J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2019

“It is, to my own knowledge, a modern composition”

Bryan Edwards (1743-1800) inherited several slave-labor plantations in Jamaica in 1769. He became a leading legislator there, then returned to Britain to run for Parliament. It took a while, but he finally secured a corrupt seat in 1796.

In the House of Commons Edwards was a voice for the interest of Caribbean planters, meaning he supported freer trade with the new U.S. of A. and opposed any move that limited slavery.

Edwards also wrote histories, essays, and poems about the Caribbean. In 1793 he published The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies, which took note of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph,” as published in London thirteen years earlier:
It is reported also that the remains of President [John] Bradshaw were interred in Jamaica; and I observe in a splendid book, entitled Memoirs of Thomas Hollis, an epitaph which is said to have been inscribed on a cannon that was placed on the President’s grave; but it is, to my own knowledge, a modern composition. President Bradshaw died in London, in November 1659, and had a magnificent funeral in Westminster abbey.
Several later historians have cited that passage as showing that Bryan dismissed the whole story of “Bradshaw’s Epitaph”—that the regicide’s remains were ever brought to Jamaica, that there was a cannon placed as a monument to him, that the lines were genuine.

I think that interpretation missed a crucial detail. Edwards didn’t cast doubt on the epitaph by, for example, saying he had walked all over the Martha Brae hill where that cannon supposedly stood and saw no such thing.

Instead, Edwards wrote that the epitaph was “to my own knowledge, a modern composition.” The only way he could have had first-hand knowledge that the epitaph had been written recently was if he was somehow involved in the writing.

TOMORROW: The smoking cannon.

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