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Saturday, 27 February 2010


John Halliday, my 6x great uncle, was a very big, very rich fish in a small pool. He was the tax collector in St John’s on the tiny island of Antigua, a British Caribbean sugar colony a very long way from home. There was a lot of money to be made by the little circle of white plantation owners, who lived extremely well on the island with minimal disruption from London

Antigua in 1750
drawn by Eman Bowen 

Some owners chose to be absentee planters, living extremely well in London with minimal involvement in the affairs of their plantations; but they were dependent on their plantation managers, who were not always scrupulously honest in posting the income of the estates to their owners back in Blighty. One friend of Halliday’s, William Mackinnen, had to move to the island in 1773 having never been there at all until 

“his overseer forgot he had any superior, and having occasion for the whole income, had sent his Master no remittances for above two years. He [Mackinnon] found things however in very good order, as this gentleman for his own sake, had taken care of that.” 

Mackinnen owned two plantations. Halliday had seven, a measure perhaps of his success in the post of Customs Collector, which he held from 1739 to 1777. In addition he had married Elizabeth, a daughter of another very successful plantation owner on Antigua, my 6x great grandfather Francis Delap, creating a powerful island dynasty. (By 1829 Delaps Plantation on Antigua was owned by John Halliday’s grandson, Rear Admiral John Delap Halliday Tollemache.)

Cutting the sugar cane on the Delap Estate, 1823
by Wlliam Clark 

John Halliday was lucky. Abundant and rich as life was on Antigua, two things were in short supply: water, and women. There was only one small spring on the island, and what rainwater the owners could collect in large cisterns frequently ran out in periods of drought. In times of peace, water was imported from the neighbouring French island of Guadaloup; in wartime they had to send to Montserrat for it. As for women, the island council once went as far as to petition London to send some.

One remarkable woman visited the island in December 1774, en route not from London but from Burntisland in Fife, bound not for the West Indies but her brother in law in North Carolina. Janet Schaw of Lauriston in Edinburgh kept a diary of her travels which lay virtually unknown outside academic circles until it was finally published in 1921 as the “Journal of a Lady of Quality.” It is a rich, very human account, full of her observations, interests, prejudices and amusements. And it is thanks to her that we have a glimpse of Halliday’s private life beyond his public position.

1921 title page of Janet Schaw's
"Journal of a Lady of Quality" 

Halliday was one of a party of prominent Antiguans of Scottish decent who called on Miss Schaw’s lodgings on the day of her arrival, clamouring for news:

“Here was a whole company of Scotch people, our language, our manners, our circle of friends ans connections, all the same. They had a hundred questions to ask in a breath, and my general acquaintance enabled me to answer them. We were intimates in a moment. … Mr Halliday is from Galloway, extremely genteel in his person and and most agreeable on his manners; he has a very great fortune and lives with elegance and taste. His family resides in England and he lives the life of a batchelor.” 

There is no suggestion that Halliday behaved in any way improperly, although the following morning it was Halliday’s carriage that Miss Schaw and her companions chose from the seven which arrived after breakfast – all sent by their owners to be at the travellers’ disposal. “Mr Halliday’s [wrote Janet Schaw] was drawn by English horses, which is a very needless piece of expense, as they have strong horses from New England, and most beautiful creatures from the Spanish Main.” 

The following Sunday after church they took lunch at one of John Halliday’s grand plantation houses, a meal of such luxurious largesse that it “might figure away in a newspaper had it been given by a Lord Mayor or the first Duke in the kingdom.” They dined on an Antiguan staple – turtle – in two forms. First came soup, made from old turtles, and “remarkably well dressed today.” And there was the shell,

“indeed a noble dish, as it contains all the fine parts of the Turtle baked within its own body; here is the green fat, not the slobbery thing my stomach used to stand at, but firm and more delicate than it is possible to describe.” 

Taste is a relative thing, I suppose. Bear in mind that when Miss Schaw and friends set off again for North Carolina, the first thing the Scottish captain of the ship did was to slaughter one of the live sheep in the hold – that evening they 

“had a Scotch dinner under the Tropick in the middle of the Atlantick. We ate haggis, sheep-head, barley-broth and blood-puddings. As both our Capt and Mate are Scots, tho’ long from home, they swore they had not seen such an excellent inner since they left their native land.”


  1. A fascinating story from a lovely blog! Thank you for posting it - I am glad to have made your acquaintance today and have found such a lovely site.

  2. Hi
    Very interested in this blog article. I am currently researching this family of John HALLIDAY of Kirkcudbright and Antigua for a direct descendant in Canada .He is petitioning the Lord Lyon for matriculation of arms. Would like to make contact.

    Chris Halliday

  3. Hi Chris - good to hear from you. It's an interesting branch of my tree! The related Delaps were also from south western Scotland, I think, although it gets a bit murky - the name is a corruption of Dunlop apparently. I can't recommend The Journal of a Lady of Quality too highly, widely available in facsimile reprints.

  4. Good afternoon,

    I note with interest your link to John Halliday. My ancestor was a John Day, of Antigua (father of Capt. William Day, R.N., Governor of Sierra Leone) and I have recently found in the book Child apprentices in America: from Christ's Hospital, London 1617-1778, by Peter Wilson Coldham, 1990, that a John Day was apprentice to a John Holliday (sic) of Antigua. The dates fit for this to be my John Day and for this to be your John Halliday.

    Do you happen to have any further information on this individual?

    You can contact me at:

    Best regards,

    James R. Yeowell


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