General Duff Case Study: Madeira


Lying off the coast of Africa and under Portuguese rule (a longstanding ally of Britain), Madeira was in an ideal position for ships heading either to the Americas or Asia. It offered opportunities for taking on fresh water and produce. It also lay at the centre of networks of commodity trading.  – Madeira, exported wine to British possessions in both North America and the Caribbean.[1] By the same token, local merchants, many of Scottish origin, drew in timber, cereals and dried fish from the Baltic. One of these merchants was James Gordon, Patrick’s uncle. Beginning with a partnership in 1730, James built up a thriving trade in Madeira wine, trading principally with Scottish contacts in the Caribbean. His success may have owed something to his commitment to Roman Catholicism, a handicap in Scotland but a possible source of advantage on the island. His brother, Alexander, fought at Culloden and was forced into exile after defeat there.  Over time, James returned to Britain to run the London office while first Alexander and then their nephew, James (Patrick’s younger brother) looked after the house’s interests in Madeira.

A key part of such operations was providing hospitality to European visitors. In return, they hoped for business for their wine. In 1776 James Duff wrote from Madeira to the factor for the Duke of Gordon, reporting on the recent visit of John Duncan from Findlater to the island. He had been intending to continue on to India where he would source porcelain for the Duke, but he had decided to alter his course and head for Jamaica. James was keen to offer the services of Patrick, relatively recently departed for India, to order porcelain into Bengal and forward it to the Duke from there. The correspondence does not indicate whether this offer was taken up, although the Duke became a customer for wine.[2]

This expansion of the customer base came at a good time, for existing business was badly disrupted by the American War of Independence. Not only did this close American markets, but it laid the rest of the house’s Atlantic trade open to the depredations of American privateers. This is where Patrick’s presence in Bengal was of immense value, for he was able to use his contacts to open up a new trade in Madeira to Bengal. Together with the spoils of war and profits made from contracting to the East India Company army, this enhanced Patrick’s fortune and led him to think of investing in a Scottish estate for his eventual return.[3]

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[1] Hancock, Oceans of Wine pp. 107-132.

[2] National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, Duke of Gordon muniments, GD44/43/160/5, James Duff, Madeira to James Ross, Gordon Castle 18 April 1776

[3] Grant and Mutch, ‘Indian Wealth’.