King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Young's Essay on Tobago

Background on Sir William Young (1749-1815)

Sir William Young, 2nd Bt by Joseph Collyer the Younger, after J Brown, stipple engraving, 1788 NPG D15581 © National Portrait Gallery, LondonSir William Young, 2nd Bt by Joseph Collyer the Younger, after J Brown, stipple engraving, 1788 NPG D15581 © National Portrait Gallery, LondonSir William Young, second baronet,was born at Charlton in Kent in December 1749, and was the eldest son of Sir William Young, first baronet (1724/5–88), governor of Dominica.

Young studied at Clare College, Cambridge, and University College, Oxford and won attention for a work he published in 1777 entitled The spirit of Athens, this being a political and philosophical investigation of the history of that republic. A respected scholar, Young was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1786 and in 1791 a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

At the death of his father in 1788 Young inherited four sugar plantations – one in Antigua, two in St Vincent, and one in Tobago – and a total of 896 African slaves. He also inherited his father's debts, amounting to approximately £110,000. This could well have explained his rather conservative attitude towards abolition – with massive inherited debt, abolition would exacerbate an already dire financial situation for Young.

Young served twice as an MP, once for St Mawes, Cornwall in 1784, and again in 1806, when he became MP for Buckingham. He spoke in parliament on a number of topics, including the slave trade, the outright abolition of which, as proposed by Wilberforce, he did not support.

It has been documented that when Young visited his plantations he found the slaves to be well treated and well provided for, and that he was warmly greeted by the slaves upon his arrival. Young believed, naively, that if slave owners were simply to treat their slaves well enough, the issue of abolition would cease to exist. He was a firm believer and advocate of British Imperialism and served as secretary to the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa.

As a writer, Young’s approach tends to favour descriptive prose. In one of his first works, a self-published and descriptive travel narrative, A journal of a summer's excursion, by the road of Montecasino to Naples, and from thence over all the southern parts of Italy, Sicily, and Malta; in the year MDCCLXXII. (1774), a picture emerges of a young man in his mid-twenties eager to impress through his tales of exotic lands. In this case, the person he was trying to impress and ‘raise a smile’ with was a lady; later in his life, in the writing of the work featured here, and using the same descriptive techniques, it would be the British colonial government.

Young’s 1774 travel narrative shows him honing a skill which would become visible in his report on Tobago: he is becoming adept at creating a vivid picture in words of key geographical features, a valuable skill in an age before the advent of camera technology.

Another work written by Young which is available in the Foyle Special Collections Library is The West Indian commonplace book (1807). This was written by Young following a tour of the Caribbean and his plantations on Tobago. It is a thorough assessment of the West Indies as an arena for British interests abroad. Here we see the precursor to his Essay on the commercial and political importance of Tobago.

In the chapters of the 1807 work regarding the island of Tobago, Young is quick to point out the lack of cultivation and settlement on Tobago and ascribes this to the political instability that the island has suffered. He is also dismissive of Trinidad as a country, describing it as barren, and not worthy of attention. Many of the arguments seen in the report featured in this online exhibition, were first expressed in this book.

The portrait on this page is kindly supplied by the National Portrait Gallery, in accordance with their terms and conditions and is used under a Creative Commons licence.

In this exhibition


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