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Family tree of Peter Fairbain (Ancestry) - subscription required
Peter Fairbairn was employed as secretary to Lord Seaforth, chief of clan Mackenzie, at Brahan Castle in Ross-shire from at least as early as 1794, an important position because Seaforth was both deaf and dumb, and so relied heavily on written communications. Fairbairn arrived in Berbice in November 1801 to manage Seaforth's recently acquired land in the colony and, contrary to all his expectations, remained in Guiana until his death in 1822.
He had never intended to stay so long. In 1808 he hoped ‘to return next year after 8 years abroad’ and felt, at this date, that he had stayed for the previous two years against his own interests and to the injury of his family and children, all ‘to keep down the expenses of the concern and render it productive’. By July 1809, however, he was still unable to leave: ‘In vain I attempted to close my arrangements to quit this country and find it impossible until I see results of the ensuing crop.’ In 1810 he was still there and expressed his regret that he had not left in 1806, when Seaforth completed his term as Governor of Barbados. And so things continued, with perhaps some sense by 1814 that he was reconciled to life in the colony – by then he was resident at Kintail, his ‘favourite place’, with both land and building neatly laid out ‘like a European farm’.
The circumstances in which Fairbairn found himself contributed to both Seaforth losing confidence in him as manager and to an apparent breakdown in his relationship with his family in Ross-shire. Seaforth began to query Fairbairn’s management in 1808 because he believed he had not been provided with adequate accounts of what was happening in Berbice. This was later summarised by James Baillie Fraser: ‘The continued series of uninterrupted misfortunes which have marked . . . late years has made it also a most unpleasant task to write frequently . . . what indeed is there to be spoken of but a train of disappointment, a disheartening detail of plans fondly conceived, ever failing . . . correspondence would first languish, then expire.’
At the same time Fairbairn became deeply concerned about his family. Mrs Fairbairn appears not to have paid the rent on their farm of Moy on the Brahan estate in Ross-shire and payments of her annuity had consequently been withheld. In one of the last amicable exchanges between Fairbairn and Seaforth he had outlined his hopes for his six sons. The three youngest were still at school, the eldest intended to come out as a planter – Fairbairn had hoped to get him a ‘Dutch education’ but the wars had prevented this – the next was training in Edinburgh as a doctor and the third wanted a career in the navy, something in which Seaforth might have helped. These plans were now in ruins. In Fairbairn’s words, ‘Our West India speculation does in this instance sicken me to the heart. It would seem that I am suspected here and that my family must starve at home.’
Fairbairn was, a few years later, judged to have neglected his family. James Baillie Fraser, who had investigated on behalf of Lord Seaforth, could only offer a limited explanation: ‘I hardly know how to account for it – but when the general laxity of manners prevalent in these colonies is considered, the state of continued exertion . . . and the tendency to laziness that pervades all ranks in these climates, we may find the shadow of a reason.’
Fairbairn acquired plantations in his own right and his eldest son John came to Berbice and managed plantation Seawell. At least two of his sons qualified as doctors at Edinburgh University, James in 1815, Francis Mackenzie in 1821 [List of the Graduates in Medicine in the University of Edinburgh, 1867]. They both came to Demerara, where James died in January 1823 [Journal of John Smith] and Francis on 24 September of the same year [The Edinburgh Annual Register, 1823].
After his death his executors, John Ross and William Campbell, manumitted his domestic slave Charmion and her three children [Papers relating to the manumission, government and population of slaves in the West Indies, 1822-1824]. In Fairbairn's return for his domestic slaves in 1819, Charmion aged 29, is described as 'stout good looking'. There were five mulatto children: Mary Anne (6), Eliza (5), George (4), Mary (3) and James (1yr 3 m). Mary and James died of fever before 1822, by which time another mullato child, named John, had been born to 21-year old Belinda ('middle sized well-made').
The Fairbairn Family
Peter Fairbairn moved from Kelso in the Scottish Borders to take up his position as secretary to Lord Seaforth at Brahan. Peter's brother, Andrew, was soon offered the tenancy of a farm on the estate and came north with his family. Two of Andrew's sons rose to prominence, William as an engineer and Peter, later Sir Peter, as mayor of Leeds.