King's College London
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Young's Essay on Tobago

Summary of arguments put forward by Young

Geographical position of the island

Chart of the West Indies, a drawing from Young's Essay showing the geographical location of the islands and hand-colouredChart of the West Indies, One of Young’s major arguments in favour of Tobago focuses on its geographical position in the Caribbean, in relation to the prevalent trade winds for sailing vessels. As the wind was the primary source of power for ships of this time, the islands situated on the route of these trade winds were in a good position to become trading outposts. In the case of the Caribbean islands, this meant that they often became a place for the slave trade to take root.

Young was not an advocate for the continuation of the slave trade however, and he believed these trade winds had other advantages. He believed that Tobago would be able to harness lucrative trade routes from the Orinoco River in South America which fed into the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Tobago.

The Orinoco was a huge river with various settlements along its banks and plentiful resources to be traded, and Young believed that Tobago was in the perfect position to take advantage of this.

There is however conflicting evidence on the usefulness of this river and there are suggestions that the mouth of the Orinoco River had one of the worst reputations regarding marauding pirate gangs. Young would no doubt argue that this problem would go away should the British set up a strong enough military presence on the island. This was an operation that the British colonial government evidently did not see as worth undertaking, possibly due to the commitments of empire and war elsewhere.

In geographical terms, Tobago’s location in relation to its neighbour Trinidad was another element supporting its development and importance. There was firm conviction among many sailors that Tobago was the key to Trinidad, which in turn was a key island for the British. Security for Tobago, meant security for Trinidad.

Watercolor illustration showing a chart of Man o’ war Bay in TobagoChart of Man o’ war Bay in TobagoGeographical and topographical features of the island were also key points in Young’s arguments, with the most important single feature being Man o’ war Bay. This was the perfect harbour for anchoring ships of war, and one which was impossible to blockade.

Defensive capabilities

Young also remarked at the ease of setting up defence batteries around the coast of the island, and the abundant resources of the island such as timber, which would allow ships to be repaired with ease. The descriptive accounts of the topography and natural resources in the report are vivid and the watercolour landscape depictions produced by Young effectively complement his words.

Other works held in the Foyle Special Collections Library contain contemporary maps of Tobago, which can help to give the reader a sense of what and where Young is referring to. The two which were consulted during the course of this transcription were: Tabago, or, A geographical description, natural and civil history (1750) and The history, civil and commercial, of the British colonies in the West Indies (1807).

Young also kept records of the health of the garrison of troops already stationed on Tobago, and remarked that the mortality rate was considerably low. He reports that there were good rivers inland and abundant fisheries surrounding the island; and it was well prepared to accommodate more troops. He also remarks on the salubrious climate of Tobago and suggests that it is good for the health of Europeans stationed there.

Hurricanes and the climate

Another aspect of the weather which Young claims to be in Tobago’s favour in relation to other Caribbean islands, is the relative lack of hurricanes that the island suffers. It is true that Tobago is in the part of the Caribbean which sees fewer hurricanes on average than anywhere else. However his claims that there has not been a recorded hurricane in living memory or tradition were an exaggeration.

Hurricanes that form in the southern part of the Caribbean are often less severe, but can still be serious, as contemporary examples indicate. In 2004 Hurricane Ivan hit Tobago; and in 1963 Hurricane Flora hit the island with devastating consequences causing significant damage. Prior to that however, the island had not suffered a major hurricane for over a 100 years.

Young’s ‘inside source’

Young’s argument for increased British settlement and development of Tobago is influenced greatly by the information from his ‘inside source’, likely to have been the former French governor of the island. Upon his first arrival to the island when it was transferred from French to British hands in 1803, he was given a tour of the island by this outgoing French governor, who enlightened him with the details of French plans to build mighty garrisons and entrenchments at Man o’ war Bay – with barracks to accommodate up to 7,000 men.

In this time of heightened tension and war, it is natural that British representatives would seek to gain an advantage for their nation at the expense of their enemies by using information taken from them. Accordingly, the disclosures that Young garners from his ‘inside source’ are what he predicates many of his arguments on and he uses French plans, or rather the superseding of these plans by the British, as a means for motivation.

However, the plans outlined above by the French representative may well have been a clever ploy to impress upon Young the supposed importance of the island, which would then cause the British government to focus on a relatively unimportant island and waste time and resources. This is of course conjecture, but would fit into the spirit of mutual suspicion and colonial rivalry evident in the document and in contemporary colonial dealings.

In this exhibition


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