Christopher, popularly known as ‘St. Kitts’, while a small West Indian island (with an area of 174 km sq.), possesses an outsized role in history. It was first settled by English planters in 1624, and by the French the following year. The centre part of the island was controlled by England, whole both ends were French zones. While St. Kitts was continually fought over between France and England, and was tormented by frequent piratical raids, earthquakes and hurricanes, the settlers persisted, as the island possessed some of the world’s most fertile agrarian lands, perfect for supporting a slave-sugar economy.
Britain assumed full control of St. Kitts in 1713, and over the succeeding decades created the world’s most proportionately productive agrarian powerhouse. Many historians believe that by 1776 the island’s small planter community (a class barely numbering 1,500) were per capita the wealthiest people in the world! Until the Napoleonic Wars, St. Kitts planters possessed profound political and economic power in the greater British Empire. However, events would soon reveal this prosperity to be fragile.
St. Kitts’s wealth was built upon the ignoble, and increasingly controversial, institution of slavery, and was dangerously reliant upon a single industry. In 1807, Britain banned the global slave trade, preventing West Indian planters from replenishing their labour force, while ever more restrictions on slavery were imposed until in 1833, when Whitehall ordered the abolition of slavery throughout the empire. As in all the other British colonies, slavery was phased out in St. Kitts from 1834 to 1838. On the island, 19,780 people gained their freedom from bondage, accounting for about 80% of the island’s population.
The present almanac thus appeared at a time when virtually all British West Indian planters had fallen into dire financial straits. Since the Napoleonic Wars, sugar prices dramatically declined, as the global market was deluged with a glut of product from the East. While the crown awarded ‘compensation’ to former slave owners, these funds were nowhere near adequate to make up for their losses. Moreover, the newly liberated former slaves (understandably) showed an unwillingness to work their former captors’ lands, at least not terms that were commercially viable for the planters, causing a severe labour shortage.
St. Kitts also suffered what can almost be called a succession of tragedies of Biblical proportions. The island was ravaged by a hurricane in 1835, suffered a severe drought in 1836-7, while an earthquake stuck in 1843. If that was not enough, in 1853-4, St. Kitts was struck by a cholera epidemic which carried away almost 4,000 people, or around 18% of its population. Moreover, many people decided to emigrate, exacerbating the existing labour crisis. The island’s population declined from 23,177, in 1844, to 20,741 in 1855.
By 1855, St. Kitts was in a state of crisis. The island was viewed as a nearly bankrupt incubus of disease, damned by natural disasters, and it seemed that virtually anyone industrious wanted nothing to do with the place.
In response, over the succeeding years, the colonial government attempted to enact policies to encourage immigration, advance the living conditions of labourers and former slaves, improving public health and education, developing communications and infrastructure, managing taxation, as well as alleviating the effects of the natural disasters. While progress was slow, towards end of the century they had managed to arrest the island’s decline, leading to a ‘new normal’ of relative stability.
A Brief History of Printing on St. Kitts and the Almanacs Issued on the Island
St. Christopher has an impressive printing history given the small size of the island and its literate population; the surprisingly prolific flourishing of the press being driven by St. Kitts’s great wealth and its importance to the greater British imperial economy. The first press was established on the island in 1747 by an Irishman, Thomas Howe, who founded The St. Christopher’s Gazette, the island’s first newspaper. He was also appointed as the government printer, a post that he and his successors would hold for decades. This was a lucrative position, as the crown regularly paid Howe to print all government legislative books, bills and broadsides. Thomas Howe’s wealth and standing on the island was greatly augmented in 1766 when he married the daughter of one of the great St. Kitts plantation families, Ann Risdon. Thomas Howe was succeeded in the busines by his eldest son, John Risdon Howe, who was in turn followed by his son, John A. Howe, who published the present almanac.
As an interesting aside, George Howe (1769 – 1821), Thomas Howe’s second son, who was trained as a master printer at the family firm, was arrested in 1799 in London for shoplifting and sent to New South Wales, Australia. Soon pardoned, his talent as a printer was acknowledged by the colonial governor, and in 1802 he became the government printer and founded the first newspaper in Australia, the Sydney Gazette.
Turning back to St. Kitts, other printing houses were established on the island over the coming years, but few lasted long, as competition was fierce in such a small market. The only enduring rival to the Howe enterprise, was the press founded by Richard Cable in 1782, that published the St. Christopher Advertiser and Weekly Intelligence.
The history of the publication of almanacs in St. Christopher is only haphazardly researched. They were issued in only very small print runs, and their survival rate today is very low. Such works were long printed in the mainland British North American colonies and had been published in Jamaica since 1775. As far as we can tell, the first almanac published in St. Kitts was issued by the boutiquey publisher Edward Low, as Low’s Pocket Almanack, for the Year of our Lord MDCCXCI (St. Christopher: Printed by Edward Luther Low, in Cayon-Street, Basseterre. Price half-a-dollar, ). Subsequently, from the 1790s until around 1811, almanacs were published by the Cable press.
To the best of our knowledge, the first almanac printed by the Howe family press was for the year 1806, and we gather that editions were issued annually until the 1860s, although for many years no known examples survive, or are even recorded. As such, all remaining examples of St Christopher almanacs from before the 1860s are either unique or exist in at most a few examples.
Provenance: The Wigley Political Dynasty of St. Kitts
The present almanac was in the possession of three generations of the Wigley family, prominent attorneys and politicians in St. Christopher for almost a century. It was found accompanied by other books and manuscripts from the Wigley estate.
Inside the front cover is written the name “Wigley” in manuscript, while front free endpapers feature copious notes, including a list of “Land Rent for Aug. 1843” and street addresses for people in Britain. These notes were clearly made by the founder of the family dynasty, Francis Spencer Wigley (1805 – 1872), usually known as ‘F. Spencer Wigley’, a native of London who was trained as a barrister. In London, he formed a legal partnership with Archibald Paull Burt (1810 – 1879), who hailed from a wealthy St. Kitts planter family. Wigley and Burt pooled their money and invested in land and other assets in St. Kitts. In 1834, Wigley married Burt’s sister, Eliza, and moved to St. Kitts, with Burt returning to his home island around the same time.
Wigley became a leading attorney on the island and held great political influence through the Burt family. Archibald Burt became the Speaker of the St. Kitts Assembly, and from 1848 to 1860 served as the Attorney General of the island. In late 1860, Burt moved ‘Down Under’ to become the Chief Justice of Western Australia, leaving Wigley to succeed him as Attorney General, whereupon he served for a decade.
From late 1870 until his death in March 1872, Wigley served as the Administrator, or President, of St. Kitts. Curiously, in 1873, Archibald Burt visited St. Kitts to assess the status of the estates he had jointly owned with Wigley but was shocked to find that these assets were “bankrupt”.
Wigley’s son, Francis Spencer Wigley II (1844 – 1911), was in his own right was a prominent attorney and political figure, serving as the Acting President of St. Kitts from 1888 to 1889.
Also written inside the front cover is the name “W.G. Wigley”, referring to Francis Spencer Wigley II’s son, W.G. Wigley, who served as the Crown Attorney of St. Kitts and the Acting Attorney General of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla up into the 1920s. This shows that the almanac was handed down through at least three generations of the Wigley family.
References: No examples traced in institutional holdings. Citation to the work in literature:
Douglas HALL, Five of the Leewards, 1834-1870: The Major Problems of the Post-emancipation Period in Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts (Ann Arbor, MI, 1971), p. 183.