Scots in South America and Venezuela’s lost constitution


“My Hamilton ancestor bought in the Clyde the first steamboats to be used in South America”


This letter was inspired by the article Rosehall links with slavery which appeared in the Winter 2020-2021 edition of the Kyle Chronicle.

A mutual friend always lets me see his copy of the Kyle Chronicle as he knows of my connection with the area. My great grandfather Alexander Macdonald who died in 1885 is buried in the cemetery at Lairg near his home at Dalchork farm. He was a cleared crofter who made good as a farmer, eventually having four farms including Cyderhall near Dornoch, one near Thurso and one at Mudale.

I was brought up in Morayshire where my father was the Sheriff and until 4 years ago I lived for nearly 30 years on the Black Isle and so know Easter Ross pretty well. It was therefore fascinating to read in the last edition of the Kyle Chronicle the article about sugar estates in Guiana set up by Ross-shire families and all named after Easter Ross estates which I know well such as Novar.

The economy of Scotland was in a poor way in the 18th and early 19th centuries with many harvest failures and appalling winters. Not surprisingly, younger sons in particular sought their fortunes in the New World. Some of my Macdonald relations went to Virginia. Grierson ancestors were cotton farmers in Alabama (one married a Red Indian princess of the Cree tribe) and my Hamilton great great grandfather in 1817 sailed to Guyana in Venezuela which borders on what was British Guiana. He was not a sugar farmer. Instead he had a huge estancia with over 90,000 head of cattle and for 20 years was the main supplier of beef to the Caribbean islands. This huge area of land was granted to him by General Simon Bolívar who liberated South America from the repressive Spanish monarchy. Bolívar also made Hamilton a colonel in his army in appreciation of his services ferrying the revolutionaries up and down the vast river Orinoco. The ferry used two steam paddle boats which Hamilton had bought for the task in the Clyde and were the first steamboats to be used in South America.

Simón Bolívar. Oil portrait by Ricardo Acevedo Bernal (1867-1930). © Public domain

Back in 1974 my wife and I went to Venezuela as guest of the government. Hamilton had been given the only original copy of a new democratic constitution for Columbia and Venezuela which Bolivar drafted and launched in 1819 at the Congress of Angostura in Guyana. The idea was that Hamilton would translate it into English and send it to his posh friends in London in the hope that the British government would support the revolutionaries. He did what was asked but failed to return the constitution document. Over 150 years later, I found it by chance in the attics of my house and was persuaded it should be returned. The President of Venezuela sent a plane and in 1974 at a jolly ceremony on the banks of the Orinoco with brass band playing, the document was handed over. It now lies safely in the Archives of the Liberator in Caracas.

We later toured the battlefields in Venezuela and were shown a fine memorial to all the revolutionaries who had died at the major victorious battle at Carabobo. To our surprise, the vast majority of the dead were Scots soldiers who after Waterloo had gone to South America to seek their fortunes and with luck find the treasure of Eldorado. Many were poor Highlanders whose luck had run out but their enterprise was typical of the Scots in those days. Hence too the line of sugar plantations in Guiana set up by families from Easter Ross so long ago.

Unfortunately as is the way with Venezuela, we never recovered the huge estancia. Hamilton died of yellow fever, his eldest son was assassinated, all the cattle mysteriously vanished and my great grandfather inherited nothing. Things in Venezuela today sadly have got no better.

by Philip Hamilton-Grierson, Marlborough

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