The ‘richest commoner’ and his West Indian estates
The notorious Colonel John Gordon of Cluny and his investments in the Caribbean island of Tobago
The Caribbean island ofTobago was one of the most popular locations for upwardly-mobile Scots in the 18th and 19th centuries to seek enrichment by investing in the slave economy, and among these plantation-owners was the notorious Colonel John Gordon of Cluny. Neil M. Bruce investigates
In 1850, George Hawkins travelled to Tobago in the West Indies to assess the state and management of the three sugar estates owned by Colonel John Gordon of Cluny and his nephew, Captain Charles Gordon. Not long before succumbing to a tropical disease, Hawkins wrote about the strangeness of the place: the ‘glass’ at 88 degrees Fahrenheit and the mosquitos’ constant ‘buzbuzbuz’. Regardless of whatever risks they might face, Scots explored, settled and sojourned worldwide. Tobago was one place which drew our 18th-century ancestors, particularly after 1763 when Britain overcame France’s territorial claim during the Seven Years War. An island economy based on sugar developed, with Scots keen to create ‘hospitable localities for sugar estates’ from its ‘tropical frontier’ and becoming prominent in the island’s administration.This article will consider the experience of Scots who stayed and sojourned there, before focusing on the Gordons of Cluny’s Tobagonian interests, particularly those of absentee estate owner, Colonel John Gordon.
Cluny was heavily criticised for his apparent failure to respond to the potato harvest failure and subsequent destitution of his Western Isles tenants. Government officials and the press castigated him when impoverished tenants from Barra arrived on the Scottish mainland in December 1850 (see History Scotland, August/September 2018: http://scot.sh/18). Subsequently, the reported enforced emigration of South Uist tenants onto ships Canadian-bound brought him greater and enduring criticism. While facing opprobrium over his Western Isles estates, he was involved in deciding how to resolve the problems besetting the three West Indies estates he co-owned.
Scots who ventured to Tobago voyaged on ships from Greenock and Leith owned and captained by their countrymen, braving weather, French and American privateers. As trade grew, a Scottish network developed to ship and market Tobago’s crops. Britons in their empire’s West Indian islands with sufficient wealth or security bid to purchase land at auction from the crown. The government’s sale conditions included a minimum price of £1 per acre and maximum purchase of 500 acres. Competition for land resulted in the average auction price rising to £6 per acre by 1770. A healthy private market developed, estates changing hands as existing owners increased their holdings, or as others sought to overcome lack of success at auction. Within ten years, Scots were Tobago’s predominant incomers, owning 33 of the 77 estates, over half the island’s total 30,440 acres. The ethnicity and regional origins of owners was clearly discernible by their names and those they gave their estates: Buglass, Campbell, Forbes and Napier; Roxburghe, Inverawe, Culloden and Merchiston.
Buying an estate on Tobago was part of a longer-term stratagem to achieve a healthy return. It was, as Marjorie Harper showed, a ‘legitimate stepping stone to the ultimate, and more prestigious, acquisition of land in Scotland’. Achieving that healthy return relied on a labour force of 12,000 enslaved Africans, reportedly ‘kept in awe’ by a mainly white militia: nevertheless, between 1770 and 1801 there were six armed slave revolts.The island and its inhabitants also experienced two French occupations, abortive American incursions and the inevitable disruption to shipping, trade and life which conflict brought.
Scots entrepreneurs abroad assisted family, friends and those from their home neighbourhoods to gain employment, investment
and advancement. Networks expanded as Scots owners advertised for countrymen to work on their estates. A mystique developed of finding one’s fortune abroad: David Alston has evidenced a ‘coherent story’ of success which proved ‘remarkably resistant to contrary evidence’ for those who travelled to Tobago as threeyear sojourners. Another Gordon, Alexander, having made his money there, advertised for men under 25 as overseers and carpenters from his recently-purchased Aberdeenshire estate of Newton. He also sought an ‘active young’ doctor qualified in surgery and who understood midwifery. Newton, attempting to ensure his young countrymen continued the accepted norms of home abroad, sought proof of their suitability: ‘Their characters also must be able to bear the strictest examination’.
His requirements became stricter and more precise, perhaps through experience: ‘none need apply who cannot produce satisfactory certificates of honesty, sobriety, and qualifications’. Once abroad their behaviour did not always match the references: the ‘parsimonious’ determination of the ‘thirty-six month Scotch’ to make ‘considerable fortunes’ was roundly criticised by Jean-J. Dauxion Lavaysse. Whether Scots prominent in Tobago’s civic society such as James Campbell, president of the council, the attorney-general, William Macbean, or the collector of customs, Thomas Chalmers, shared that opinion is unknown.
Taking risks in an inhospitable climate
One reason that Scots might have felt an urgency to make money was the risk to their health and life. Disease respected neither age nor status: Scottish newspapers carried obituaries reflecting how often and quickly ‘sojourners in the Caribbean succumbed to tropical diseases’. Advertising for Scots employees, owners emphasised the healthiness of their estates, trying to counter the island’s reputation of having the ‘highest white mortality rate in the Eastern Caribbean’. The death of Europeans on Tobago became hardly noteworthy and the reaction to the death of Reverend Blair from Glasgow in 1835 was unusual: the Caledonian Mercury reported it ‘chilled society for a few days’. Living on remote estates with little alternate social lives, in-coming Scots, however impeccable their character references, might while away their spare time imbibing estate-produced rum and embracing inter-racial relationships.
Money made abroad was repatriated home for personal advancement, comfortable retirement, or as bequests. The poor at home were remembered: Archibald Napier sent £5 to relieve the needy of Portobello and planter Samuel McKechnie bequeathed £23 8s 5d to Kilmallie parish. The Tobago Chronicle reported considerable funds raised to relieve sufferers of highlands and islands destitution, and expatriates subscribed to the planned birthplace monument to Robert Burns. Mrs Thompson, sister of ‘recently-deceased James Butter, mason, late of Tobago’, would ‘hear something for her advantage’ from the Turriff schoolmaster or a Banff solicitor if she replied to the latter’s newspaper advertisement. MP Patrick Maxwell Stewart left his brother ‘all his possessions and estates at Charlotteville, Tobago, with the crop, plant, engines, buildings and appurtenances’.
Risk in commercial activity was as commonplace as danger
Within ten years, Scots were Tobago’s predominant incomers, owning 33 of the 77 estates, over half the island’s total 30,440 acres
to individuals’ health. Operating a seasonal economy, planters obtained sixteen-month credit, indemnifying lenders by binding over land, crop, or slaves. Being over-exposed financially when prices fell or natural disasters occurred brought personal and corporate insolvency. In 1847 a severe hurricane swept Tobago’s ‘once smiling face’ to ‘the four winds of heaven’, following hard on the previous year’s pan-West Indian drought. Its path devastated 61 owners’ and managers’ houses, 626 settlers’ homes and 59 sugar works. Britain’s imperial parliament heeded an island petition, advancing the colony £5,000 and granting repair loans of £50,000, but when sugar prices tumbled in 1848, the West Indian Bank closed, causing major ructions.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 but it took another 27 years to emancipate its colonial slaves. On the first day of emancipation in 1834, unlike other colonies, Tobago was ‘quiet’, though in a ‘state of confusion and alarm’. News reached Scotland that with freedom ‘not an individual has yet turned out to field labour’, seeking to have their own terms agreed. Local managers and agents of absentee owners were expected to deal with the unfolding situation in their employers’ best interests. A 45-hour week and four-year ‘apprenticeships’ were introduced, though the latter were regarded as a serious misstep in engendering improved labour relations. Uncertainty followed with some workers squatting on estates, working piecemeal: managers could not pay wages and with fewer workers, harvests and owners’ incomes reduced.
A ‘métayage’ system of share-cropping had some success: the métayer planted canes on land he occupied, which were harvested in the estate’s mill, and he received a percentage of the sale price. Production slumped and efforts to regain profitability were further hampered by the imperial parliament pressing Tobago’s assembly to give formerly enslaved people ‘unconditional freedom’ in 1838, then equalising the duty on sugar Britain imported whether it originated from emancipated or still-enslaved producers. By 1855, 13 of the 55 estates still operating were partially cultivated by métayage.
The Gordons of Cluny and Tobago
Cluny’s uncle, Alexander Gordon, was in the vanguard of Scottish settlers to Tobago when he bought the Belmont and then Starwood estates privately. The expression ‘as rich as a Tobago planter’, prevalent in London circles, fitted this ‘entirely independent’ entrepreneur who subsequently accumulated Bacolet, Speyside (incorporating Belmont and Starwood) and Trois Rivières estates. Alexander and younger brother James arrived in 1770, but within two years the latter apparently fell victim to the tropical climate. By 1799, Gordon was earning the enormous income of £30,000, and when he died unmarried two years later, he left his Tobago properties, slaves and money jointly to his brother Charles’s two sons, John (Cluny) and Alexander.
Alexander Gordon had settled in Tobago, but his nephews were absentee proprietors. There is no suggestion Cluny visited Tobago, though Alexander may have shadowed and then assumed estate management when his uncle returned to Britain. Alexander married in England in 1815, handling the brothers’ island interests remotely and collecting £12,484 0s 9d slave compensation on their behalves in 1836. Cluny’s attention was focused on the extensive Scottish estates he inherited in 1819, and his parliamentary ambitions. His sister Charlotte’s husband had died and their son, Sir Frederick George Johnstone, was too young to occupy the ‘family’ seat of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis. Cluny engineered to become one of his nephew’s trustees and successfully achieved his political aspirations in 1826. However, he did not remain an MP long as it did not lead, as he hoped, to a peerage. In fact. Cluny found in general that his wealth could not achieve the results he sought, though he readily spent it taking legal action against those he thought had crossed him. His
approach to money was as finely attuned as those of his father and grandfather: ‘every shilling’ the latter ‘got within his fingers stuck to them’.To maximise return on capital, Cluny increased his property portfolio, buying the islands of Barra, Benbecula and South Uist in the later 1830s and early 1840s.
Being absentees, the Gordons relied on managers and attorneys to manage their estates. Scottish names almost entirely populated these roles: Robert Scott, John McIntyre, William Gordon, Alexander MacPherson and William Rose. Both Rose and George Richardson, his predecessor, had worked on Grenada, the latter previously manager for Cluny’s kinsman, Newton, which suggests there were peripatetic ‘career’ Scots sojourners in the Caribbean. While Newton, with comparable Tobago estates, advertised for Scottish overseers and timeserved tradesmen, any ‘Cluny’ brothers’ advertisements were anonymous. Their Tobagonian business interests were handled by Messrs Rucker, the ‘very old West India & Hambro House’ of London. Though Ruckers became bankrupt in 1831, the Gordons employed its ‘phoenix’ successor into the 1850s. Alexander was the company’s contact until his death in 1839 on his brother’s Benbecula estate. He left his Tobago interests to eldest son, Captain Charles Henry Gordon and bequeathed annuities of £800 to his widow and £10,000 to his younger children.
Charles took over his father’s lead role, though his relations with Cluny were not as fraternal.The brothers’ relationship extended to Cluny not taking ‘a single penny from the estates’, though why is unclear. Cluny maintained only limited interest, keeping abreast of estate matters and the wider political scene. He shared his assessment with their manager at Bacolet, Alexander MacPherson, that emancipation and equalising sugar taxes meant ‘British Colonies will hardly be worth cultivating’. MacPherson replied that the governor’s attempts to improve the economy had pleased no-one, while advising Cluny on the year’s crop and its expected value. Though taking no monetary return from the estates, the correspondence shows the in-kind benefits ownership gave Cluny in wine and turtles exported to Scotland.
What the hurricane revealed
The 1847 hurricane brought the Gordons and Rucker multiple problems: MacPherson reported severe damage to all three estates, requesting supplies of galvanised sheet and nails. Sigismund Rucker asked Cluny to contribute to their being returned to good working order, but Cluny did not believe they could be made profitable and refused to ‘sacrifice one shilling towards their support’. Rucker responded that he had achieved the best possible return despite the impacts of drought, hurricane, labour shortages and costs. A new boiler, pump mill and rum stills were urgently needed, but Rucker explained that the outlay, coupled with the ‘immense reduction in prices of both sugar and rum’, would put his firm in considerable debt. Cluny expressed annoyance that Rucker had unilaterally sent out ‘expensive Coppers’ without advance notice or permission, increasing his own financial exposure. Rucker and Cluny’s correspondence became terse. Rucker argued the necessity of ensuring the estates’ viability while Cluny refused to advance more money.
The annuities which brother Alexander had bequeathed to immediate family in his will became entwined in the correspondence. It transpired that as he had no personal wealth, they had been paid from the estates’ annual profits, and Cluny’s nephew had met their costs. However, he had also mortgaged his ‘moiety’, or share, to release money for himself. Further complicating matters, Charles’s mother signed her annuity back to Rucker to offset arrears her son owed. Rucker told Cluny he had been paying the legacies himself to avoid the estates being ‘disturbed by expensive proceedings’. If Cluny was wary of Rucker referring to proceedings, he thanked him for his ‘unsolicited act, so largely in advance’ to keep their integrity. His tone was conciliatory but careful, offering to assist Rucker ‘out of the scrape’, once he obtained legal advice.
The estates received the supplies necessary to repair the damage and they resumed production. Another manager, George Richardson, was appointed. It appeared, though, that Cluny’s wariness continued and his ‘hand’ can be discerned in the commission Rucker gave George Hawkins in 1850: systematically inspect the estates, assess their prospects, evaluate the management and, most important, Richardson’s fitness to represent Bacolet as attorney. Hawkins found post-hurricane damage unrepaired three years on and he identified ‘the very man’ to replace Richardson. At least Richardson had lodged a claim with the Emigration Commissioners for 20 labourers, a ‘promised succour from Western Africa’. Commissioner Mr Yeates told Hawkins that the ‘10 emi or immigrants’ allocated to Speyside and Trois Rivières were on a ‘ship of free Negroes’ expected daily.
Being over-exposed financially when prices fell or natural disasters occurred brought personal and corporate insolvency
Hawkins died soon after, but his report so concerned Cluny he unilaterally replaced Richardson with William Rose. He too proved unsatisfactory, mainly by causing the estates’ local credit to be withdrawn, having obtained an advance based on overestimating the value of a sugar consignment. This, coupled with the concerns of Mr Munro, a Scot on Bacolet, resulted in Cluny dispatching his own personal secretary, John Mackenzie, in early 1852 to ascertain the true state of affairs and take whatever executive decisions were required.
Mackenzie’s reports made sober reading for Cluny. He corroborated reports of Richardson’s fondness for drink and blamed him for ‘the falling and mismanagement of the noble Estate’. He roundly criticised Rose’s agricultural technique, profligacy and man-management, sacking him forthwith.The Bacolet labour force consisted of the promised 20 free Africans and 50 Creoles, considerably fewer than the pre-emancipation workforce of 236. Most of the Africans were intended for the Gordons’ other estates but were keeping Bacolet operational because Rose’s ‘capricious conduct’ had ‘so offended the creole labourers’. By being civil and giving ‘the handle to their name’, Mackenzie claimed he achieved greater productivity. Nevertheless, he sweepingly opined no ‘black man’ could be trusted because of their indolence and unreliability, with unrealistic views of their rights.
Mackenzie’s plans to deploy labour where needed were hampered by inter-estate jealousy as great as ‘two highland clans could have been two centuries ago’. Mackenzie was keen to reduce reliance on the monoculture of sugarcane, identifying cotton, indigo, spices and coffee as potential crops, but discounting growing poppies for opium. His reports to Cluny were thorough, describing cultivation, soil enrichment, water supplies, the state of machinery and potential investment. Mackenzie observed how his young countrymen, ‘brought up in shops, or merchant’s offices’, lost ‘themselves in drinking habits, or so look upon their service as an apprenticeship to something better, and long to escape from it’. His practical solution was couched in terms Cluny would easily understand – employ ‘working grieves from home, such as Robert Johnstone, or Charles Michie’.
Determined not to have the estates ‘wrested from those whom he (Belmont) bequeathed them’, Cluny had advanced £2,000 19s 6d to Rucker. He thought the estates could be fairly divided between his nephew and himself, with Rucker’s ‘just’ claims met from the sale proceeds. However, he subsequently concluded that he should become principal owner and take over his nephew’s mortgage until he could redeem his moiety. To secure his position, Cluny sent Rose £1,500 to settle the island debts and ensure he was assigned preferential creditor to Rucker’s claims. However, Rose failed to comply, having actually increased the estates’ indebtedness, and Rucker had gone to court locally to secure his company’s financial position. Mackenzie’s instructions included his ascertaining the legal position of ownership and ensuring that Cluny’s rights were protected. Mackenzie found Rucker’s claim was supported by properly drawnup accounts, and though he paid the Gordons’ island debts, Mackenzie told an astonished Cluny he gained no preference under Tobago’s laws.
Cluny felt betrayed by Rucker, an ‘unabated’ friend, questioning his objectivity by being both agent and mortgagee. He sensed treachery, believing that Rucker intended to secure the estates for himself. Cluny instructed Mackenzie to make his own debt known locally, particularly to prevent Rucker from ‘clandestinely’ selling them. Should the estates come to auction, Mackenzie was to purchase them on Cluny’s behalf anonymously. When Rucker’s case was called, a local solicitor instructed by Mackenzie successfully obtained a postponement, allowing receipt from Scotland of papers including Cluny’s attested accounts showing recent net expenditure of £4,389 2s 6d on the estates. The legal advice Mackenzie obtained proved correct and Rucker’s case was repudiated when heard.
Rucker became insolvent, his company’s business continuing in the hands of trustees. Their solicitors pursued the Gordons for ‘alleged debts’ of £1,822 10s 9d by Cluny and his nephew of £2,755 5s 5d. Cluny’s debt was lower because ‘produce’ had been credited against it and it also excluded payments made to his nephew’s family.The solicitors invited Cluny to make an offer to settle, but he would not co-operate because of his ‘large advances’, which he expected to recover as a ‘profitable debt’. However, Cluny eventually decided he would pay above the market price to secure the estates, rather than let them fall into the hands of Rucker or his creditors.
Tragedy and tenacity
Mackenzie’s reports to Cluny offered only long-term prospects. Bacolet could return to profit in three years, subject to proper management and investment of £3,000 in the machinery required to process sugar canes. Cluny pessimistically forecast heavy annual losses, commenting, ‘with all the veneration I entertain for my late uncle’s memory, I cannot think he himself would recommend such a course of action’. Nevertheless, Mackenzie favoured Bacolet’s retention rather than the two less productive, hillier estates. Cluny decided to appoint him as resident manager, but before he could fully implement his proposals, Mackenzie died in January 1853. In his last letter to Cluny’s lawyer, Jonathan Brundrett, Mackenzie was actively progressing how to expose the estates for sale as instructed. Cluny had previously confided to Brundrett: ‘Should anything happen to Mr. Mackenzie, I know not how I could supply
his place’. How his demise affected Cluny’s decisions is not documented, but thereafter, a compromise was reached and ‘the entire claims against the Gordon Estates in Tobago were embraced and liquidated’ in 1854.
Cluny was 78 and still active in business when he recovered an unembarrassed title to the Tobago estates. He was among the Scottish West Indian proprietors who petitioned the prime minister, Lord Palmerston, the following year, 1855, to alleviate the ongoing depression in the sugar trade. Cluny’s expenditure on retaining the family’s Tobago estates, though considerable, was an infinitesimal part of his overall wealth. Having previously triggered General MacNeil’s bankruptcy for non-payment of a heritable bond and subsequently purchased the latter’s Barra estate, Cluny may have recognised Rucker’s modus operandi. How he viewed the contributions the British government received from West Indian colonies in 1847 to alleviate the famine in the highlands and islands is unknown. The Tobagonian legislature recognised its £320 3s 5d was a ‘mite in comparison’ to richer places, but ‘the Negro population of Tobago have come forward on this occasion with much liberality and good feeling’.
The sugar ‘bubble’
The sugar-based economy of the West Indies developed and disassembled in less than a century. It was incapable of responding to the structural changes which slave emancipation, market volatility, government intervention in prices and natural catastrophes brought. ‘Pioneer’ Scots, settlers and sojourners, and their ‘kith and kin’ accepted the risks to their investments, health and well-being. They left legacies in place names and on gravestones, their earnings often repatriated home, invested and spent far from where generated. Many Tobagonian estate owners were succeeded by absentee proprietors, both geographically and conceptually distant from their island properties: those who never visited had no first-hand experience on which to draw. They relied on appointees – manager, attorney, agent – to achieve the best possible return. However, that trust was not always wellplaced, and the consequences of inept local management detrimentally affected livelihoods.
Cluny’s experience was particular, but the generalities of absentee proprietorship were similar. He would agree that ‘competence in handling the legal and financial affairs of a working plantation was assumed’ in an attorney, but likely argue those appointed to positions of responsibility singularly failed to meet his expectations. John Mackenzie might have added they were preoccupied with ‘Island politics, and their own pleasure and dignity’ rather than their proprietors’ estates. While Mackenzie’s quote in the title related to the reliance an owner had on ‘his independent labourers’, it had much wider application for absentee proprietors. In the post-emancipation, depressed island economy compounded by natural disasters, Cluny found his reliance on third parties to transact the business of his Tobago interests challenging and frustrating: his patience exhausted, he negotiated to regain control of the family estates.
Though also absent from his other island properties in the Western Isles, his ability to control the latter was eased by proximity and familiarity with Scots law. As joint proprietor in Tobago, he was the ‘sleeping partner’ until he discovered his nephew had used their estates as collateral for his borrowing from their agents. Only then did he realise that these actions, coupled with the reduced value of the estates’ outputs, collectively put their continued ownership at risk. His familial obligation to retain them took on greater importance than an immediate return to profitability, and Cluny spent much more than he initially intended. He was tenacious, though, and had the resources many others lacked to protect his interests.
Neil Bruce has an MLitt History of the Highlands and Islands from the University of the Highlands and Islands. He is continuing to research the Gordons of Cluny, and latterly Lady Gordon Cathcart’s proprietorship of their Long Island estate of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula.
Many Tobagonian estate owners were succeeded by absentee proprietors, both geographically and conceptually distant from their island properties: those who never visited had no first-hand experience on which to draw