Two public-spirited men who were doing business in Port of Spain in the middle of the last century have left behind monuments that are now so much a part of the cityscape as to be almost invisible. One is the Columbus statue and fountain on the eastern extremity of Independence Square, erected by Chevalier Hippolite Borde, and the other is the fountain in Woodford Square, designed with mermaids and topped by a gorgeous marine Venus, which has been presented to the City of Port of Spain by Gregor Turnbull Esq.
Gregor Turnbull’s story forms a part of the history of Furness Trinidad Ltd., one of those venerable and well bespoke firms of which our city, in truth our country, can be very proud.
Turnbull was an adventurous young Scot who in the period after the battle of Trafalgar and the end of the Napoleonic wars (1813) when the oceans of the world had been made safe, ventured forth to seek fortune and fame.
Fate brought him to Trinidad in 1831, when he was just 22 years old. He took up a position as clerk in a local firm, George Reid & Co., and was the sort of man who, having made a fortune some forty years on, could present to the ‘Colonial Chest’ the sum of £1,359 out of his contract for the shipping of Indian indentured immigrants to Trinidad, as well as donate that handsome water fountain that distinguishes the city centre.
This is Gregor Turnbull’s story:
In 1834, the year emancipation was declared, Gregor Turnbull was a knowledgable expert in the field of plantation management and sugar production. After about four years as an employee with George Reid & Co., Turnbull returned to Glasgow, Scotland and established himself as a merchant there. It is there that he laid the foundations of his ship ownership later on.
His returns from his estates in Naparima, St. Helena and Santa Margarita, Turnbull bought the estate and factory at Brechin Castle. His businesses and estates in Trinidad and Scotland slowly prospered. All supplies and equipment he needed in Trinidad were shipped by his own vessels from Great Britain. On the way back, the Turnbull ships were loaded with sugar to be taken to the Greenock refineries.
Turnbull’s merchant fleet was not exclusively bound for the West Indies. Documents show that the ‘Tamana’, for example, made a voyage from Clyde to New Zealand and returned to London in 1845.
These were also the years that indentured labourers started to be brought from India to Trinidad and also to Guyana. Turnbull played a major part in both their transportation and their employment on the plantations.
In Port of Spain, the firm to execute Turnbull’s business was Turnbull, Stewart & Co. In San Fernando, it was Turnbull, Ross & Co. that saw about the supplying of the estates. Both firms were established before 1845 and linked with a fleet of small sailing vessels that connected them across the Gulf of Paria. The four main functions of the businesses were to receive and dispatch goods from Turnbull’s international sailing ships, to distribute imported merchandise to the various estates and business houses, to export sugar and to organise the disembarking immigrants.
Turnbull’s companies also operated local coastal shipping services. One line went down the islands, and the other across the Gulf of Paria to Cedros.
In April of 1879, Gregor Turnbull died. He had spent most of his life in Glasgow, Scotland, while his commercial interests had been predominantly Trinidadian plantations and factories. His several companies covered everything in sugar production - planting, harvesting, raw refining, transportation to England, selling to merchants. His role in the foundations of the Trinidad economy looms large. The ‘Port-of-Spain Gazette’ wrote in his obituary:
“For him it may be said that he never took up a single property, either as purchaser, mortgagee or supplier, which was not immediately beneficiary to by the connection. Bold but prudent, Mr. Turnbull never entered into any business in a half-hearted way; what he took up, he carried through. A determined man himself, he had the rare virtue of inspiring others with similar determination.
And we question much, if the greater part of Mr. Turnbull’s success in life may not be traced to that greatest factor in all success - determination of character.”
So, when next you walk past the fountain in Woodford Square, it would be worth a while consideration to speculate on the vast quantity of our population whose ancestors arrived on these shores after stepping off one of Gregor Turnbull’s ships.