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In West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean Britain went from being a major participant in the Atlantic slave trade prior to 1807 to being a self-proclaimed moral superintendent on a global scale. McClement’s experiences were shaped by this imperial legacy and the journal reveals aspects and repercussions of Britain’s expansionist policies. Interestingly, whilst Nova Scotia and Newfoundland appear as paragons of stable ‘settler’ societies in his writings, the account of his brief sojourn in Virginia during the American Civil War offers a glimpse of the after-effects of British imperialism in the New World. Crucially, the journal also raises perplexing questions about Ireland’s place in the larger colonial framework.
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Race is a theme that is inextricably linked to that of Empire. While slavery is a long-standing and fundamentally colour-blind institution in the history of the world, the Atlantic slave trade overwhelmingly exploited black Africans. McClement gives the reader a fascinating look at the complexity of Victorian attitudes toward race when he describes his involvement with the suppression of illegal slave trading and his encounters with Africans on the continent, as well as in the West Indies and the Americas.
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McClement served on board several different steamers whilst in the Royal Navy – some more comfortable than others. He regularly describes life and traditions on board, including day to day procedures, discipline and corporal punishment, manoeuvres, and fascinating maritime traditions such as ‘crossing the line’. He also catches sight of warships and the American iron-clad ‘monitors’ returning from battle.
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As an assistant surgeon, McClement takes particular interest in the health of the crew and makes regular visits to on-shore hospitals. He discusses fever outbreaks on the west coast of Africa and in Bermuda, highlights casualties he’s seen from the American Civil War and describes medical treatments at sea. He also recounts the questions he had to answer for his surgeon’s exam.
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McClement offers special insight into the life of Catholics in the Royal Navy. He gives useful information about the manner and frequency of religious observance, comments on the extent of Protestant missionary activity in Africa and highlights the friction that existed between the various Catholic classes in the navy such as the officers and regular seamen.
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Life in the Royal Navy was inherently masculine and McClement’s writing reveals a lot about the perceptions of masculinity’s place in empire-building. Whilst the journal is written entirely from a male perspective, women do feature in references to life on shore in both a professional and social capacity. McClement frequently comments on the character, intellect and appearance of many of the women he comes into contact with and links the themes of gender and race by providing comparative descriptions of African and British women.
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The mid-nineteenth century saw dramatic technological changes, especially in communications and naval warfare. Included in the diary is McClement’s account of attempts to rendezvous with the ‘Great Eastern’ off Newfoundland, unsuccessfully laying the first transatlantic cable.
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CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT
The monthly meteorological tables contained in McClement’s diary are invaluable sources of information on climatic changes and daily weather patterns. These are supplemented by his descriptions of hurricanes, whirlwinds, survival in both unbearable heat and frozen conditions.
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Landscape featured prominently throughout the journal. Not only is the lonely ocean a frequent subject but McClement also provides colourful descriptions of the land, the rocky islands, the fertile African coastlines of Africa, the war-torn fields of Virginia, the forested surrounds of Halifax and the giant ice-bergs of the North Atlantic. Landscapes were a point of reference and of memory and they are represented by McClement in the written form and as drawings.
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