Connections with Tobago and the dangers of 19th century colonial life

And now to the island of Tobago.:

A number of students who attended the University of Glasgow with connections to Tobago are being uncovered by the project, and they all have very interesting stories to tell:  John Halkett, Governor of Tobago from 1803-1805,  was a man with remarkably forward thinking views on how native populations should be treated, and the account of his life documents the struggles and dangers of colonial life in the nineteenth century.  Born in Pitfirrane, Scotland in 1768, John was the third son of John Wedderburn, who assumed the surname of Halkett when he succeeded to the Baronetcy of Pitfirrane.  Matriculating at the University of Glasgow in 1785 and at the University of St Andrew’s in 1786, Halkett was admitted to the Scottish bar in 1789.  He practised as an advocate for several years, until 1801, when he was appointed as Governor of the Bahamas.

The details of Halkett’s life highlight the dangers of colonial life.  Illness was a major risk when taking up positions in the settlements.  When he assumed his post as Governor of the Bahamas in 1801, Halkett was replacing Governor William Dowdeswell, who returned to London suffering from a severe illness; later Halkett himself was transferred to Tobago[1].  Halkett held the position as Captain-General and Governor of Tobago from 1803 until 1805, whereupon he became Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of West India Accounts.

Halkett was further exposed to danger, this time in the form of political struggles, in 1808 when, along with his two cousins, Andrew Wedderburn and Lord Selkirk, he bought shares in the Hudson Bay Company (HBC).  Appointed to the London Committee of the HBC in 1811, his experience as Governor of the Bahamas and of Tobago, coupled with his legal knowledge, made him the ideal person to defend his cousin regarding the Red River Colony.

Lord Selkirk's Grant at Red River,

Lord Selkirk’s Grant at Red River, <http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~reak/hist/redriver.htm&gt;

He wrote numerous pamphlets defending Lord Selkirk, who had been accused by the rival North West Company (NWC) of poor conduct, his most important work being Statement respecting the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement upon the Red River in North America[2]However, the publication of this document held unknown dangers for Halkett.  After Selkirk’s death, visiting Montreal to execute his cousin’s will, Halkett was attacked by two men from the NWC, angry about their portrayal in the pamphlets.  He narrowly escaped with his life, receiving two blows from a whip before wounding one of his attackers with a pistol[3].

These events highlight the power struggles which existed between different trading companies, and underline the fact that strange illnesses and hostile native populations were not the only danger to settlers – the politics of the colonies also held great danger for outspoken individuals.

This destructive feud is perhaps a key reason why Halkett has a remarkably sympathetic view towards the native populations. In 1825 he published a document entitled Historical Notes Respecting the Indians of North America with Remarks on the Attempts Made to Convert and Civilize Them[4]This document was very progressive for its time; Halkett argues that the failure to cooperate with the Native Americans was the fault of the European settlers, writing that ‘in place of endeavouring to conciliate and encourage the Indians, it appears that their early teachers…treated them with arrogance and presumption’[5].  He also dedicates an entire chapter of his work to documenting examples of kindness of native Americans, contrasting this with the barbarity shown by early French settlers, describing the manner in which native populations are portrayed as ‘injudicious’[6].  This shows a respect for the native population, belying Halkett’s liberal and forward-thinking attitude.

It is evident, then, that Halkett was an interesting individual, who used his experiences as Governor of Tobago and the Bahamas, along with his legal education, to influence colonial politics. Using his position to try and encourage a more positive view of native populations in the settlements, he displays a liberal and forward thinking mindset, and his life shows the varied dangers which confronted settlers in the nineteenth century.

By Angharad Jones, MA History & Law, Commonwealth Caribbean: Tobago, Club21


[1] Whittington B. Johnson, Race Relations in the Bahamas, 1784-1834, (Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 2000), p.3

[2] John Halkett, Statement respecting the Earl of Selkirk’s settlement upon the Red River in North America, (London: John Murray, 1817)

[3] Shirlee Anne Smith, John Halkett: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, <http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/halkett_john_8E.html>, accessed 1st March 2014

[4] John Halkett, Historical notes respecting the Indians of North America : with remarks on the attempts made to convert and civilize them, (London: A.Constable and Co., 1825)

[5] Ibid, p.369

[6] Ibid, p.98

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