Thomas Browne of Whitby – Loyalist, American Revolution & Gentleman Planter, West Indies
By: Joan Leggett
This article was first printed in the February 2003 issue of Practical Family History, a publication of Family Tree Magazine (UK), and appears here by permission.
Some years ago when I visited the Library of Congress in Washington DC the archivist’s response to my query was: “You’re the third person this week seeking information about Thomas Browne – who was he?” According to The Dictionary of American Biography: “Of all the human characters developed during this abnormal period [American Revolution], none can be named more notorious than Thomas Browne….This period of irregular partisan warfare in the south abounded in atrocities and Browne had the unenviable pre-eminence in this respect.”
Thomas Browne was one of my ancestors, born in 1750 to Margaret Huntrodes and her husband Jonas Brown (Thomas later added the “e” to Brown) and grew up in the family home 19 Grape Lane, Whitby – near to John Walker’s house where the apprenticed (later Captain) James Cook lived 1746-49. Jonas later built on the site “a particularly fine period house of four storeys, typical of the 18th century – remarkable for a stone basement, a superb staircase and at the side, a fine bottle window”. A few years later he built Newton House at Ugglebarnby on the north Yorkshire moors. In 1747 Jonas Brown, mariner, owned two ships, Marlborough and Prince Frederick.
Thomas was probably educated at the well-known Lionel Charlton School in Whitby and by 1773 was already well-travelled, going to the West Indies on his father’s business. In August 1774 he sailed in the Marlborough for America in response to Governor James Wright’s proclamation opening up Georgia’s newly Ceded Lands for settlement.
The ship sailed from Whitby with 21 men, women and children and collected 39 passengers from Caithness and the Orkney Islands; their occupations included Innkeeper, Bookbinder, Linen Weaver, Gardener, Blacksmith, Carpenter and a Spinster. Anyone unable to pay for transportation was contracted as a covenant servant for 3 years, given food, lodging and clothing; single men were allotted 15 acres of arable land, house, corn, cattle and farming tools and supported until crops were raised. Married men got an additional 10 acres for a wife and 5 for each child over 1 year. After 5 years, each would pay Browne one shilling per acre for 5 years and thereafter 2 shillings per acre. Browne’s settlement near Augusta was named “Brownsborough”.
Unrest in the back-country had already begun and the first shots of the revolution were fired in April 1775. Browne, though considered a leading citizen, irritated the locals by refusing to recognise the authority of the Georgia Provincial Congress and expressing his strong support of the British King in public speeches.
The Liberty Boys called at his house but when he refused to sign the Oath of Allegiance Browne was carried away and “with unparalleled barbarity put to the torture by the revolutionists.” His skull was fractured, he was tarred, feathered and tied to a tree with lightwood candles placed under his feet. Details of this attack, which left him ‘insensible’ for two days before he was rescued, were relayed to his father in a letter dated 10 November 1775.
Tales about Browne’s tenacious fight against American independence are legion and well documented. He began raiding in 1776 and took part in an attack on Fort McIntosh in 1777. The following year he organised a regiment, “the King’s Rangers” and, as their Lieutenant Colonel, was notorious for raids in Georgia. He took part in the successful defence of Savannah and in 1780 occupied Augusta, banishing the Whigs and sequestrating their property.
In 1781 after a stand with his men together with the Florida Rangers, Creeks and Cherokees at Fort Cornwallis, Browne was besieged by Col. Andrew Pickens and Henry ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee (father of Robert E. Lee) by the use of a log tower which overlooked Browne’s defences. His position becoming untenable, negotiations for surrender were begun but Browne’s pride would not permit him to surrender on the King’s birthday – he did so the following day, 5th June 1781.
When the British were banished from America and their property confiscated, Browne went with other Loyalists to East Florida to await deportation. Here he worked tirelessly to make peace between the loyal Creeks and their adversaries, the Spanish. Writing to Lord Frederick North in January 1784 Browne said he felt “most sincerely for our poor, brave, faithful allies.”
Half the Loyalists opted to go to Nova Scotia and about 40 asked for transportation to England. The rest, mostly the King’s Rangers and Browne, went to the Bahamas in 1785 where he settled at Cherokee Sound, Abaco, at that time virtually uninhabited. Grants of land were not received until John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, arrived in 1788 – Browne received 6,290 acres in Abaco and Grand Caicos. He experimented with growing cotton but the soil on Abaco proved unsuitable and he moved with his work force to Grand Caicos.
Despite ill health, bouts of fever and migraine headaches suffered as a result of the blows inflicted by the Liberty Boys, Thomas became active in politics and in 1789 won a seat on the Nassau Assembly. On 3rd October 1789 the Bahamas Gazette announced his marriage at Grand Caicos to Esther Farr, daughter of Master Mariner William Farr and his wife Sarah O’Driscoll – early Bahamian settlers. Thomas and Esther had 5 children.
In 1796 Thomas wrote to his brother in Whitby: “I have been promised Conch pearls from some Spaniards I have employed in Cuba. I have also engaged some of the fishermen to procure me some in this country such as may prove handsome and match with each other for pendants.” But life was not altogether tranquil “…our situation here is not so pleasant from the negligence of our naval people.” Two years later he wrote about the loss of his plantation boat laden with provisions from Rhode Island – the Bahama Gazette of 21st August 1798 stated the attack was made by a French Privateer of 8 or 10 guns.
In March 1802 Thomas advised his brother that he and family would be sailing for England in June “… you will expect to see a very grave, sedate matron-like body, though not yet in a mob [cap] with 4 little ones. Since I have lost my fever and ague – very fat. We hope better able to judge of proper schools for our children. I shall certainly be hard to please in one for Mary and Susan (he addressed her in a letter as “my dear Puss”); I think we cannot be too particular with our girls. Mary is timid – I am afraid she would suffer in health from leaving me.”
The family with “Black Nancy” the housekeeper and her teenaged mulatto son arrived at Liverpool and went to Newton House in Yorkshire, where Thomas erected an obelisk in the grounds in memory of his father who had died in 1799. During their stay a son, George Newton, was born and baptised at Whitby’s St. Mary’s on the Hill where a box pew had been rented for the family.
While in Yorkshire Thomas applied for land in St. Vincent, Windward Islands, in exchange for his Caicos estate – among other reasons, there had been a serious slave revolt in nearby Santo Domingo whose proximity to the Bahamas was worrying him.
St. Vincent has had a turbulent history – violent volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and wars, changing hands several times from French to British until 1783 when it was retaken by the British.
In 1795 there was an uprising by the Caribs, the indigenous people, aided by the French from nearby St. Lucia and Martinique. British regiments, the 40th, 54th, 59th, 63rd, The Buffs, Royal Highlanders, and York Rangers arrived in St. Vincent and distinguished themselves fighting with the locally formed Militia.
After the war the Caribs were banished to a dedicated area of 230 acres in the north of the island but 5,080 who would not agree to abide by British rule were transported on HMS Experiment to Rattan off the Honduras coast. The Carib lands were deemed to have been forfeited and sold by The Crown for 6d per acre. In 1802 5,262 acres were granted to the men of the local Militia “for their courageous fight during the bloody war”; the land was quickly taken up and divided into 8 large sugar estates.
In June 1805 Lord Camden, Colonial Secretary, announced that Thomas Browne had been granted by His Majesty 6,000 acres of the Carib lands. This created uproar among the planters (including some of my Scots ancestors) already settled on these lands. When Sir George Beckwith was appointed Governor in 1806 he posted a notice of Browne’s grant in the Royal St. Vincent Gazette that anyone continuing to occupy the territory granted to Browne would be held in contempt. Browne was sent a petition by the planters (”usurpers and intruders” he called them) asking him to sell the land they were cultivating but he declined, explaining he had a large work force and needed the entire tract of land. From Newton House he wrote letters to anyone who might be of help to him but little more than a quarter of his grant was available to him when he arrived in St. Vincent in 1806. In 1807 Esther Browne died and Thomas accompanied her body to Whitby for burial. He then moved to London, lodging at the Holylands Coffee-house on the Strand.
The Lord Commissioners of the Treasury decided Browne should be granted 2,330 acres of cultivable land including the 1,700 acres he already had; the planters occupying his land could keep 3,670 acres and half the value would be paid to Browne – the other half would be kept by the government, but the new Governor, Sir Charles Brisbane, made no effort to increase Browne’s holdings.
In December 1810 Browne wrote to his son that he would be going back to St. Vincent after an appeal went through the House of Lords about the St. Vincent land case. Around the same time Browne delivered 177 sheets of manuscript of a book he was writing (Strategems of War) to Thomas Steele, scrivener, in Chancery Lane, London.
Governor Brisbane arrived in London insisting on a criminal prosecution of Browne who was summoned to appear on trial for forgery of 2 letters: one said to be written by George Harrison, Secretary to the Treasury and the other by Lord Liverpool to the Governor of St. Vincent. Browne admitted using Steele’s clerks to draw up documents, but denied that the two papers were done at his direction. Browne’s trial began on 22nd February 1812; several prominent people were called to testify to his integrity but Browne was not allowed to testify. The presiding judge, Lord Ellenborough, instructed the jury that the testimony to Browne’s good character could not outweigh the evidence. A verdict of guilty was returned and Browne was sentenced to two years in Newgate Prison.
When Governor Brisbane returned to St. Vincent in 1812 he decided to lay out a town and build a church on 172 acres of Browne’s Grand Sable estate. Browne’s overseers forcibly prevented a survey being made but Brisbane threatened to send troops to take over the estate if necessary. The town was called Georgetown and its church, which still stands, Trinity Church – Rev. T.A.M. Browne, my ancestor and eldest son of Thomas, was Rector there until his death in 1842.
During his imprisonment Browne would have been advised of the violent eruption on 30th April 1812 of the Soufrière volcano which overlooked the estate but he would have received good reports too – the estate was producing sugar, molasses and rum and a tunnel had been cut through Mount Young peninsular to a sheltered bay which made it easier for loading sugar on to ships.
On his release from prison Thomas was heavily in debt, owing £31,943 to John Moss, Liverpool banker (”that scoundrel Moss”) who foreclosed on Newton House. He left for St. Vincent in 1817 with his mother-in-law, three youngest children and “Black Nancy”. His son Thomas was studying for the Priesthood in England and daughter Mary had married Tom Weatherall his overseer. The younger daughter Susan also settled in St. Vincent when she married Alan MacDowall.
A large house was built on the estate in an elevated position giving uninterrupted views over the sugarcane fields to the Atlantic, sited to take advantage of the prevailing winds. In 1822 Thomas wrote to his brother that one more good crop would clear his debts, except for £2,500 owed to one Robinson and £2,000 to various people who had helped him when he was in need.
Thomas Browne’s death on 3rd August 1825 was reported in The Hull Advertiser and Gentleman’s Magazine. He was buried on his Grand Sable estate.
Descendants of Thomas Browne, including my father, were born in St. Vincent but after a terrible flood in 1896 and another volcanic eruption in 1902 most of the family turned their backs on St. Vincent and settled elsewhere: in the case of my own branch, in Trinidad I suspect that Thomas Browne would not be surprised that he and his eventful life are still remembered. I am delighted to count him as one of my more interesting, if controversial, ancestors.
Waddington Papers, Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society
The Streets of Whitby and their Associations, Hugh Kendall
The Complete Book of Emigrants 1700-50 P. W. Coldham
Caribbeana Vol. 1
Five Years Residence in the West Indies, Charles Day 1852
The King’s Ranger – Thomas Brown and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier, Edward J. Cashin, University of Georgia Press, 1989
PRO London – Colonial Office Papers
Private family papers