Untold Women’s Histories – the African diaspora in Cornwall

by Charlotte MacKenzie

The presence of women of African descent in eighteenth century Cornwall has been overlooked. Attention has rightly focused first on African narratives including Olaudah Equiano’s arrival at Falmouth in 1755. Outline biographies including occupations and family relationships can be reconstructed for some women of African descent. 

Cornwall was a centre of transatlantic communications with packet boats sailing regularly from Falmouth to the West Indies, and to Lisbon – with its connections to Portuguese territories in the Americas. By the 1790s historians estimate that 3% of mariners on British ships were black. I have identified over 60 individuals of African descent in Cornwall, almost one in three of whom were women. From Katherine Elizabeth, who was christened at Falmouth in 1699, to Elizabeth Stotten, who married a mariner John Rodney at Mylor in 1804. These identifications, mostly from parish records, are probably an under-estimate given that not everyone engaged with the church and it was the clerk who chose whether and how to describe individuals.

Some individuals travelled to Cornwall as enslaved Africans. The 1700 probate of Thomas Corker, a Royal African Company factor, included transactions at Falmouth transferring four enslaved Africans. The household of Thomas’ widowed mother Jane Corker included Elizabeth Chegoe, a servant from Guinea who was christened at Falmouth in 1705. Mrs Anne Chapman’s relationship with a British naval officer brought her from Antigua to Fowey in the 1740s, where Rachel and Samuel Chapman were described as her ‘property’. 

Maria was 9 years old when she was christened at St Gluvias in 1769. Over 80 years later Maria was described in the Penryn census of 1851 as an ‘African British subject’ who had been born in Africa. How and why Maria came to Penryn is not known. Maria was christened with the surname ‘Edwards’. It is not impossible that Maria travelled with a packet captain of that surname, who sailed regularly between Falmouth and the West Indies rather than Africa. 

Maria worked as a household servant, was married three times, and had a family in Cornwall. Two of Maria’s husbands, John Hooper and William Weymouth, were mariners living in Penryn who were also of African descent. In old age Maria lived in Penryn with Charlotte Blackall, a daughter born of her second marriage. The records show that although Maria never learned to write her daughter Charlotte did. Maria Weymouth was aged 95 when she died and is buried at St Gluvias. 

The Townsend sisters were of partly African descent. The naval surgeon John Atkins noted that the Townsend sisters’ grandmother Caterina, a merchant at Cape Coast, had refused to travel to England with her husband James Phipps, an employee of the Royal African Company, she still conforming to the Dress of her Country, being always barefoot and fetished with Chains and Gobbets of Gold, at her Ancles, her Wrists, and her Hair; to alter which in England, she thinks would sit awkward, and together with her ignorance how to comport herself with new and strange Conversation. Caterina and James nonetheless sent their daughters to school in England. 

Atkins’ description exoticised Caterina but the anticipated cross-cultural tensions echoed unwelcoming English reactions to members of the Phipps family. In 1714 James’ brother diminishingly referred to two of his nieces, who had arrived in London, as ‘some issue of yours’; Bridget and Susan Phipps’ schoolmistress complained that the two girls had been ‘very carelessly delt with’ before coming to school; and in 1721 James’ cousin Seth Grosvenor advised that if Caterina travelled to England ‘She would be slighted’. Three of James and Caterina’s daughters married in England, including Bridget whose husband was the London merchant and MP Chauncy Townsend. 

One of the Townsends’ daughters Charlotte married John Oliver Willyams of Carnanton in Cornwall. Charlotte’s widowed sister Judith Wordsworth married Thomas Haweis, Willyams’ cousin, who encouraged the former slave ship captain John Newton to be ordained. Newton later became a prominent proponent for abolition. Another sister, Sarah Townsend, married Thomas Biddulph the vicar of Padstow. The sisters’ brother, Joseph Townsend, a vicar who visited Cornwall to pursue his avocation as a geologist, married Joyce Nankivell of St Agnes. While the Townsend sisters’ eldest brother James was the MP for West Looe in 1767-74 and Lord Mayor of London. 

After the crew of HMS Invincible were paid off at Falmouth in 1799 the black musician and mariner Joseph Emidy became a music teacher and composer in Cornwall, until he died in 1835. Joseph Emidy married Jane, or Jenifer, Hutchins. They had eight children. Their two daughters Cecilia and Eliza Rose Emidy were dressmakers in Truro and, after moving north with the family of their brother William Emidy, who was bandmaster at the Liverpool zoological gardens, they were greengrocers. There is much yet to discover about women of African descent living in Georgian and Victorian Britain. 

Recommended Reading:

Wolfram Latsch ‘Mrs Phipps and her daughters: presences and absences in an eighteenth century Anglo-African family’ January 2020 conference paper. Charlotte MacKenzie ‘A ‘new and strange Conversation’: Cornwall’s eighteenth century connections with the African diaspora and the politics of abolition and reform’ Cornish Studies forthcoming December 2020.

About the Author:

Charlotte MacKenzie lives in Cornwall where she is an historical researcher and writer. Her current research is on women writers and eighteenth century Cornwall. Charlotte won the 2016 Cardew Rendle prize awarded by the Royal Cornwall Museum for an article on ‘Cruel Coppinger: the women’s stories’ including the eighteenth century written application for legal separation of Mary Copinger. In addition to publishing books she has recently contributed articles for the National Maritime Museum Cornwall journal Troze, the Royal Institution of Cornwall journal, and Cornish Studies. She was previously a senior lecturer in history at Bath Spa University.

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