An American visitor to Kew, summer 1753

In the summer of 1753, it must have been with apprehension and excitement that the Pinckney family from South Carolina awaited an audience at the White House, Kew, with Princess Augusta, Princess Dowager of Wales, the mother of the future King George III. The occasion had taken considerable planning, successful lobbying on the part of local connections, and rigorous checking of their credentials. In their favour was Charles Pinckney’s membership of the royal council of South Carolina, and his wife Eiiza’s reputation as a successful entrepreneur, plantation owner and slaveholder, was equally important. Her business was concerned with sericulture – the production of silk – and in growing indigo, a common crop in West Africa, which flourished as a result of the labour and expertise of her enslaved workforce.

Engraving depicting the White House at Kew, with grazing sheep on the right and groups of figures walking in the foreground. In the bottom right corner of the print a couple – identifiable as Princess Augusta and the Earl of Bute embrace on a bench. Engraved for the Oxford Magazine (December 1769)
Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, ‘A View of the Princess Dowager’s Palace at Kew’ c 1769. The White House, known in the 18th century as Kew Palace, was built for Frederick, Prince of Wales from 1731 to a design by William Kent. It had splendid Roman-inspired interiors and a double-height hall. It was demolished in 1802. ©Historic Royal Palaces

Since the dawn of English Atlantic imperial ambition, royal sponsorship had fostered colonial development, frequently targeting projects which served economic and socio-cultural ends. Certain commodities appealed particularly to members of the royal family keen to bolster their credentials as patrons of knowledge, commerce, manufacturing and the arts. A public demonstration of royal support for the textile industries of the nation, and its interests abroad, was already well established. Princess Augusta’s mother-in-law had championed the wearing of American raised silk at the court in London in 1736, and Augusta and her late husband, Frederick, Prince of Wales, had not only required all those attending their court to wear textiles of British manufacture, but with their older children toured silk weavers’ workshops in Spitalfields to further signal their support. Public knowledge of such campaigns was so widespread it emboldened the Pinkneys to travel to London to lobby for support for their own industrial concerns.

The visit was very nearly a disaster. The Pinckney’s arrived so late at the White House – the home especially favoured by Princess Augusta since the death of her husband – that the Princess had left for a drive. However, astutely, Eliza left with the household staff the gifts they had carried so carefully from America, together with a little note which was written by their four year old daughter, Harriott. The present comprised three American birds – an ‘Indigo bird, a Nonparreil, and a Yellow bird’; that is a blue linnet or indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), a painted finch or painted bunting (Passerina ciris) and an American goldfinch (Spinus tristis). Augusta, who maintained an aviary in her garden at Kew must have been charmed and delighted and sent a note inviting the family to return the following day.

1754, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess of Wales (1719-72). The Princess is wearing crimson state robes. ©Historic Royal Palaces

The detail of the visit and conversation which took place was recorded in great detail by Eliza in a letter written to an un-named friend, now preserved in the collection of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina. Early anxiety, disappointment, and the rigours of working within the structures of royal etiquette were forgotten as two mothers and their families enjoyed an enlightening conversation which would leave deep impressions and material legacy. These two women of privilege in their respective worlds questioned, discussed and admired each other’s accomplishments and lifestyles – giving shape to their preconceptions about empire, environment and family.

Perhaps to find common ground, the conversation first touched on the challenges of motherhood and attitudes to parenting. Augusta had ensured that her young children were present, and sat with Harriott Pinckney cuddled on her knee; the little girl had burst into tears, overawed by the occasion. The discussion would later move to matters of education and health in the young, including the benefits of breast-feeding. Eliza was quick to bring up the matter of her business concerns, explaining the detail of her industrial practise, including the troubling use of an enslaved workforce, which led to debate about Eliza’s part in an imperial trading framework, and racial politics more generally. Interruptions from the children brought an informality and humour to the occasion.

In 1755, as a thank you, Eliza sent Princess Augusta a ‘Piece of Silk Damask of the Growth and Product of (their own) Plantation …. And dyed a fine Blue piece with CAROLINA INDIGO’; a gift which wonderfully stands to represent the indigo dye, the birds, the royal promotion of textile industries, and the colony. As Eliza remarked of the visit, it had all seemed ‘pretty extraordinary to an American’.

Joanna Marschner
Senior Curator

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