It is a remarkable fact that the son of a simple Quaker planter from a remote Caribbean island should become the most respected and celebrated physician of his time; almost as remarkable as the fact that he was one of a seventh pair of twins and the only pair to survive.
Edward Lettsom and his wife, Mary Coakley, were Quakers; a quietly pious group known as the Friends, and as such, their son John was brought up under the strict tenets of Quakerism, which included hard work, peaceful co-existence (no engagement in war), no drinking or gambling, and a respect for his fellow man regardless of his station in life.
The family owned cotton plantations on Little Jost Van Dyke as well as Green Cay and Sandy Cay and they had a sugar plantation at Cane Garden Bay, the workings of which were assisted greatly by about 50 slaves, who lived in huts on Little Jost, behind the main house. The small plantation was modestly successful and the family owned a shallop which they used to get about to the other islands and to the main harbour of Road Town where the trading ships came to anchor.
During a tumultuous period of almost continuous wars and incessant piracy in the Caribbean and Atlantic, 1750 was a year of comparative peace and the export to Europe of sugar, rum and cotton without hindrance was beginning to bring prosperity to the islands. It was at this time that Edward Lettsom decided to arrange passage for six year old, John, to voyage to England to begin a formal education. It was a most unselfish and courageous thing to do. The parents had lost 12 children and a sailing voyage of some seven weeks was not without its dangers. But in the care of a Quaker sea captain and with prior arrangements having been made for the boy's accommodation in Lancaster, England at the home of a fellow Quaker, all would be well.
John Lettsom attended an English country school and apparently loved it, especially the outdoor activities. When he was 15 years, after a brief period learning accounting, he took up an apprenticeship with a surgeon and apothecary and while learning the intricacies of this profession he became proficient in Latin (this was obligatory in those days since all prescriptions were written in Latin as well as many papers on medicine. In fact, to proceed to a doctorate, one had to defend one's thesis in Latin). It took him three months to read, write and speak French fluently and he also learned the rudiments of Greek. His hobbies included Botany and Mineralogy.
His apprenticeship lasted five years and in London he had three more years serving with many great surgeons and physicians. Nearly all his contemporaries were Quakers and at the tender age of 23 he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, who was agent for the Colony of Pennsylvania. It was at this time that Lettsom's thoughts turned to his estate in Tortola. He was impoverished and finances were needed to further his career.
On the 8th October, 1767 Lettsom departed Liverpool on the brig Alice. They put into Cork for provisions and then cleared for the West Indies. Almost immediately they ran into a storm and the young doctor was assailed by violent seasickness. Eighteen days out he was still suffering. On 26th October he wrote, "Hard fate, indeed my poor stomach! I will not despair." Then he burst into verse contrasting his fate with the hopeless outlook of the blacks, torn from their homes in West Africa:
Why droops this heart, with fancied woes forlorn?
Why sinks my soul beneath the stormy sky?
What pensive crowds, by ceaseless labour worn,
What myriads wish to be as blessed as I!
See the poor natives quit the Guinea shores;
No future hope their dying peace restores."
Already, he was well aware of the horrors of the slave trade, the forced shipments, the over 50% death rate in the crowded holds.
John Lettsom arrived safely in Tortola on the 8th December, 1767. He found the islands rolling in gold after some seven years of peace. The cane fields had been extended up the hill sides, through laborious terracing by the toiling blacks. The stony mountain roads, inaccessible for wheeled vehicles were often blocked by trains of donkeys laden with casks of sugar suspended from long poles. Cotton and rum were also being exported in vast quantities and the prosperity of the islands was increasing by leaps and bounds.
But Lettsom's own estate was severely diminished. His main object in going to Tortola was to retrieve what little was left of the property due to him at his majority from his now dead father's estate. This property amounted to rather less than 50 pounds sterling and a few slaves. The slaves were valued at about 450 pounds and it is a tribute to this young and impoverished man of 23 years that he immediately gave all his slaves their freedom… almost a hundred years before the American emancipation.
Having got rid of his property so quixotically he set about his business of doctoring and he soon became much in demand. He records some instances, "I was sent for to cut off the leg of a negro, who ran away from a hard-hearted master and was caught again." Whether he carried out this demand is not recorded. Other planters were "Of such a humane disposition that they made their negros as happy as themselves." For the next year Lettsom worked tirelessly travelling the islands on donkey back and sailing sloop and he earned as much as 2000 pounds in six months, giving to his mother half of this amount. It was during this period that he learned a lot about fevers that would stand him in good stead later in life.
An example of Lettsom's kindness and philanthropy is proven in the story of Sam and Teresa, mulatto slaves owned by his step-father Samuel Taine. He decided to buy them both for the considerable sum of 200 pounds and give them both their liberty. The young Teresa was exceptionally beautiful. Lettsom was often smitten by beautiful women and it seems that his motive in giving her freedom was to keep her out of the hands of some brutal planter who could have abused her. Even years after Lettsom's return to England some small present would arrive for him from the grateful girl, on the Tortola ship: a piece of beautiful coral, a strange shell, a pot of sweetmeats.
Lettsom decided to take the boy, Sam, with him back to England. He taught him the rudiments of arithmetic and writing and he was christened Sam Coakley. Eventually he was hired as steward on one of the King's ships. Sometime later he was lost during a "Great storm at sea".
John Coakley Lettsom went on to have a long and distinguished career. He founded The Medical Society of London, was instrumental in the early formative years of The Royal Humane Society and is regarded as the father of all Open-air Sanatoria. In a century of wars, slavery, piracy, debauchery and rampant disease John Lettsom was indeed an exceptional man.
A VISIT TO THE LETTSOM ESTATE TODAY
Recently I had a chance to explore the area on Little Jost van Dyke to look for the ruins of the Lettsom Great House. I had a rough idea from a diagram of the site by archaeologist John Chenoweth and a drawing done by Lettsom's friend and fellow Quaker, William Thornton, who later went on to design the US Capitol Building. Chenoweth excavated the site during three visits to Little Jost Van Dyke from 2008 to 2012, unearthing many artifacts from the plantation great house, the slave village and surrounding area.
I felt like Indiana Jones as I hiked through steep terrain riddled with thorn bushes and cactus looking for the birthplace of one of the most influential and celebrated persons of the 1700s; John Coakley Lettsom, confidant of Benjamin Franklin and the king of England, George the 3rd.
In a letter written by Thornton to Lettsom accompanied by the former's drawing of the house from 1795 he states, "The place where thy parents lie is under the two tamarind trees… a little to the left of thy old mansion house." Imagine my surprise when I finally found the ruins in between two very large, very old tamarind trees – both baring fruit prolifically. Could tamarind trees possibly live for almost three hundred years? Apparently so.
The house was located on flat land in a good location to take advantage of the easterly trade winds and to provide a good view of Sandy Cay, a part of the Lettsom estate. The foundation walls and steps leading to the entrance are remarkably well preserved. Littered around the ruins are old conch and whelk shells that could only have been brought there by man's hand. Much of the verandah is shaded by the tamarind tree, a natural awning for protection from the noon day sun. About a hundred feet away stood the remnants of an outside stone oven.
The whole location was quietly awe inspiring. It was not hard to imagine a Quaker family and several slave families living here together surviving by hard work and shared dependency.