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In search of elusive George Brown

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I’m in Glasgow on a three-week residency organised by the Mitchell Library and the British Council. The residency, Trading Tales, is a two-way exchange between Scotland and the Caribbean, with the intention of finding and showing connections between the two regions—of which there are many.

Last week I learned, on a tour led by historian Stephen Mullen, much about Glasgow’s history and the basis of its wealth in tobacco. The early “Tobacco Lords” of the 18th century built enormous mansions and other edifices on the backs of New World slaves, though the slaves and the slave trades were virtually invisible to Scots.

“We learned about the Tobacco Lords in school,” people say—or so we were told more than once, in talking about the impact of slavery on Glasgow—“but we never thought about the connection to slavery.” Mullen gives tours of the Merchant City, a section of Glasgow with still-standing structures like the neo-classical Cunninghame Mansion, which would become today’s Gallery of Modern Art. 

Tobacco Lord William Cunninghame made his money buying up tobacco cheaply in Virginia and selling it in Europe. Men like him were also called “Virginia Dons,” and went about wearing silks and feathers, expecting people to step off the sidewalks in deference when they passed.

Mullen said a disproportionately high number of Scots claimed compensation after Emancipation; and now that Scotland is on the brink of a referendum on whether it will become an independent nation or stay a part of the United Kingdom, it raises questions on restitution for slavery. Should there be an independent Scotland, it should be held accountable for this wealth it acquired through the triangular trade. 

Jamaican writer Diana McCaulay and I have been spending time over the past two weeks in the archives of the Mitchell, a grand old library in the heart of Glasgow. She has been doing research on her ancestor, a Scot who, family lore has it, came to Jamaica as a missionary during slavery. I have been looking up two influential Scots who settled in Trinidad, William Gordon Gordon and George Brown.

Gordon, who came to Trinidad as a teen and went from a lowly Colonial Bank clerk to an incredibly wealthy merchant and landowner, has been much easier for me to follow so far. Last week I went to his birthplace, a farmhouse called Portree Cottage in Portpatrick, on the craggy west coast of Scotland.

The house is still standing, and is still surrounded by rolling green fields where fluffy white sheep and shaggy Galloway cattle graze in between stacked stone dykes. Past the little stone Portree Bridge you come to the town of Portpatrick, and you can dine in one of the very inns Gordon may have known as a child, looking out at the cold, blue Irish Sea.

Walking around the harbour and up the steep cliffs, you can sneak into the ruined Dumskey Castle, and touch the cold stone walls he might have touched himself. You can feel the prickly gorse, or pick the purple heather he would have seen himself.

Brown is far more elusive. Having no idea of where he was born, I have been stymied by the surfeit of George Browns who matriculated in arts at Glasgow University. I can’t find the records of the Glasgow Athenaeum where he supposedly studied architecture, and there’s no hint of Gregor Turnbull and Co, the firm he worked for before moving to Trinidad. 

I have found catalogues of the MacFarlane Co’s Saracen Foundry, which supplied so much of Victorian Port-of-Spain’s exquisite decorative cast iron; looking through the catalogues was eerie and sometimes I could recognise the actual patterns used on balconies and fences I’ve seen in Port-of-Spain. But of Brown himself, nothing.

On Sunday I went to a town called Lanark—several of the George Browns matriculating at Glasgow University listed Lanarkshire as their hometown. Lanark, an hour outside Glasgow by train, is a pretty village with stone cottages and cobblestone streets. Was this where he grew up? Perhaps; perhaps not. 

Shifting municipal boundaries over time mean that Lanarkshire of the 1800s is not the Lanark of today. But still, it is good to wander those streets and the streets of Glasgow, to look up at the gargoyles and the buttresses, the red and blond sandstone tenements and think that perhaps George Brown took his inspiration from some of them. The graceful iron and glass arches of the Ca’D’Oro, a Glasgow landmark, remind me of home.


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