Monthly Archives: September 2011

Black, White and In Between – Categories of Colour

The Kneeling Slave – ‘Am I not a Man & a Brother’ (oil on canvas) English School (18th century)

© Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright


It is only a generation since the ending of apartheid, and not much longer since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus that December day in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. In my lifetime rental properties in the UK displayed signs saying “No Irish, Blacks or dogs”, and forty years ago I sat with a friend in a rental agency in London as the woman who had just shown us details of several properties turned away a black couple telling them she had nothing on her books. Such is the legacy of slavery and imperialism.

To understand older Jamaican records it can be helpful to know the categories into which people were put for legal and social purposes.

Not all black people, referred to as negroes in old documents, were slaves. Indeed not all white people were free, as a substantial number of indentured servants from Britain sold their labour for a fixed period of years hoping for a better life at the end of it, when if they survived they did become completely free.

There were already free negroes in Jamaica when the British arrived. For example, Peter Moore and Black Betty, free negroes, were married at St Catherine on the 8th November 1677; and Isabella Husee the daughter of Domingo and Maria, free negroes, was baptised at St Catherine on 13th July 1679.

The Spanish conquerors of the island had owned many African slaves whom they freed, or who escaped into the Jamaican interior when the British arrived, becoming the independent and much feared Maroons (probably from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning wild or untamed). There were also still some of the original Arawak or Taino Indians, and occasionally you will come across a reference in the old parish registers to someone as an ‘Indian’. Charles Benoist and Uańah ‘an Indian Woman’ were married in the parish of St Andrew on the 30th May 1675.

Both the church registers and the slave registers categorised people by their colour, but different vicars varied in the extent to which they entered the racial mix of the person being baptised and whether they were illegitimate.  Of course many slaves were not baptised at all and their lives have gone unrecorded unless in slave registers on the plantations they were sold to.

The following explains the categories used throughout the colonial period.

Negro – a black person with two black parents of African origin, but who might have been born in Jamaica and hence might be referred to as a creole.

Creole – any person, whether black, white or mixed race born in a British colony, although over time this has tended to be thought of as referring to someone of mixed race.

Mulatto – a person with one negro and one white parent.

Sambo –  a person with one parent a negro and the other mulatto i.e one quarter white.

Quadroon – the child of a white person and a mulatto i.e. one quarter black, with one grandparent of African origin.

Mustee, Mestee or Octaroon – a person who is one-eighth black i.e. with one black great grandparent.

Mesteefeena – a rarely used term for the child of a white parent and a mestee. One-sixteenth black, they were legally regarded as white and free.

You will often come across references in Wills to legacies left for a white man’s ‘housekeeper’. In the Jamaican context this almost always means a woman living with a man effectively as his wife, but not married to him, and who was the mother of his ‘reputed children’.  In the case of better-off white men, often they lived with a free mulatto or quadroon woman who might have property of her own including slaves. Another time I will tell some of the stories of their children.

In the mid eighteenth century the Jamaican Plantocracy and Merchants became concerned at the amounts of money being left to the non-white offspring of wealthy whites. Consequently in October 1761 they passed an Act of the Assembly “to prevent the inconveniences arising from exorbitant grants and devises made by white persons to negroes, and the issue of negroes, and to restrain and limit such grants and devises”.  This limited the amount that could be inherited by a non-white to £2000. However many white planters wished to leave their wealth to their ‘reputed’ children and consequently took out private Acts in the Jamaican Assembly, which had to be ratified in the London parliament, to enable them to dispose of their property as they wished.

An earlier and more unusual and interesting case is that of Mary Johnston Rose who was ‘housekeeper’ to Dr Rose Fuller and mother of two sons – Thomas Wynter and William Fuller. William was the son of Rose Fuller born on the 28th January 1734/35 and his paternity was acknowledged at his baptism the following April. I suspect Thomas Wynter was the son of Dr William Wynter and born about 1730. I have not yet found a baptism for him but William Wynter left him £50 for mourning in his Will, which left the bulk of his estate to his legitimate son Edward Hampson Wynter.

Mary, who was a free mulatto, applied to have her sons given full legal rights equivalent to white men. In the 1754 census of Spanish Town she is recorded as being legally white and the owner of a house worth £30 a year.

“At the Court of St. James 17.12.1746.  Present the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council.  Whereas the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Island of Jamaica with the Council and Assembly of the said Island did in 1745 pass an Act which hath been transmitted in the words following viz An Act to Intitle Mary Johnston Rose of the Parish of St. Catherines in the said Island, a free mulatto woman and her sons Thomas Wynter and William Fuller begotten by white fathers to the same rights and privileges with English subjects born of white parents.  The Act was confirmed, finally enacted and ratified accordingly.”

There is no mention of William Fuller in his father’s Will and it is likely that he died before him, as Rose Fuller made generous provision for Mary Rose.

Thomas Wynter became a successful and wealthy man, but in spite of his earlier recognition still had to apply for the rights of his (presumably mixed race) illegitimate children William Rose Wynter and Mary Mede.

Thomas Wynter to settle his estate as he shall think fit notwithstanding the Act to “prevent exorbitant grants and devises to Negroes”.

The Act was eventually repealed, but the categorisation of the inhabitants of Jamaica according to their colour and racial mix continued beyond the ending of slavery, made even more complex by the arrival of thousands of Indian ‘coolies’ imported to provide cheap labour after emancipation.

Georgian Flying Machines

Image courtesy of the DeadPubs Directory

While doing some further research about Susanna Hope (see the previous post on a Very Regency Scandal) I came across the following gem:

From the Derby Mercury 1762


Flying Machines from London to Manchester in three days from the Swan with Two Necks in Lad-Lane London and from the Swan with Two Necks in Market-street-Lane Manchester, every Monday and Thursday Mornings at Four o’Clock; and from the GEORGE INN in DERBY every Tuesday and Friday Mornings, at Four o’Clock: each passenger from DERBY to LONDON to pay One Pound Eight Shillings, and to be allowed fourteen pounds Weight of Luggage; all above to pay Two pence per pound.

We seem to have forgotten that stage coaches were once called ‘machines’, although we do still refer to those wheeled vehicles for preserving modesty on England’s beaches as bathing machines.

I reckon that in terms of retail prices this express service cost about twice as much as a first class train ticket does today – well beyond the means of an average worker.

Moreover it appears that charges for excess baggage did not originate with the budget airlines!


A very Regency Scandal

Richard Lee about 1795


Anyone who has been watching Lucy Worsley’s lovely series on BBC Four  Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency will be aware that scandal was never far from the surface among the families making up the top level of society. The affair of Robert Home Gordon and Susanna Hope, the wife of Joseph Biscoe, was a very Regency scandal involving illicit sex, servants peeping through windows, the rights of a man over his wife and child, great wealth and all ending in a much publicized court case.

Typical of many who had acquired their position via the sugar plantations of Jamaica, Robert Home Gordon passed most of his life in Great Britain spending the wealth generated by his estates – Cromwell estate in St Mary and the Home Castle estate in the parish of St Ann.

He had come to England from Jamaica as a small boy, under the guardianship of Robert Cooper Lee, and went to Harrow School together with Richard Lee. There they also met Joseph Biscoe, about four years their senior, whose mother was Lady Mary Seymour daughter of the Duke of Somerset, and whose father Vincent was a partner in the firm of Hilton and Biscoe, Merchants trading with Jamaica.

On 22nd May 1786 Joseph Biscoe married seventeen year old Susanna Harriot Hope at All Saints Church, Derby. [Location corrected as per comments below] Her father was the well respected Rector of All Saints, now Derby Cathedral. The family were friends of the painter Joseph Wright of Derby and a portrait of Susanna painted a few years before her marriage came up for sale at Christie’s in 2009. It’s a pleasant and very conventional picture of a well to do young girl. Wright doesn’t seem to have seen anything in her to suggest she would later cause the kind of scandal that nudged its way into the national press at a time when it was mostly preoccupied with a raft of treason trials.

For the first seven years the Biscoe’s life together seems to have been a happy one,  living in Derbyshire and Mansfield, and a daughter Mary was born the year after their wedding. There were no further children and in October 1793 the couple moved with their daughter to Kent, taking the lease of Shoreham House the following year from Robert Gordon, to whom Joseph had been reintroduced by Richard Lee.

Biscoe, Gordon and Richard Lee all enjoyed country sports, and Robert Gordon and Richard Lee regularly came down from London to go riding or shooting with Joseph Biscoe. Richard Lee never stayed more than a couple of days before going back to his business in London, but Robert Gordon often stayed several weeks at a time and the Biscoes stayed with him in turn at his hunting box in Kent.

It was at this point that Robert Gordon fell head over heels in love with Susanna and she was undoubtedly attracted to him. Had Joseph Biscoe shown any concern, the affair might have ended before it began.  Instead he continued to go out all day shooting, often with Richard Lee but frequently on his own, leaving Robert Gordon alone with his wife. Although Biscoe claimed to be completely unaware of what was going on the servants were not. It had become common for Robert Gordon to sit for hours alone with Susanna, sending her seven year-old daughter out of the room, and only picking up his gun to go out shortly before Biscoe was due back. Several times when the men came in from shooting Robert and Susanna sat up into the small hours, with Biscoe and Richard Lee having gone to bed hours earlier.

On the 21st October 1794 matters came to a head. Joseph Biscoe had gone up to London on business and Susanna rode out accompanied by the Coachman Francis Swindel. When she met up with Robert, Swindel was told to drop back to where he could not hear their conversation. Her maid Margaret Sparks was already suspicious because that morning Susanna had asked her to leave her drawers unlocked, which the maid had not done wanting to know what Susanna took out of them. It was clear to the servants that an elopement was in the offing. When Gordon and Susanna got back in the middle of the afternoon her two brothers were already there, well aware of her impending flight and having been drinking quantities of Biscoe’s wine while they waited. They spent only a short time talking to Robert before leaving again.

The servants then became aware of a scene being played out between Susanna and Robert Gordon. He was pleading with her to elope with him, stamping noisily up and down in the parlour. She was crying that she could not leave her child. He called for some laudanum to calm her, but the servants, with a somewhat melodramatic turn of mind, suspected that he meant to drug and kidnap her. In any case they had no laudanum and could only provide hartshorn or wine and water.

As it grew dark the lovers left the house unobserved and walked several miles, pursued by Biscoe’s Coachman, before obtaining a chaise at a local inn to take them to Robert Gordon’s London house in Albemarle Street. There they occupied separate but adjoining bedrooms. It was not enough to save her reputation, and Susanna now knew that she had burnt her boats.

The scene was set for a scandalous court case in which the young William Garrow (who featured in the recent BBC series Garrow’s Law) would play a part. Joseph Biscoe, rather than simply demand a divorce, sued Robert Gordon for damages claiming £10,000 for Gordon’s ‘criminal conversation’, i.e. adultery, with his wife. Even for a wealthy man £10,000 was a large sum, equivalent to nearly a million pounds in relation to retail prices, or over ten million pounds relative to average earnings, today.

On the 8th December 1794 a special jury hearing was held before Lord Chief Justice Kenyon. Technically it was the ‘Trial of Mrs Biscoe for Adultery with Robert Gordon Esq.’ although Susanna did not attend. Robert Home Gordon was able to afford some big legal guns and his defence team included Thomas Erskine (later to be Lord Chancellor), William Garrow and a Mr Burrow, while Joseph Biscoe had Messrs Bearcroft, Gibbs and Perceval on his side.

The Biscoe servants were called to give evidence, with Biscoe’s team clearly having decided to paint Susanna as a wronged woman, seduced and possibly made drunk and abducted by Robert Home Gordon. They represented the marriage as blissful and Gordon as a cad who had betrayed his friend’s hospitality.

Robert had ensured that Susanna would not be called to testify by admitting the adultery from the outset – it would have been hard to deny since the couple had been living together at Albemarle Street since October – and so his legal team worked hard to reduce the amount of any damages to be awarded.

Biscoe’s team called several witnesses to testify to his years of happy marriage and that he had been an indulgent husband. However the first hint of where the trouble lay came when an old college friend, George Biggin, described Biscoe as being a man of very reserved character. This gave Erskine the opening he needed and he portrayed Biscoe as a man who would rather spend all day out hunting or shooting than at home with his wife – a man who ‘in consequence of his own gross negligence, permits his wife to have an improper intercourse [unchaperoned meetings] with other men, which may ultimately terminate in the ruin of both’.

Without attempting to destroy Biscoe’s honour Erskine made clear that it should have been obvious to anyone, and particularly Biscoe, that allowing his wife to sit up until three in the morning with Robert Gordon was asking for trouble. Why, Erskine asked, if Biscoe had first become aware of the danger in August, had he not put a stop to it? Why had he done nothing to attempt to reclaim his wife’s affections? Why had he remained in the same room as the lovers while they sat side by side on a ‘sopha’ and did nothing about it? Indeed why when they had gone out riding with Richard Lee, who proposed that all four should stay together, had Biscoe said ‘no, let them go on by themselves, they are made for one another’?

‘After this gentleman sees that his wife’s affections are alienated from him, instead of putting any check or reins upon them, he encourages the defendant, and then comes into a court of justice to complain of them’, said Erskine.

It was a devastating opening statement, representing Biscoe as having thrown his wife into the arms of Robert Gordon, and it was backed up by Richard Lee, who Erskine admitted was appearing as a very reluctant witness. Not only was he a friend of both men, but he was the business associate of Robert Gordon who had grown up with him almost like a brother. Moreover it was Richard who had re-introduced Gordon to Biscoe and who had then watched Gordon fall head over heels for Susanna while her husband did nothing to prevent it. William Garrow asked Richard if he had thought Biscoe was ‘a prudent discreet, cautious husband’ and Richard answered ‘I do not think he was’.

Richard was then asked by Biscoe’s lawyers whether he had thought that Gordon had gone to Kent with the intention of seducing Susanna.

‘I took it for granted, and I thought him criminal’, replied Richard. But when challenged as to why he had done nothing to prevent it he told the jury that ‘I should have thought it extremely improper to interfere in any degree.’ Poor Richard was clearly caught in an impossible situation, deeply disapproving of Robert Gordon’s conduct but not feeling it right to intervene or interfere, and believing it was clear that Biscoe did not care enough to put a stop to the affair.

Kenyon was scathing in his summing up:

On the part of the Defendant they tell you, that Mr Biscoe has stood by and seen his wife debauched; and, if that is so, he is one of the most atrocious men living. And if you see Mr Biscoe to be the pander of the lusts of the Defendant, give him not a farthing, but give the Defendant your verdict. But on the contrary, if you shall be of the opinion that the Plaintiff was put off his guard, by pretended friendship, and that he has been robbed of his domestic comforts by the foulest conspiracy, I think no damages but Ten Thousand Pounds will satisfy the fair calls which Mr Biscoe makes on your honours and your consciences for justice.

In spite of the evident adultery, and Lord Kenyon’s censuring of Richard Lee for failing to intervene, the Jury obviously felt that Biscoe was partly to blame. They withdrew for only a short time and found in favour of Biscoe, but the claim for damages was halved to £5000.

Susanna probably never saw her daughter again, for she was put in the care of Joseph’s sister Mary and brought up in her father’s household. In 1807 she married Sir Robert Harry Inglis, and in 1815 they adopted the nine orphaned children of Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Joseph finally obtained a divorce in 1796 and remarried in 1799, having seven children with his new wife Stephana Law.

Susanna and Robert Gordon continued to live together but did not marry until some years later, a codicil to Robert’s Will implying that by 1812 they were married under both English and Scots Law. This was important as he had substantial estates in Scotland.

Robert died in Brighton in 1826 and, as they had no children, when Susanna died in 1839 most of the property went to Robert’s cousin Sir Orford Gordon of Embo.

It seems a sad ending to a whirlwind romance and elopement and I can only hope they were happy together.

The Great Jamaican Earthquake of 1692

The terrible earthquake that struck Jamaica just before noon on the 7th June 1692 changed the geography of the island for ever and set its progress back by many years.  The timing of the earthquake was recorded by survivors but confirmed by the discovery of an early pocketwatch, made about 1686 by Frenchman Paul Blondel, during an underwater excavation.  The watch had stopped at 11:43 am.

Looking at this 1670 map and comparing it with one drawn nearly a century later, you can see that a huge area around Port Royal, notorious it is true for its pirates and brothels but nonetheless the centre for a lively trade with the outside world, simply ceased to exist.  Port Royal was described as the wickedest city on earth, but mostly after its destruction when people were looking for an explanation and seeing it as God delivering a just punishment on a sinful people.


Port Royal in 1670

Port Royal in 1755

About two thirds of the town of Port Royal disappeared in the quake, much of it because of liquefaction of the sandy soil on which the town was built.  Brick buildings and wooden warehouses collapsed and slid into the sea. According to Robert Renny in his An History of Jamaica of 1807, “All the wharves sunk at once, and in the space of two minutes, nine-tenths of the city were covered with water, which was raised to such a height, that it entered the uppermost rooms of the few houses which were left standing. The tops of the highest houses, were visible in the water, and surrounded by the masts of vessels, which had been sunk along with them”.

In the triple shocks of the quake the liquefied soil flowed in waves, fissures opened up and then closed again trapping victims as the sand solidified, some horrifically left with just their heads visible.  In the tsunami that followed most of the twenty or so ships in the harbour were sunk or carried right over the town, and many who had survived the initial quake were drowned.

The horror of the survivors at the huge number of corpses floating in the harbour was increased when they realised that many of these bodies had been washed out of the town’s graveyard. Looting began almost at once with the looters even hacking fingers off the dead in order to obtain their rings, and goods were stolen from the wharves and warehouses.

The earthquake, which modern estimates suggest was about 7.5 in magnitude, was not of course confined to Port Royal.  A huge landslip occurred at Judgement Hill.  At Liguanea, the site of modern Kingston, the sea was observed to retreat 300 yards before a six-foot high wave rushed inland.  Most of the buildings in Spanish Town were destroyed and serious damage occurred all across Jamaica.

Worse was yet to come, for the survivors then had to endure a series of epidemics particularly of Yellow Fever.  Perhaps 2000 of the 6500 inhabitants of Port Royal perished in the quake, many more died across Jamaica in the following few years. The island was over dependent on imported food and goods from England, and the disruption to its main harbour, loss of ships and warehousing brought about shortages of essential goods and reduced the ability to export.

The Jamaican Assembly removed from Port Royal to Spanish Town and rebuilding began almost at once, but it has been suggested that the progress of the colony was set back by 20 years as a result of the devastation.  Port Royal itself was so much reduced in area and further devastated by fire in 1704 that it never recovered.  Two years after the quake Dr Fulke Rose, one of the early colonists who had been in Jamaica since at least 1670,  returned to London with his family in order better to plead the cause of the island.  He died there in March 1694 and you can read a transcript of his Will here.

During the 1980s and 1990s underwater excavations took place at Port Royal which revealed much about life there before the quake struck. You can read about that project here.

Jamaica suffers up to 200 earthquakes every year, most of which are quite minor, but the Earthquake Unit of the University of the West Indies at Mona describes the quake of 1692 as ‘perhaps our largest and most damaging natural disaster’.