My maternal grandmother was the story teller of our family. Her grandchildren assembled around her dining table every Saturday to hear her stories of nineteenth century characters, living lives far more exciting than our existence as early ‘baby-boomers’, growing up on the suburban fringes of post-war Sydney. Only one story was documented, the story of Maria Isabella Flockton, née Cruikshank, my grandmother’s great-grandmother. Just before Maria died in 1896 she wrote a Statement, which today we’d call a brief memoir. In part, Maria said she was born on the Island of St Vincent in 1810, was brought to Hammersmith near London as a baby, and was raised in England by family friends after her parents’ early deaths on St Vincent. When she reached her majority she inherited two plantations on St Vincent, ‘Mesopotamia’ and ‘Cummacrabou’. Her exotic story stirred my childhood imagination.
Five decades went by before Maria re-entered my life with a vengeance. Bitten by the bug of family history, I endeavoured to discover all of my mother’s direct forebears, placing a name in every box to create six-generation family tree for her. Amazingly, I succeeded in that task, but that is another story. Having all those names, dates and places created an immense challenge for me in deciding which was the most unusual of my direct forebears, but I kept coming back to Maria. There she was, sitting at the bottom of Mum’s pedigree chart. Thanks to Maria’s Statement, I hadn’t had to work hard at finding her, but why was she born on St Vincent?
The whole notion of that small island in the Caribbean was romantic. James Michener had found it so, proved by his best-selling book Caribbean. I was intrigued by the notion that Maria was a sugar heiress, with a fortune built on the ownership of slaves. The less said about that, the better. By Australian standards, she definitely qualified as an unusual forebear. Following her story led me to an even more unusual forebear, her grandfather Dr George Young.
Doctors might be regarded as run-of-the-mill ancestors, but George was different. To me he epitomizes everything that was romantic about the eighteenth century’s age of enlightenment and the growth of empire. As the first director of the oldest botanical garden in the Western Hemisphere, he had links to Sir Joseph Banks, and to William Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and NSW ‘Rum Rebellion’ fame. Discovering our family’s link to Dr Young via Maria was exciting.
On a trip to visit my daughter in London, I located Maria’s baptism record, listing her parents as ‘James and Sarah Cruikshanks of the Island of St Vincent’. The early parish records for the Caribbean have suffered from the effects of a tropical climate, but back in Australia I did manage to find a marriage on St Vincent in 1808 for James Cruikshank, merchant, and Sarah Young. There was also a christening at St George’s Kingstown on 30 April 1772 for Sarah Young, daughter of Dr Young, doctor, and her older brother William, christened on St Vincent on 1 May 1771 as a son of Dr Young. Was this ‘my’Sarah and, if so, who was Dr Young? So few British settlers were on St Vincent at that time that Dr Young’s identity quickly surfaced, via the wonders of Google. To my surprise, much had been written about his work, and fortunately his year of death was given, 1803.
I ordered his will from England and it connected him definitively to Maria by mentioning the names of his two estates on St Vincent, the same as in her Statement. His will named his wife as Sarah and, given his emphasis on legal heirs, George and Sarah must have been married although no record of marriage has surfaced. His will also named three children, George, William and Sarah, but no baptism has been found for George Jnr. Possibly the marriage and the birth of his eldest child took place on another Caribbean island, during Young’s travels to collect plants.
By now Dr George Young had me well and truly intrigued. The potted histories found via Google describing him as an army surgeon and keen horticulturalist left many gaps. For example, had he attended university? An email to Scotland eventually obtained a result and, aided by army records, my opening paragraph of his story now contained new information about him:
Britain’s Seven Years’ War against the French commenced in 1756, soon after George Young graduated as a Master of Arts from the University of Glasgow in 1754. His education proves that his family had money but his name is a‘common’ one and his origins remain unclear, except that he was born around 1726. He commenced duty with the British Army’s 48th Regiment of Foot as an Apothecary's Mate on 22 July 1758. The Regiment had long been in America but in July 1758 was engaged in the renowned siege of Louisbourg (now Nova Scotia, Canada), suggesting that Young lived here in 1758. The Regiment then participated in the capture of Quebec in 1759. In 1762, now as Surgeon to the Regiment, George Young was part of Lord Albemarle's Expedition to Havana, on the Caribbean island of Cuba. The War ended in 1763 and on 2 February 1764 Young was granted MD status by his alma mater, seemingly based on his impressive practical experience in the field of battle.
His known appointment to the Garrison of St Vincent as Surgeon at its military hospital was now factually dated to 27 February 1764. The island, newly ceded to Britain, had formerly been the home of French plantation settlers, a small native population of ‘Yellow Carib’ Indians and a large group of ‘Black Caribs’, descended from shipwrecked and escapee African slaves. A colonial official present on St Vincent in 1763, Sir William Young, was a possible kinsman.
Compiling the next part of George’s story was made easier by the astonishing number of books written about the botanic garden at St Vincent. It is famous for being the first such garden in the western hemisphere, and famous as the place where the breadfruit tree was brought from the Pacific to the West Indies in January 1793 by William Bligh, of mutiny on the Bounty fame. Days and weeks spent reading books at the State Library of Victoria and reading digitized copies of old books on the internet turned up the following snippets relevant to George Young’s career:
In 1765 Governor Robert Melville visited St Vincent. Melville was a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in London [the Society], a group recently joined by the botanist Joseph Banks. George Young appreciated Melville as 'a lover of botany and a man disposed to encourage every undertaking that may tend to public utility'. Melville and Young discussed the Society’s offer, to anyone interested in establishing a botanic garden in the North American colonies, of a 'premium' [reward] for articles raised in those gardens which would benefit the trade and commerce of Britain.
Recognizing Young’s skill and perseverance, Melville promised to procure a plot of land for a garden at St Vincent, provided Young would take care of it. The garden had high strategic priority, facilitating the economic development of Britain’s overseas possessions by allowing experiments in acclimatization of basic foodstuffs and medicinal plants to be undertaken in the tropics.
Young wrote: 'For the first two or three years, little else was done but clearing and fencing in the ground’. He then attempted to procure and grow the plants of specific interest to the Society but, unfortunately, the tyranny of distance meant that his successes usually came after the Society’s deadlines, and he missed out on the prizes. But by 1772 he had collected and planted a diverse and commercially productive garden. He had created a place of scientific importance, and remarkable beauty, revealing his aesthetic discernment.
The breadfruit project was set in motion in 1772, while Young was still in charge of the garden. Valentine Morris, Melville’s successor, wrote on the subject to Banks, recently returned from his famous voyages of discovery with James Cook. Young’s work was certainly known to Banks and they probably met towards the end of 1772, when Young visited London and reported on his impressive progress. Young informed the Society that Melville met all the expenses of the garden during his term as Governor, but after that it was chiefly Young who paid the bills. Young sought the Society’s help in maintaining and properly supporting the garden: 'If it is not obtained, I am afraid, it will fall to the ground, after all that has been done. For it is a great chance, whether the surgeon, who may succeed, will have any taste for botany; or whether he will forego his practice among planters and their negroes, to take care of it.'
At this point I requested, and was fortunate to receive by post from the Society in London, copies of the minutes of various meetings of the Society and the Board of Colonies and Trade. These showed that George was unaware that he had been elected as a corresponding Member of the Society and was therefore ineligible for pecuniary awards. After much discussion, it was decided to award George Young the Society’s highest form of recognition, a gold medal, rather than his hoped-for bounty of fifty guineas. Disappointed, Young quickly returned to St Vincent, from where he wrote a letter declining the honour of being a corresponding Member of the Society. Having sacrificed his own financial position for almost a decade for the public good, with no future prospect of the burden being lifted, in 1774 he relinquished his role as director of the garden.
Young now devoted himself to medicine, and to managing his 'Mesopotamia' and 'Cummacrabou' plantations, acquired around 1777. However his old passion simmered and he exchanged plants with another keen botanist, General de Bouill, Commander of the French forces in Martinique.
While the British were diverted by the American War of Independence, the French pounced, and Dr George Young was a member of the Council of St Vincent when it capitulated to the French in June 1779. British forces retreated to nearby St Lucia, where Young was on the army payroll as Physician. Local farmers on St Vincent began encroaching on the garden, growing cotton and tobacco. A hurricane in October 1780 wreaked further destruction on Young’s creation.
When the war ended the ageing Young returned to St Vincent on half pay. In 1784 Joseph Banks approved Young’s recommendation that Alexander Anderson, formerly his assistant surgeon on St Lucia, become the garden’s new director. Anderson was made responsible for its restoration and, unlike Young, was given full financial backing from the British government. Anderson’s heritage from Young was at least 348 different kinds of plants but, as an excellent networker, Anderson eventually attracted for himself nearly all the credit for the success of the garden. Both men were friends, however, and would have shared the excitement when Bligh’s ship arrived with the breadfruit seedlings in 1793.
George Young suffered minor damage to his plantations during a vicious rebellion against the British in 1795-96. He is next found in retirement at Hammersmith, near the treasured plants he’d sent from St Vincent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Aged seventy-six, he died there on 11 March 1803, his age indicating his intelligence and lifestyle choices, since most Europeans living in the Caribbean succumbed early to the excesses of alcohol and tropical diseases. His wife Sarah died at Hammersmith in 1814.
Their granddaughter Maria eventually became the sole heir to George Young's plantations and slave workforce. Years later, Maria's granddaughter Margaret Flockton (my g-g-aunt) inherited George's passion. An international award for botanical artists was established in her name in 2004, honouring her work over many years from 1901 at Sydney's Botanic Gardens. George Young's name and achievements should not be forgotten either.