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Nugent [née Skinner], Maria, Lady Nugent (1770/71–1834), diarist, was probably born in the American colony of New Jersey. She was the fifth of seven daughters in the family of twelve of and his wife, Elizabeth, née Kearny (1731–1810). Her father, advocate-general of New Jersey, remained a loyalist during the American War of Independence, and came to England with his family on the declaration of peace. In 1797 she married , an army officer and MP for Buckingham. In 1801 he was appointed lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief of Jamaica, where he remained until 1806; rewarded with a baronetcy, he resumed his military and political career in England before being appointed in 1811 commander-in-chief in India. His wife, who accompanied him abroad, recorded her experiences in Jamaica and India in journals which were privately printed in 1839.

Maria Nugent was an attractive person, described by a contemporary in 1800 as ‘very pretty … she has the smallest head that can be, very thin and little. She is an amazing dresser, never appears twice in the same gown’ (Fremantle, 3.26). She sketched and wrote poetry, and, with her vivacity, sense of humour, religious feeling, and concern for individuals, was a perceptive observer of society wherever she went. However, her changing domestic circumstances and the differing British involvement in Jamaica and India were reflected in the tone of the two journals. The Nugents had no children when they arrived in Jamaica. Avoiding comment on political issues, her journal at first concentrates on Jamaican society and planter life. Slavery concerned her, not only in its effect on the black population, but also in the sexual exploitation by European men which it encouraged at all social levels. Turbulence and uprisings in the Caribbean among the slaves soon transformed her vision of them as essentially happy, childish creatures; in common with Jamaican planter society, she learned to distrust and fear the slaves, whom she came to perceive as dangerous, wild savages. The birth of a son in 1802, and a daughter within eleven months, provided a different focus of interest, and concern for their health encouraged her early return to England in 1805.

Two other surviving children were born in England, and the necessity of leaving her family behind on her departure for India in 1811—a son had been born just six weeks before—in many ways determined Maria Nugent's experience of the country. She was grief-stricken at the separation, constantly ill, and isolated in her misery. Her accustomed spirits only revived when she left Calcutta to accompany her husband on a year's tour (1812–13) of the areas round Delhi, recently settled by the British following the end of the Second Anglo-Maratha War. She gives a perceptive picture of British society and its relations with the Indian ruling classes at a period when British hegemony was not fully assured. In an as yet uncertain balance, many Indian rulers were courted as equals, and customs and habits were shared and exchanged. Nevertheless, the pattern of subsequent British social life was beginning to emerge, underpinned by British women who, though very few in number, were often present in even the remotest areas. The old-established cultures and religions of India provoked in Lady Nugent a different response from the planter society of Jamaica. While she deplored the beliefs of Hindus, she genuinely admired their piety, and accepted the limited possibility for conversion. Relations with Indian women were also of a different order; marriage or formal unions with Indians or Eurasians were common, and their offspring were accepted socially at an official level in a manner unthinkable in Jamaica. Yet, as in Jamaica, Lady Nugent was constantly concerned at young men's involvement in liaisons with non-Europeans, revealing her disquiet at racial mixing.

The private nature of the journals enabled Maria Nugent to explore such topics in a way that is enlightening for the later reader, and they are an invaluable record for historians. Her frankness about individuals and situations reveals much about British colonial society and attitudes. Equally, her record of her own feelings illustrates the reality of women's experience, particularly in India. In sketchy note form when she is depressed and ill, expansive when her interest is engaged, her writing reflects the intense pressures imposed by separation from family, loneliness, illness, and extreme heat. Sir George Nugent gave up his role as governor-general in 1814 and left India the following year. The family moved to Westhorpe House, Little Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where Lady Nugent spent the remainder of her life, involving herself in charitable work until her death there on 24 October 1834. She was buried on 1 November at Little Marlow parish church.

Rosemary Cargill Raza

Sources  

M. Nugent, A journal from the year 1811 till the year 1815 including a voyage to and residence in India, with a tour of the north-western parts of the British possessions in that country, under the Bengal government, 2 vols. (1839) · Lady Nugent's journal: Jamaica one hundred years ago, ed. F. Cundall (1907) · Lady Nugent's journal of her residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805, ed. P. Wright, new edn (1966) · The Wynne diaries, ed. A. Fremantle, 3 (1940) · CBS, D/FR/43/H

Likenesses  

J. Downman, pencil and wash drawing, 1806, BM · G. Adcock, engraving, repro. in Nugent, Journal from the year 1811 till the year 1815 · J. Downman, group portrait, oils (with family), priv. coll. · portraits, repro. in Wright, ed., Lady Nugent's journal of her residence in Jamaica