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The Rise and Fall of a Barbados Merchant

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
May 19, 2016

For me, history is the study of people, and I have “met” quite a few interesting folks while working on George Washington’s Barbados diary. Due to a lack of sources, most of these people will become vague acquaintances at best. However, one of those individuals has captured my imagination—Gedney Clarke. Because of his status of power in Barbados and elsewhere, he hasn’t quite faded into the shadows of an unknown past. Many aspects of his life, nevertheless, still remain a mystery.

George Washington offered several clues as to the identity of “Major Clarke” in his diary. He mentioned visiting the Clarke home, Gedney’s wife and her niece, and many dinners with Clarke. Gedney had enough influence to introduce George to the rich and powerful on the island, and a simple genealogical search revealed that the Washingtons were in fact related to the Clarkes: Gedney’s sister, Deborah, married William Fairfax and was the mother of Ann Fairfax, Lawrence Washington’s wife.

An extract from Washington’s Barbados diary reads, “Receiv’d a card from Majr Clarke wherein our companys were desir’d to Dinner.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

An extract from Washington’s Barbados diary reads, “Receiv’d a card from Majr Clarke wherein our companys were desir’d to Dinner.” Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Gedney Clarke was born April 5, 1711, in Salem, Massachusetts.1 He was born into a wealthy family already three generations thick into the Atlantic commerce system.2 Clarke moved to Barbados in 1733, and his marriage to Mary Fleurian that same year connected him to the elite of the island—the Lascelles and the Carters, families of prominent slave traders and business leaders. Before long, Clarke “controlled a multifaceted trading enterprise that dotted the North American seaboard” and eventually became one of Barbados’ leading merchants.3 He also became a member of the Barbados Council and Collector of Customs for Bridgetown.

There is a strong possibility that George contracted smallpox at Gedney Clarke’s home, although this likelihood is as fraught with questions as it is with answers. George writes of his reluctance to dine with the Clarkes on the brothers’ arrival on Barbados because “smallpox was in his family.” While it has been suggested that Clarke’s wife was the responsible party, due to her being “much indisposed” at the time,, George sees Mary Clarke two days later and does not mention her health. A further complication to this speculation is the mention of Clarke’s house: Gedney Clarke actually owned two houses. He was the known proprietor of Belle (also sometimes referenced as Bell) Plantation, located a few miles outside of Bridgetown, but he also owned a townhouse in Bridgetown. There is no conclusive evidence to reveal at which home George dined. Nevertheless, although it cannot be definitely proven, George’s diary entry noting the onset of smallpox symptoms appears 13 days after this visit, within the normal range of incubation.4

The remaining structure of Gedney Clarke’s Belle Plantation, St. Michaels Parish. Photo by Lynn Price.

The remaining structure of Gedney Clarke’s Belle Plantation, St. Michaels Parish. Photo by Lynn Price.

Gedney Clarke’s status on the island and throughout the Atlantic placed him in a position to acquaint George with the top stratum of society. Through an invitation to the Beefsteak and Tripe Club, George was introduced to militia officers, powerful planters, and the political elite of Barbados. Although there are no contemporary descriptions of Belle Plantation during George’s visit, the home was transferred to Gedney Clarke, Jr., after his father’s death, where a visitor remarked, “Meeting there with numerous and respectable company were treated in a manner bordering on princely magnificence.”5

An examination of Clarke’s landholdings suggests an abundance of wealth. Two homes in Barbados were only a portion of Clarke properties that also included Demerara (now part of Guyana), Virginia, New England, and Halifax. Clarke increased his involvement in the slave trade throughout his life, including the illegal importation of slaves into Barbados.6 However, Clarke’s finances were not as secure as they outwardly appeared. He borrowed substantial amounts of cash from business partners to cover slave trading-related debts, government contracts, and the downturn of the London money market.7 Gedney’s sudden death from illness in 1764 placed the Clarke empire—and debts—into the hands of Gedney Clarke, Jr. The British credit crisis of 1772-1773 and unfortunate business decisions ultimately led to the financial collapse of the wealthy Clarke family.8

Born into a wealthy family, Gedney Clarke amassed power and riches only to see them lost within the fluctuations of an unstable Atlantic economy. As General George Washington—once a young man who owed so much to Clarke—led the North American colonies in a revolution against the British empire, Atlantic merchants coped with a changing world. A search of the archives in Barbados—particularly the library of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society—shows a continuing interest in the life and the ancestors of Gedney Clarke. I only hope that this interest leads to more discoveries regarding George Washington’s vague “Major Clarke,” who has since become one of my historical “friends.”9

You can read more about Lynn Price’s trip to Barbados here.

 

Notes

1. Henry Fitzgilbert Waters, The Gedney and Clarke Families of Salem, Mass. (Salem: Salem Press, 1880), 33.

2. S.D. Smith, “Gedney Clarke of Salem and Barbados: Transatlantic Super-merchant.” The New England Quarterly 76, no. 4 (2003): 502.

3. Ibid., 508.

4. George visits the Clarke household on November 3 and is “strongly attacked” by smallpox on November 16. The normal incubation period is listed as 10-14 days in Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 15. Sources that concur include George H. Fox, Practical Treatise on Smallpox (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1902); and Brenda J. McEleney, Smallpox: A Primer, USAF Counterproliferation Center, Future Warfare Series No. 9.

5. “Autobiographical Mss of William Senhouse.” Journal of Barbados Museum and Historical Society 2, no. 2 (February 1935): 79.

6. Smith, “Gedney Clarke of Salem and Barbados,” 514.

7. Ibid., 534.

8. Ibid.

9. I am fascinated by Clarke, but I will also be the first to point out his sometimes significant character flaws.