Book Review: In My Right Place, the Life and Times of Joseph Clouston, Gold Coast Merchant and Harray Laird

‘In My Right Place, the Life and Times of Joseph Clouston, Gold Coast Merchant and Harray Laird’, by Virginia Schroder, is an intriguing window into the very particular world of one man, his family and friends  and their mixed fortunes towards the second half of the nineteenth century.

 The story tells of their varied  lives and fortunes from loss at sea, to Medical Superintendent of an asylum  and Joseph’s own journey to the ‘White Man’s Grave’ of West Africa where fortunes in gold were to be made if you survived.

The narrative which  is cleverly  and engagingly stitched together from letters and other documented accounts, enables us to follow Joseph and his family through their lives, their struggles  and joys. The story of this Orkney family  is further enhanced using the contemporary accounts of others living at the time which reflect colour and add depth to  our ability to see these characters in the round.  It makes for a thoroughly fascinating read bringing the historical lives of  people and the places, Orkney, Edinburgh, London and West Africa, sensitively and colourfully into the present where you feel you might almost catch their shadow as you walk past Clouston’s pier or gaze up towards Winksetter.

Joseph Clouston was born in Stromness on the pier that bears the family name before the family relocated to Nisthouse in Harray. His father had failed in business, so as the eldest son of a debtor owing substantial amounts of money, he found himself setting forth after a short clerk’s training  to try and right the poor financial state of his father and mitigate the negative reputation that, in a small community, inevitably enveloped  him.  

As a 19 year old  in 1835, he began his journey  into the unknown to the West Coast of Africa, or ‘the Gold Coast’  which had the grim title of the ‘White Man’s Grave.’

Joseph’s initial sea journey from Orkney into the heart of London, reflects his moments of insecurity but also awe at this unknown world opening up. In London he secured a position as a trader with the  leading  merchant house of the time  Foster & Smith.

The company operated as a commission house and supplied goods and traders to West Africa. They extended credit to their traders who in turn supplied goods deemed desirable  to Africans including guns, gunpowder and  spirits  in exchange for teak, hides, rubber ivory and of course gold dust. The profits to be made trading to Africans especially for guns and gun powder were massive and a network of traders both European and African navigated a complex cultural and power web to effectively transform the currency of the cowrie shell into riches for white Europeans. Humans too were part of that currency exchange.

Despite the formal abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807 the links to slavery and its continued operation elsewhere did not stop. Other countries continued the practice and attempts to hide illegal slave operations were sophisticated. The lucrative shipping triangle that saw goods leave European destinations, sail to West Africa to pick up ‘cargo’ for America the West Indies and Brazil and  return to their European ports with the products of slavery such as  tobacco, sugar and cotton may be infamous now but enmeshed many at the time including  eager participation in all parts of Britain including Scotland and Orkney.  Those Orcadians who were slave owners are identified by the book and described in historian Hossack’s words, as ‘enterprising planters and of course slave-holders’.

By 1833 and some time before Joseph reached West Africa,  slavery itself was abolished  however there still existed a murky relationship with the former trade as slavery was part of the social and economic structure of the indigenous African population and the complexity of relationships surrounding slave owning within the African context is described by Schroeder although Joseph Clouston’s  views on the practice are unclear. He was however conversant with the local customs and practices and learned the local indigenous language. He eventually became Acting Judicial Assessor and adjudicated on the rights and wrongs of the misdemeanours of the local population around the fort.

 On the Gold Coast the part that women played as ‘country wives’ to Europeans is illuminating. The ‘country wife’ or marriage formal or informal to local women was accepted practice with some Europeans providing for and educating the children of these relationships.  Women used this status to their benefit. However the ‘country wife’ entanglement was to raise its head for Joseph himself in later years not in Africa but closer to home in Orkney.

The illness and death of Europeans  from the ‘seasoning’ that beset so many of them left Joseph as a man of uncommon longevity  on the Gold Coast, trying as they did to combat malaria and other sicknesses with powder of lead and quinine. Pre- colonisation there was an accommodating co-existence between the trading groups and the ascendant Asante King, but also frequent unrest among rival tribal chiefs which European traders attempted to suppress in order that their trade could continue unhindered.

The traders themselves feuded with each other and the atmosphere seems to be one of prolonged boredom, often illness and much heavy drinking and absence of women where dances meant , men taking the female part identified by a white hanky on the shoulder, or the trips into the inhospitable interior carried by hammocks borne by  rum fuelled men as there were no pack animals.

The  rare, all be-it short residence of a  female writer and London socialite of the day  who married  a Keith man , Lieutenant George McLean whose task was to bring order and negotiate a treaty with the Asante,  was a gossip ridden if scandal strewn distraction to the normal pattern of life. Cape Coast Castle where both are buried  is now a UNESCO world heritage site and centre for ‘slavery tourism’.

This account is made up or real people’s human lives, and encompasses all the traits of human frailty, greed, dishonesty, mental ill health, ambition, resignation and personal loss.  Although Joseph is the catalyst for the tale, the lives that weave in and out of his are equally illuminating, the loss of his siblings, the fleeting communications from a hurried seemingly ungrateful  and subsidised brother at medical school, the stoicism of the women in a society where they were powerless and at the judging behest of the church or the charity of others  and down through the years the childhood voice still rings out the universal hope and innocence of an eight year old in her letter home from boarding at school in Stromness, as she describes  excitedly the simple goings on of her days.

The fortunes of these real people twinkle through the centuries to us in a remarkable  historical feat of research and story-telling  sprinkled with descriptions of their farming ways, the best clothes to wear in a hot climate, the plant dyes of the African women the completion of a drystone dyke or purchase of a lace collar .

As we who live in Orkney now, walk the same streets they did, or look out over the Harray loch to the farmland beyond, hearing the same birds, feeling the wind, this unique and valuable  account gives us a rare chance to step into the shoes of those long gone and walk their road with them.

This work is a significant and important addition to the historical Orkney bookshelf.

It is published by Mirbister Press Price £15.00

Fiona MacInnes