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Planters & merchants from North America: Gedney Clarke snr & jnr

After a visit to London in 1742, Gedney Clarke (of Salem and Barbados) invested heavily in plantations in the Dutch West Indies, in association with Henry Lascelles, a London-based financier, commission merchant and slave trader. The colonies of Demerara and Essequibo opened to non-Dutch settlement in 1746, and the governor, van ‘s Gravesande, considered Clarke to be the most influential of the Barbadians who subsequently invested. From about the same date he was also involved as a middleman in slave trading, in partnership with Henry Lascelles.

In 1746 he bought Nieuw Walcheren and Pyra in Demerara and in 1755 his son, Gedney Clarke jnr [1735-77], was sent to Amsterdam to learn Dutch and become naturalised, thus securing the family’s position. In 1762 Gedney jnr married Henry Lascelles's daughter Frances.

Gedney Clarke snr's other sons, Peter [1736-76], William [1746-82] and Francis (Frank) [b1737], also owned plantations, as did his nephew John [1737-84].

Clarke also owned plantations in Berbice and, when a slave revolt broke out in 1763, he sent four armed vessels to assist in putting down the rising, accompanied by HMS Pembroke, which has been 'lent' to him by his friends in the British Navy. There was no official sanction for this force, whose sole purpose was to protect Clarke's investment.

In 1764, after the Berbice slave rising, Clarke ‘re-stocked’ his plantations with a purchase of eighty female slaves and planned to buy eighty male slaves. He died later the same year and it soon became apparent that his finances had been out of control. Only three years later, in August 1767, Gedney jnr arranged to sell all of the family's Demerara plantations, and called in all his outstanding debts. By this date they owned eleven plantation in the colony.

Clarke's decision to pull out was motivated primarily by the colony's factional politics, not his financial perspicacity. 'No doubt you have heard that Demerara is rent by division,' wrote Sir James Douglas’s plantation manager William Brisbane in April 1766, 'at the head of the first is Mr Clarke the other is headed by Mr [Lachlan] McClane', who along with other settlers resented his influence in the colony.

Clarke jnr re-invested by purchasing properties in Grenada and Tobago, but at inflated prices as a result of a a flurry of purchases in the ceded islands, many of them by Scots, following the end of the Seven Years War. Clarke's interest payments could only be met as long as sugar prices remained high. A credit crisis in 1772 and a fall in sugar prices brought him to bankruptcy in 1774. It was a spectacular fall.

Principal sources:

'Gedney Clarke of Salem and Barbados: Transatlantic Super-Merchant' in
The New England Quarterly Vol. 76, No. 4, Dec., 2003

Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons (2012), p26ff


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