The intended audience of these letters is colonel Burr, who is stated in the introduction of this novel as “Late Vice-President of the United States, Principally during the command of General Rochembau.” The relationship between Burr and Hassal is that of a close friendship as stated repeatedly throughout the novel the most evident example of which occurs in letter 5 as Hassal writes, “you know what clouds of misfortune have obscured my life. An orphan without friends, without support, separated from my sister at infancy.” Letters 27-31 also are clearly aimed between Mary and her sister Clara. To add the context to these letters, Mary states “Means shall be found to return to Philadelphia, where, in peaceful obscurity we may live free from the cares which have tormented you.” Thus as explained in the already mentioned letters Mary is explaining to Clara how it would be best if Clara confided in her sister so she could take care of her, and they could escape her suffering.
To answer why it was written requires an amount of logic as there is no clear answer to this written in the novel. From what it does state in the novel though the answer is related to the relationship between Colonel Burr, and Mary Hassal. The first explanation is in the introduction as Mary states
I am Fearful of having been led into an error by my friends, when taught by them to believe that I could write something which would interest and please; and it was chiefly with a view to ascertain what confidence I plane in their kind assurances on their assurances on this subject, which i collected and consented though reliantly, to the publication of these letters.
In regards why Mary chose to write this letter the response one could come up with is that Mary is cataloguing her experiences for her friends, or as the reader can note, Colonel Burr. Why Colonel Burr is because of the connection between him, and Mary. As Mary writes “Your friendship has shed a ray of light on my solitary way… I exist only in the hope of seeing you again.” As evident to the reader, the motivation that Mary had in writing these letters to Colonel Burr was solely tied in the relationship that they possessed.
One can make assumptions off of the book, based off of the experiences that she witnessed through her travels. One assumption that you can make as seen in the previously stated paragraph is that the relationship between Mary and Colonel Burr is a close personal bond. As Mary states during the novel, “If the letters arrive safe they will prove that I have not forgotten you, and that I suffer no opportunity to pass without informing you that I exist.” Thus you can note that the relationship between Mary and Colonel Burr was so tight that Mary deeemed it necessary to write to Burr detailing her experiences in South America. One other assumption you can make is that there were some instances that Mary experienced that were undeniably traumatizing. One of those is a death that she witnesses, which as stated by Hassal “the story of madame G had so affected me that I could think of nothing else.” The reality of what happened to Madame G is that “A few minutes after a guard seized the mother and Daughters and carried them out. They were borne to a gallows and immediately hanged.” This experience was just one of the examples that Mary noticed which made her emotionally scarred during her timeframe there, influencing her to desire to come home as she stated at the end of the novel “Clara and I will leave this for Philadelphia, There I hope we shall meet you.”
Throughout the text Mary Hassal gives her thoughts on the life for Creole, and non Creole citizens around St. Domingo, and Cape Francois. In regards to the Non Creole civilization of Cape Francois life was quite a life of luxury. There are multiple instances in which Mary refers to balls that she attended with Clara. In describing the scene at one of those balls she writes “Innumerable lustres of Chrystal and wreaths of natural flowers ornamented the ceiling; and rose and orange trees in full blossom, ranged around the room.” In regards to a later ball that takes place Mary also writes “A few days after, a grand ball was given, and on entering the ball room, we saw, on a panel facing the door, ‘Washington, Liberty, and Independence’ This merited a smile, and General Rochembau received a gracious one.” As one can see, the lifestyle of the Non Creole citizens on Cape Francois was of quite high quality.
In regards to how Mary views the Creole’s life in St Domingo there are two times worth noting, basically, prior to and after the slave insurerction in the land. As Hassal states “The Creoles shake their heads and predict much ill. Accustomed to the climate, and acquainted with the manner of fighting the Negroes, they offer advice which is not listened to; nor employed.”The Creole being citizens of the territory were aware of the threat of the Negroes however they were not listened to by the masses. This caused them to complain, as Hassal states “The Creoles complain, and they have cause cause; for they find in the army sent to defend them, oppressors, who appear to seek their destruction.” As Mary Hassal explains the Creole’s reality “Madame G, a native of the Gonaives, lost her husband at the beginning of the revolution left St. Domingo, and sought a retreat from the horrors that ravaged that devoted island in the peaceful obscurity of Barracoa.”
Another analysis that Hassal makes is in regards to the women and their place in society. In regards Creole women in society we see many references. In regards to Non Creole Women of society one place to analyze such life realities would be in Cape Francois, and other locations. The most notable woman in this novel is Mary’s sister Clara who goes through the relationship with military leader St. Louis. This relationship was emotionally abusive as documented by Mary “the general sent to tell Clara that the part of the town she lived in being very much exposed, she better come to his house. She replied that it was impossible for her to go , her hushand having desired her on no account to leave to house.” One can take from this that life for women during that timeframe that
In regards to the Creole women in society Hassal gives a descriptor for what she saw. As Hassal writes “The Creole ladies have an air of voluptuous language which renders them extremely interesting. Their eyes, their teeth and their hair are beautiful… Almost too indolent to pronounce their words they speak with a drawling accent that is very agreeable.” In regards to their life styles, as Hassal states “the Creole have naturally a tase for music, with a lightness, a grace, an elegance peculiar to themselves.” Thus the culture of the Creole people, as stated by Mary Hassal was quite Unique in regards to many ways that they came across as very prone to anger, as Mary writes “in the ordinary intercourse of life they are delightful; but if i want a friend on any extraordinary occasion I would not venture to rely on their stability.” One such example of the temperament of the Creole women come from a story as Mary states where “at dinner a creole woman’s husband said he felt no desire to eat, his wife replied by rising and drawing from the closet the head of Coomba.” As noted the Creole Women were quite unique, and quite temperamental.
In regards to black women during this time, sadly like how history treated people of that time. As it is stated by Hassal during an incident with a Creole woman “The jealoussy of the women was often terrible in its consequences. One lady had a beautiful negro girl continually about her person, thought she saw some septa’s of tendresse in the eyes of her hushand. She ordered one of her slaves to cut off the head of the unfortunate victim,” This is a clear piece of evidence that black people in this time were treated horrendously. Another example to explain this relates to a Black man and his wife. As Hassal writes “A black chief and his wife were made prisoners last week, and sentenced to be shot. As they walked to the place of execution the chief seemed deeply impressed with the horror of his fate: but his wife went cheerfully along, endeavoured to console him.” Hence as Hassal states there was an evident portrayal of loyalty towards black men from that of their wives.
Throughout her years of travel, Hassal made her way around many different locations both Urban, as well as rural. In regards to the rural locations Hassal looks at many locations, to be specific Barracoa, St. Domingo, and Kingston Jamaica. In regards to Barracoa, this was where Mary and Clara got rerouted after “a british frigate boarded us, condemned the vessel as French Property and… sent the passingers on board another vessel which was lying near us, and was going to Barracoa.” It is notable that the conditions of Barracoa aren’t pleasant as Mary states “He procured us a miserable hut where we passed the night on a brd laid on the ground… There was not a pair of shoes to be found in the place, nor any thing we would have thought of employing for our use if not obliged by the pressures of necessity.” Thus as Hassal stated, she wasn’t fond of the setting in Barracoa, however she was not going to be there for a long period of time. as she would travel to St. Jago de Cuba.
Another location that Mary traveled to is Kingston Jamaica. As described by Hassal “nothing is more delightful than the bustle and continual movement that strikes the eye on entering this port. Innumerable boats are continually plying round the vessels, offering for sale all the fruits of the season.” Even with the pleasant views of the ports in the area, another thing that Hassal explains about Kingston is “there is an air of neatness in the houses which I have nowhere seen sinceI left my own country; but the streets are detestable; none of them are paved, and at every step you sink ankle deep in sand.”
Now in regards to the Urban locations the location that was travelled to after Barracoa would be that of St. Jago de Cuba. The entrance into the city of St Jago is documented by Hassal in stating “the harbour of St. Jago is guarded by a fort, the most picturesque object I ever saw. It is build on a rock that hangs over the sea and palm trees which wave their heads over its ramparts add to its beauty.” Hassal also refers to the status of religion, in St. Jago which she writes “there are in this town eleven churches all of them splendid, and the number of priests is incredible! Many of them may be ranked among the most worthless members of the community. It is not at all uncommon to see the drunk in the street or to hear of their having committed the most shocking excesses.” Hassal discusses the society of St. Jago, when she states “There is some wealth, with much poverty… The lower classes of the people are the greatest thieves in the world, and they steal with so much dexterity… In the best houses and most wealthy families, there Is a contrast of splendour and poverty.” As Hassal continues on “The beds and furniture are covered with a profusion of gliding ornaments while the slaves, and those who are about the persons of the ladies are in rags.”
The other location that Mary travelled to was Cape Francois. The reality of Cape Francois wasn’t the greatest looking location As Mary explains in Cape Francois “A more terrible picture of desolation cannot be imagined.” Going further into detail examining the reality of the streets of Cape Francois Hassal writes “Passing through streets cloaked with rubbish, wee reached with difficult a house which escaped the general fate. The people live in tents, or make a kind of shelter, by laying a few boards across the half consumed beams; the building being of hewn stone with walls three feet thick, only the roofs and floors have been destroyed.” Thus as made obvious by Mary Hassal, Cape Francois is a very sad, damaged location.
Mary Hassal. Secret History: Or, the Horrors of St. Domingo, In A Series of Letters. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.