‘A Gentleman had just arrived, with – a black servant!’

July 16, 2021 0 Comments
Black musician at Erddig (National Trust)

The gentry of eighteenth-century Wales, like most rich people in any country at any time, longed to be fashionable.  One of the rarer badges of fashion for them was to be seen as enjoying the services of a black servant.  As Chris Evans, the historian of Wales and slavery, puts it, ‘their presence spoke of their master’s wealth and worldliness’. Having a black attendant serve at your table, guide your horses or play an instrument in your house band conveyed to your gentleman friends a mix of power, exoticism and rarity that reflected well on you.  Such servants were not slaves, but they were ‘bonded’ workers, and rarely received any payment.  Their purpose was to serve and to impress.

One such servant lived at Erddig near Wrexham, the home of the Yorke family.  His oil portrait survives there, in the care of the National Trust.  He’s dressed in a smart multicoloured uniform, holds a French horn and was presumably a musician in his master’s band.  His name, however, is unknown, and nothing more is known about him.  (The portrait’s traditional date and its title, ‘John Meller’s coachman’, have both been questioned.)

A little further south, at Wynnstay, Sir Watkin Williams Wynne (4th Baronet) gained a black servant in 1774.  This man was baptised with the name Juba Vincent at Ruabon church in December that year.  Doubtless his parents had been slaves in the West Indies.  He had come to Denbighshire from London, and worked at the estate as a postillion or coachman.  Perhaps he proved unsatisfactory, because three years later he was sent to Liverpool, presumably to be transported to an unknown fate in the West Indies.  In the same year, 1777, another former servant at Wynnstay, ‘old Cipio the black’, was being paid a pension.

Sir John Philipps lived in Kingston, Surrey but also owned Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire and was MP for the county.  He too had a black servant, whom he named Cesar Picton.  Cesar was born around 1755, probably in Senegal, was enslaved, and brought to Britain.  He arrived as a ‘gift’, along with ‘a paraket and a foreign duck’ to Philipps in 1761.  He seems to have pleased his master and his wife.  When they died, he inherited some of their money and set himself up successfully as a coal merchant in Surrey, living to the age of 81.  Cesar was unusual in the upward trajectory of his life.  So too was Nathaniel Wells, an ex-slave who owned the Piercefield estate near Chepstow and became the first black sheriff in Britain in 1818.

Another black boy taken directly from west Africa was Scipio Christianus, a manservant belonging to Captain Thomas Phillips of Brecon, a notorious slave trader.   320 enslaved people died – of disease, suicide and possibly manslaughter – on board Phillips’s ship, the Hannibal, during its Atlantic crossing in 1694.  Scipio inherited £10 from Phillips, and may be the ‘Scipio Christianus’ buried in Caerleon in 1747.

John Ystumllyn

These and other black people – David Morris has identified around 30 individuals in south Wales – flit across the eighteenth-century Welsh stage like ghosts.  Most mentions of them are incidental or administrative, and it’s impossible to gain a rounded view of any one of them.  We know quite a lot about John Ystumllyn, although the author of the main narrative about him, Alltud Eifion, was writing over a hundred years after his death.  The overall picture we can piece together from all the evidence is one of general acceptance and affection for John as a black outsider.  But we can’t be certain that his own experience of living in the countryside around Cricieth was always so positive.

A passing anecdote in a travel book reminds us that Welsh people of the period could take a very different view of black people in their midst.  Henry Wigstead, a businessman, caricaturist and publisher, accompanied the artist Thomas Rowlandson on a tour of Wales in 1797.  In 1800 he published his account as Remarks on a tour to north and south Wales in the year 1797.  Wigstead is a dyspeptic observer of Wales and the Welsh, and finds fault with much of what he sees.  The roads are poor, the accommodation substandard, the weather foul, the people primitive, poor and indolent, their language impenetrable (‘the guttural tones of the natives of Cambria’). 

While in Dolgellau Wigstead comes across an unusual happening that he thinks worthy of recording:

On our return to Dolghelly, we found the town in an actual state of riot and confusion; we could not approach our inn, for the croud of surrounding peasantry.  On inquiring into the occasion of this tumult, we were informed that a Gentleman had just arrived, with – a black servant!  This phenomenon had set the Welsh in an uproar, it being the first time such a tinted being had made his appearance here: the poor fellow was persecuted by them wherever he went, and both his master and him were actually forced to continue their route sooner than they intended, in consequence. (Remarks on a tour, p.48)

Thomas Rowlandson, Near Dolgellau (1797) (National Library of Wales)

Wigstead doesn’t name the man, probably a coachman or postillion, or his ‘Gentleman’.  His treatment of the episode suggests a metropolitan disdain for the ignorance of the Welsh peasantry, who, unlike Londoners and other English sophisticates, were unused to seeing ‘tinted beings’ moving among them.  While Wigstead isn’t always a reliable narrator, it’s not easy to see why he might want to invent this scene of local people turning against a black visitor.  David Morris is not quite right, then, to claim that ‘there is no evidence to suggest that black people in Wales were a focus of hostility’.  Racial intolerance, still alive and well in British society, as recent events connected with the European football championship have shown, has very deep roots in our history.

Note. I’m grateful to Prof. Mary-Ann Constantine for alerting me to Henry Wigstead’s tour of Wales, in her recent O’Donnell Lecture.

Charles Philips, Portrait of a gentleman with a young servant (late 1730s) Possibly depicting Sir George Thomas.

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