In 1637 John Gedney, a Norwich weaver had sailed from Yarmouth, Norfolk to New England
on the Mary Ann with his wife and three children. After his wife’s death he married
a wealthy widow, Callie Clarke and acquired a tavern and small farm on the border
of the townships of Salem and Lynn. The family grew rich through trading, shipbuilding
In 1733 John Gedney‘s great-grandson, Gedney Clarke migrated from New England to
Barbados. He was aged 22. He forged links with international trading networks that
took in London, New England, Virginia, Barbados, Lisbon and Bilbao. By the 1740s
he was one of Bridgetown’s leading merchants. He moved into land, acquiring huge
tracts of land in Virginia as well as in Barbados, Dutch Guiana and Demerara. He
was now in close partnership with Henry Lascelles. Lascelles & Maxwell were Gedney
Clarke’s London bankers.
Gedney Clarke illicitly sold slaves in the Dutch colonies and even smuggled slaves
into New York making use of the coves and inlets of Long Island where the family
owned 200 acres. He supplied slaves to Henry Laurens of Charleston in exchange for
deer to grace the Gedney Clarke lawns in Barbados.
In 1748 he succeeded Edward Lascelles as customs collector for Bridgetown. This
position stayed in the family for the next 30 years despite allegations of bribery
and other misconduct. His home at Belle Plantation was famously welcoming of military
and colonial officials. He wined and dined and went into partnership with naval
officers in order to prosecute the slave trade and profit from victualing and privateering.
Clarke took prize cargoes in partnership with Edward Lascelles and Admiral Frankland.
In September 1751 George Washington, future first president of the United States,
accompanied his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Lawrence suffered from tuberculosis
and hoped for a cure in the warm island weather. They arrived six weeks later and
19 year old George kept a diary of his seven weeks visit. They were invited to stay
with Gedney Clarke (related though Lawrence’s wife Anne) and Clarke did own 3,000
acres in Virginia at Goose Creek. At the time of the visit Clarke’s wife had smallpox
and George was not immune so it was not sensible to stay with the Clarkes but they
did "with some reluctance" accept the invitation to dinner on November
4th. He did contract smallpox but survived.
In 1755 Clarke’s son, Gedney Clarke Jr. was sent to Amsterdam to learn Dutch and
become naturalized so that restrictions on the Clarke’s property ownership in the
Dutch South American colonies could be avoided. He was 20 years old. In 1762 he
married Frances Lascelles, daughter of Henry’s half-brother Edward, cementing the
close business relationship between the two families.
In the mid 1700s The Society for Propagation of the Gospel Overseas lost a fortune
through business dealings with spectacular bankrupt Gedney Clarke.