In the fall of 1777, Thomas Anburey was an officer in the British army that John Burgoyne surrendered after the battles of Saratoga. As part of the “Convention Army,” Anburey found himself in Virginia, near Charlottesville, where he and his fellow officers were allowed to find their own accommodations among the various planters in the area. Anburey took advantage of his several years as a prisoner of war to record his experience with the people and places he encountered. His resulting Travels Through the Interior Part of America have proven an invaluable resource, an exceptional glimpse into life in wartime Virginia, a society that, at least among what they called the “better sorts,” had managed to retain its legendary reputation for hospitality and politeness, in spite of the insidious impact of the daily brutality of slavery and the democratizing effects of the War for Independence, both of which make appearances in Anburey’s record.
The nature of social relations in the 18th century was complex across the British world, of course, and perhaps growing quite tenuous on the American side of the Atlantic, as this brief passage suggests. To “unpack” it, as academics like to say, reveals many layers of supposition and perception, and some rather fruitful lines of discussion regarding their connection to gender and culture. Perhaps none, though, is more interesting and nuanced than the clear avoidance of any frank acknowledgment of the obvious, which has all sort of implications for how people related to each other and to the circumstances in which they found themselves, male or female, free or enslaved, prisoner or not. On that day at Tuckahoe in the winter of 1779, in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph (1741-1793) and his daughters, a social line was crossed and the limits of Virginia hospitality reached. The reaction of the young lady alone to the officer’s “warmth” and “violence” is worth a discussion–but perhaps in keeping with that time and place, it would be better not to mention it?
I cannot but in justice say, that in all the gentlemens’ houses I have visited, they never started, or would suffer any conversation on politics; sometimes, when alone with the ladies, they would indulge and rally us a little, at our being prisoners, but all with great good humour; the only unpleasant circumstance of the kind that I recollect was at Tuckahoe, where an officer suffered his vexation to overcome that gratitude he was bound to shew for the hospitality he met with. Colonel Randolph every year made a present of two hogsheads of tobacco to his daughter as a venture, to purchase dresses and ornaments, and the ships had always been so unfortunate as to be captured. As several officers were sitting with the ladies, the conversation ran upon politics, when Miss Randolph innocently asked, “How we came to be taken prisoners?” The officer with some warmth replied, “Just as your tobacco was, by a superior force.” I need not tell you the distress and confusion of the young lady, as well as of the officer himself, who immediately became conscious of what he had said, and for his ill-timed violence, he forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe.
[Anburey’s Travels, Richmond, Feb. 18th, 1779]
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“Listen, don’t mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.” —Basil Fawlty