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Fortune hunters in the Caribbean

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Drs James Clark and James Laing

James Clark was a doctor from Aberdeen who went to Dominica in about 1770. He worked there for over 40 years, amassing a fortune and purchasing several coffee and sugar plantations, including a property that still bears his name today – Clark Hall Estate.

During his time in Dominica he kept in contact with the British medical and scientific world and in 1797 he published a treatise on yellow fever. In 1799 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

He had a mistress of 40 years’ standing in Dominica, an African-European woman who was known to everyone as Mary Clark, although Clark never married her. James and Mary had four surviving children. Two daughters, Ann Eliza and Sarah, settled in England; Ann Eliza married a surgeon of Hatton Garden, Mr Sim. Two sons, George and Edward, remained in the Caribbean. George was a millwright in Jamaica and Edward was a clerk in Dominica at the time of their father’s death.

James Clark died in London in 1819. He left Clark Hall Estate to his brother George, who was a merchant in Rotterdam. He left other landed property in Dominica and considerable wealth to Mary and his four children.

One of James Clark’s closest friends and colleagues was James Laing of Haddo and Auchleuchries. He was another doctor and long-term resident of Dominica, but unlike Clark he had a conventional marriage with a Scottish woman. He had three sons, two of whom joined the Indian Civil Service and one of whom became a lawyer and magistrate in London. He purchased several plantations in Dominica, including the Macoucherie Estate, which still produces rum under that label today. James Laing retired as a very wealthy man to Streatham Hill in Surrey, where he died in 1831. A trace of him remains in his homeland, however, in the form of a curious 61-minute clock on the tower of the parish church in Crimond. The clock originally belonged to Laing’s estate at Haddo, but he donated it to Crimond when the new church was built in 1812.

A European overseer inspects the work in a rum distillery in Antigua.
(© The British Library Board)