Tag Archives: Prospect Penn

Mary Johnston Rose – How to become legally white

Sample of eighteenth century Indian chintz.

The Spanish Town census, featured here recently, listed three people who were described as “free Mulattoes or Descendants from them admitted to the privileges of white people by Acts of the Legislature”.

They included Mary Johnston Rose and her son Thomas Wynter. Mary was a free mulatto, the daughter of Elizabeth Johnston who died in 1753 a free negro. Mary may have been born as early as 1700 when there is the baptism of a Mary Elizabeth daughter of Elizabeth Johnston ‘a negro wench’ on 5th July 1700. If this is the right mother and daughter then Elizabeth was probably a house slave at the time and later freed. It seems probable that Mary’s father was one of the Rose family, possibly Francis Rose (1656-1720), or William Rose (d. about 1724).

There is no record of how Mary acquired her education, but that she did so at a time when most women, whatever their colour, were illiterate suggests that she had a favoured upbringing at the hands of her father.

Mary was said to be related to Rose Fuller (a plantation owner and key player in island politics; Francis Rose was his great-uncle and William Rose his cousin) and she was his housekeeper for about twenty years until he returned to England in the summer of 1755, landing at Portsmouth on the 18th August. The role of housekeeper frequently equated to that of common law wife and there was clearly a strong degree of affection between Mary and her employer who was the acknowledged father of her son William.

After Rose Fuller left Jamaica he sent her various items, including a carpet. In May 1756 she wrote that these were “such marks of your esteem for me as I shall never forget” and she forwarded a list requesting calimancoe[1] shoes, coarse linen (probably for servant or slave clothing), chintz (perhaps Indian chintz such as pictured above), tea and a white beaver hat. She sent him some boxes of sweetmeats “which will serve to remind you that you have left here a person who always thinks of you”. In a further letter in December 1756 she wrote “I most heartily thank you for all your favours which have been very great to me, but notwithstanding them, I have often known the want of your being here, since your departure. May you long enjoy your health is the sincere wish of your most affectionate honourable servant Mary Rose”.

Clearly she missed him, but knew that she would never see him again.

Mary had two sons by different fathers – Thomas Wynter who was probably the son of Dr William Wynter; and William Fuller – born on the 28th of January and baptised on the 18th of April 1735 – who was the son of Dr Rose Fuller. From a letter written by her nephew Robert Kelly to Rose Fuller in 1758 we know that William Fuller was sent to England to be educated at his father’s expense, but as nothing further is heard of him it seems he probably died young. Robert Kelly was the son of Mary’s sister Ann Rose, and his father was one of the five Kelly brothers whose Wills are on this website, most probably John Kelly who died in 1740.

Mary also had a sister Sarah Johnson, a niece called Peg whose child she took in when Peg was drowned in a storm, and nephew and niece John Schutz Johnson and Ann Rose – Sarah’s children.

Thomas Wynter, William Fuller and Robert Kelly were all classified by Jamaican society as quadroons and as such did not have the same rights as white people, although having mothers who were free meant they too were free. However in 1745 Mary applied for herself and her sons to be accorded the same rights as whites, and in 1746 the English parliament confirmed an Act of the Jamaican Assembly granting those rights.

“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.”

This was not a wholly unusual event, there were a handful of such Acts each year from the early eighteenth century onwards, but the proportion of all the mixed race adults and children granted such rights was small and it does indicate that Mary had some influence over her own position, albeit presumably through the fathers of her sons, both of whom were members of the Assembly at the time.

Had her sons been born a few years later their position would have been more difficult, for in December 1761 the Jamaican Assembly, alarmed by the numbers of mixed race illegitimate children of the Plantocracy inheriting from their white fathers, passed an Act to “prevent exorbitant grants and devises to Negroes”.  William Wynter was one of three men to sign a protest against the Bill.

Nevertheless the Act was made law and so in 1783 Mary’s son Thomas was forced to petition for the rights of his own mixed race children William Rose Wynter and Mary Mede.  The baptism record for William Rose Wynter lists him as a mulatto so it is possible his mother was black.

Although Thomas Wynter was listed as a Millwright in the 1754 census, by the time of his death in 1789 he was able to leave £1000 to his daughter Mrs Mead, and an annuity to Mrs Hemming the mother of his two children, and to direct that Hampshire Plantation and Prospect Penn and all his other real estate and slaves in Jamaica should be sold by his Executors for the benefit of his children. His estate was valued at £65,820 and the money from the sale was put in trust invested in securities in England.

After a career in the Army, William Rose Wynter ended his days in England dying in Devon in 1846, and his sister married an English vicar and also left Jamaica for England. The descendants of William Rose Wynter through his son Thomas Rose Wynter can be tracked down through the nineteenth century, also in the Indian Army and later in Cornwall. The descendants of Mary Elizabeth Wynter Mead nee Hemmings can be tracked into the late twentieth century.

When Rose Fuller died in 1777 he left his house in Spanish Town to the lifetime use of Mary Johnson (sic) Rose “to whose care and attention under God I conceive my life has been more than once preserved in several dangerous illnesses I had in Jamaica”. He left her an annuity of £100 Jamaican currency (worth a bit over £70 sterling) annually for her lifetime, which was the continuance of a similar annuity he was already paying her. She was also left the lifetime use of the contents of the house except for what might be needed for the use of his attorneys managing his property from the Grange, and he requested, but did not require, that she might live at the Grange Pen to assist the attorneys when necessary. Mary was also left the use of six female slaves with any children they might have, again for her lifetime; and mention is made of her chaise and horse. Clearly she was left well provided for, but she later supplemented her annuity by letting out lodgings and she was able to buy her house in Spanish Town. She died a relatively wealthy woman.

On the 19th of March 1783 the parish register for St Catherine recorded the burial of “Mary Rose mulatto Old Age”. She had reached the age of over seventy and possibly as much as eighty three, a very good age in Jamaica, after a full life which had seen her and her sons become legally white.


If you would like to know more about women and the African Diaspora, and about Mary Rose, you can find it in Gendering the African Diaspora, Indiana University Press 2010, which contains a paper by Linda L. Sturtz entitled Mary Rose: “White” African Jamaican Woman? Race and Gender in Eighteenth Century Jamaica.

The letters written by Mary Rose and others referring to her are in the collection of the Fuller papers held at the East Sussex County Record Office at Lewes, England.

[1] Calimancoe was a dense, and expensive fabric used for shoes, stiffened petticoats and waistcoats. It was a shiny fabric with a striped or chequered pattern made of wool with silk or mohair.