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Young's Essay on Tobago
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Young's Essay on Tobago

Sir William Young’s Essay on the commercial and political importance of ye island of Tabago, 1810

Introduction to this exhibition

James Hatherill undertook an internship in the Foyle Special Collections Library from January to April 2017, in which he transcribed and researched Sir William Young’s Essay on the commercial and political importance of ye island of Tabago1810.

The internship was undertaken as part of James’s MA degree course in the Department of History at King’s College London; and the blog post James has written about his time in the Foyle Special Collections Library explains his work in more detail.

This online exhibition is a representation of his work.

In the introductory section below, and in the first section of the online exhibition entitled: Background information, James outlines the context of the Essay.

The island of Tobago

Map of the island of TobagoMap of the island of TobagoDuring the 17th and 18th centuries the island of Tobago was in what Eric Williams calls ‘a ‘state of betweenity’, as it experienced a period of political instability unlike that of any other Caribbean island.

This was due to the relentless claims of various European powers, namely France, Britain and the Netherlands, to their colonial rights on the island. In addition to this, buccaneers and marauders made sailing through this part of the Caribbean at the time a dangerous affair.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Tobago was an island wrestling with its history and legacy. Sir William Young, second baronet (1749-1815) became governor of Tobago in 1807. He began comprehensively to assess the island’s viability as a suitable focus for expansion and this manuscript essay is the product of this assessment.

The aims of the essay

View of Man o’ war Bay, TobagoView of Man o’ war Bay, TobagoYoung’s Essay, which was sent as a report to the British government was in essence a plea to try and bring stability and prosperity to the island. He quite rightly points out in his report that instability does not encourage investment.

The reputation Tobago had acquired meant that few merchants were willing to station themselves on the island. Young emphasises the mercantile spirit of the British, championing this as a virtue of the British Empire which would benefit all if allowed to flourish.

The report was written against the background of Britain’s war  with Napoleonic France and Young constantly reminds the reader of the importance of securing Tobago against French interests in the area.

To Young, Tobago was an island of unrealised potential; he believed that it should have been one of the British Empire’s most significant colonial possessions and many of his arguments are compelling. However, perhaps because of its unstable reputation, or through pure misfortune, Tobago never became the true mercantile capital that Young envisaged. While the Colonial Office and then later the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Library decided that Young’s report was worth keeping for preservation, there is no record of a reply from the government to Young following receipt of the report.

Notes on the transcription

In the transcription shown in this online exhibition, the text has not been edited in any way and replicates Young’s spelling and punctuation throughout. For example, Young uses the spellings ‘Tabago’ and ‘Tobago’ interchangeably.


We would like to thank and acknowledge the assistance of Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s, in the transcription.

In this exhibition

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