Nick Dall is the co-author of Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa, from the VOC to the ANC.
In Canada, the name Yonge is held in high esteem. It’s the name bestowed on the country’s longest street, which was partly built over the Carrying Place Trail, an important pathway for Indigenous peoples. Yonge Street was so designated in 1793, when Upper Canada’s first colonial administrator, John Graves Simcoe, decided he wanted to honour his friend and British parliamentarian Sir George Yonge’s interest and expertise in ancient Roman roads; today, the latter’s most enduring legacy cuts a wide path through and north of the city of Toronto, even though the man himself never so much as set foot on this side of the Atlantic.
In South Africa, though – where Yonge was once the governor of a major colony – he has been cast into the dustbin of history for, in the words of South African historiographer George McCall Theal, “representing incompetence, ignorance, and the very worst impulses of colonial British aristocracy.”
Yonge was born into privilege. He graduated from Eton College, as was the norm for British boys of a certain class, then studied at Leipzig University. When his politician father died, Yonge took over his title and estate, then proceeded to serve in his father’s riding as an MP for a total of 40 years.
But the high-living baronet was not very popular among his constituents, so he had to spend a lot of money on his election campaigns; that, combined with a big, bad bet on a doomed wool factory, sparked his lifelong relationship with creditors. He consistently found ways to dodge them, however, thanks in part to his good fortune in securing largely ceremonial but always lucrative side hustles, including stints as secretary of the embassy of Turin, vice-treasurer of Ireland, lord commissioner of the Admiralty and Britain’s secretary at war.
In 1794, British prime minister William Pitt the Younger decided that, given the turmoil in Europe, he needed a more competent war adviser, so he shuffled Yonge off to be the master of the mint; Pitt sold him on the position by offering “an equivalent in point of income” (the princely salary of £3,000 a year, about $700,000 in today’s dollars). But barely a year after landing a job that quite literally entailed printing money, Yonge again found himself hiding from his creditors and unable to leave “the precincts of the palace for fear of being arrested.”
In 1799, the position of governor of the Cape Colony – which today is part of South Africa but was then a colony established by the Dutch East India Co. in 1652 and conquered by Britain more than a century later – became available. Pitt offered the job to Yonge, and despite a “reluctance insuperable almost to quit my present situation,” he accepted – but only when he learned it came with a salary of more than £4,000 a year.
And so it was here that, despite having “never displayed ability of a high order” at his previous jobs, Yonge proved himself to be “decidedly the most incompetent man who has ever been at the head of affairs in the colony, though he possessed an amazing amount of self-assurance and pertinacity,” according to Theal.
Yonge turned the locals against him almost immediately. Within weeks of his arrival, he closed off Cape Town’s main park with a wall that emptied the fledgling outpost’s treasury. According to Lady Anne Barnard, the feisty and well-connected Cape Town resident whose letters to friends in high places would eventually lead to Yonge’s downfall, “had he torn the Magna Carta of the Cape into a thousand tatters he could not have put the Dutch into such an alarm.”
After splashing some more cash on opulent refurbishments to the governor’s residence – “Moroccan leather” featured heavily – he cemented his reputation among the Cape’s residents by levying a charge of £10 a year on every public billiard table, requiring citizens to pay £1 a year for the right to hunt and, perhaps most heinously of all, doubling the government tax on brandy.
He then proceeded to dole out farms, military commissions and other sinecures to his friends and family. His decision to establish a “winetaster’s office” and then give this plum job to his “relative and private secretary Mr. Blake” was, in Theal’s eyes, an especially “grievous, oppressive, and vexatious measure.”
While there is some humour in Yonge’s flailing and fumbling – Barnard nicknamed him the “Lofty Twaddler,” in reference to his misplaced superiority complex and the foolish drivel he constantly spouted – his self-interested attitude toward slavery was downright despicable. By 1800, thanks to the pioneering activism of William Wilberforce, British public opinion had turned against slavery, and colonial governors were instructed to keep the importation of slaves to a minimum. But Yonge ignored that recommendation, teaming up with a chap called Michael Hogan to exploit a loophole whereby any slaves found aboard vessels captured in combat were considered “fair prize” and could be sold.
Within weeks of Yonge’s arrival at the Cape, Hogan’s aptly named boat Collector docked with a cargo of 164 slaves. Hogan swore they had been captured from “a prize brig run ashore and burnt.” He might well have been believed – if it were not for officers from a Danish ship, arriving from Mozambique at the same time, who told officials they had seen those 164 people captured on Mozambican soil.
Over the governor’s protestations, a commission of inquiry was set up. At first, writes Theal, the Collector crew “presented a confusing equipoise of evidence,” but eventually one of the officers “testified that two logbooks had been kept during the boat’s voyage.” Once the true logbook was found, “the Defence was given up.” The commission found that Yonge and Hogan had brought about 600 slaves into the colony illegally. It was alleged that Hogan had paid a hefty bribe to Yonge to turn a blind eye to the operation, although this was never definitively proved.
While the commission’s findings were clearly damaging to Yonge, Barnard’s recounting of the dodgy slave dealings seems to have had more to do with the Lofty Twaddler’s downfall than any official correspondence. She wrote about the fiasco to Lord Henry Dundas and Marquess Wellesley, who separately told King George III that Yonge had to go.
Dundas – Pitt’s trusted political lieutenant and the namesake of another main Toronto artery – had already savaged Yonge in a letter to the king just 10 months into his governorship. “His conduct … has in such a variety of particulars been so wild and extravagant as to render it impossible to continue him in that government without exposing this country to the imputation of being indifferent to the concerns of that most important settlement,” he wrote.
The sluggish pace of transcontinental communications 200 years ago meant that almost a full year passed before Yonge learned his fate. While the news was “a subject of universal gratulation to every inhabitant of the colony,” Yonge did not take it nearly as well. “He is so conceited of his own abilities that nothing was farther from his expectation than being blamed for anything,” Barnard wrote.
To rub salt into his wounds, Yonge’s request for a man-of-war to convey him to England was refused; he was forced to hitch a ride on a private ship bound for St. Helena. Once there, he had to wait another four months for a lift to England. Finally home, he bombarded the King with “claims for compensation and reward for his services,” which were summarily rejected. The King himself noted that while “he had not been surprised at Yonge’s recall … he certainly had been when he heard of his appointment!”
In 1802, Yonge tried to regain the parliamentary seat he’d occupied before his African sojourn. But this hope went, quite literally, up in flames: He was “spat on and his wig was set on fire [while trying] to administer the bribery oath,” Theal wrote.
The Lofty Twaddler died, indebted and without an heir, in 1812, but his name lives on in Toronto, more than 5,000 kilometres from his family crypt. But perhaps what is even more baffling is that one of the city’s major corners sits at the intersection of Yonge and Dundas Streets – an ironic memorial to the relationship between Yonge and the man who finally had him fired for his lifetime of incompetence.
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