His letter had a clear purpose. Alexander Hood Cocken wished to retire from his lightkeeping duties, and he wished to be given a sufficient pension upon his retirement. After all, he had been keeping the light on McNutt's Island for the past forty-eight years, since the death of his father (the former lightkeeper) in 1812. Cocken also wanted to explain why, from his annual lightkeeper's salary, he had not been able to save enough money to provide for himself and his wife in their old age, and why the province might feel obliged to make up the gap. The case needed to be argued with some care not to alienate the powers that be. Details must be supplied.
You can read this letter in different ways, from different angles, asking different questions of it and learning different things. Since it is such a rich letter, I'll look at it in four parts -- a mini-series -- over the next few weeks.
The first will be Alexander Hood Cocken's own story as he chooses to tell it within his letter. I have come across a few other fragments that shed light on him, and I'll be sharing them later. But for now we will focus on what he tells us about himself here.
The second perspective will be the early history of Nova Scotia lighthouses. The letter offers a fascinating account of how the earliest lighthouses were managed and supplied by the province in the years before Confederation. Since Alexander Hood Cocken's father was the first keeper of the Shelburne light, and since the Shelburne light was one of Nova Scotia's first lighthouses, his brief review of provincial policies, laws, and practices runs all the way back to the beginning.
The third angle is what the letter tells us about the island's agriculture and community during the early part of the nineteenth century.
Finally, I'll write about what happened as a result of the lightkeeper's letter. Was he allowed to retire, and did he receive a pension? None of that was automatic in those days. And the light could not be simply abandoned, not even for one night. Even at his ripe old age, Alexander Hood Cocken could not leave his post until a new man was brought on. But who want to take up such an arduous position? How was the next lightkeeper appointed? And who was it who made these decisions?
* Letter from Alexander Hood Cocken to Joseph Howe, 1 June 1860, NSARM, RG 7, Vol. 43.