Some time in 1766, a boat arrived in the UK carrying cargo from Sierra Leone. Among that cargo was a gift for Benjamin Molineux of Wolverhampton. That gift was a small black boy, aged about three years old. He was given to the Molineuxs as a slave, as was fashionable at that time.
The Molineuxs had the small boy christened. They named him George John Scipio Africanus – not, as one website told me when I was researching this, after ‘the Roman Generals’ (note the plural there) but after Publio Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236-183BC), the Roman general who beat Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202BC and who is considered to be one of the greatest military commanders and strategists of all time.
Now young George proved to be quite the strategist too, rising from his terrifying early years of capture, transportation and slavery to become a business and property owner in Nottingham, a ‘Freeholder’, a member of a group created to enforce civil order and the city’s first black entrepreneur.
I first came across his name on a blue plaque in Victoria Street. I’m a bit of blue plaque freak; I can spot them from half a mile and will climb over things to see what they say. This one piqued my interest because a) I’d never heard of him and b) I thought his name was interesting. When I discovered he was black and was formerly a slave, I became fascinated. How had this man thrown off the shackles to become a businessman in Georgian Britain? Had he married and had children? He obviously climbed the social ladder, did he have to combat racism along the way? So many questions.
So I determined to find out more about him, not realising quite how irritating my internet searching would prove (seriously, does no one check their facts any more?).
So back to George – sadly the name his family in Sierra Leone gave him is lost in the mists of time. Although he was enslaved to the Molineux family, he was relatively fortunate in that the family taught him to read and write and apprenticed him to a trade as a brass founder.
And times they were a-changing, In 1772 – the young George would have been about nine years old – it became illegal in England to own a slave, although it wasn’t until 1807 that the slave trade in Britain was finally abolished completely.
Some years later, and precisely when has been impossible to pin down, George is no longer in servitude and arrives in Nottingham. A variety of different sources state with their own certainty that he is anything from 18 to 24 years old at the time. In fact timetoast.com tells me the date of his arrival in the city is March 3 1784. Sadly it then says in brackets underneath ‘exact dates are not known’. Well that’s a pretty precise guess when you actually have no clue, timetoast!
What is known, and can be proved by documentary evidence, is that on August 3 1788, George married a Nottingham woman named Ester (or Esther) Shaw. They are married at St Peter’s Church where George is a parishoner, Ester having been recorded as being a parishoner of St Mary’s in Lace Market. She is a milliner, he a labourer and brass founder.
Interestingly, an article on the Wolverhampton Express and Star website from a few years ago about a play written about the Molineuxs and George, say he was apprenticed as a hairdresser. I can find nothing else that verifies that at all.
The couple had seven children but were marred by tragedy and only Hannah, their sixth child, survived until adulthood. While I did find somewhere that listed their children, their year of birth and their ages at death, it didn’t say how they died – I sense a visit to the Nottinghamshire archives coming on.
George and Ester also set up a business. The Africanus Register of Servants was, as the blue plaque pronounces, a pre-cursor to an employment agency, matching servants looking for work with employers. When Ester died in 1853, an obituary said she had helped run the business for around 60 years, which dates its formation to the early 1790s perhaps?
Documentary evidence is also available to show where the couple lived. A deed of sale for several properties in Chandlers Lane, Nottingham – close to where Victoria Street now runs – is dated October 24 1829. George Africanus paid £380 to purchase business premises and homes that he then let out from one Abraham Landy. You can even view a site map from the sale, outlining the property George purchased. It says there was an alleyway of seven feet wide between his property and the Blucher Public House. I Googled Blucher – apparently it’s a high shoe with laces over the tongue. Blucher Yard was behind George’s property.
Now many of the websites I looked at said George, who had now become a ‘Freeholder’ was now entitled to vote, something only one in seven men at the time were able to do at the time.
But there’s a problem with that too. The secret ballot for elections wasn’t introduced until 1872 and there is a polling book from the 1826 election shows George Africanus voting for the abolitionist John Smith Wright. Even the Reform Act of 1832 only gave the vote to men in town’s who owned property with an annual value of £10. So if George voted in 1826, he must have already have been a property owner three years prior to having bought the property in Chandlers Lane.
So George was a business owner, a family man, a property owner, but he was also an upstanding member of the community. In 1811 The Luddites got a bit cross about knitting machines replacing manual workers and there were riots. These began in Nottingham. Some of George’s neighbours and acquaintances owned knitting machines. The city’s response was to form a Watch and Ward, a sort of Georgian Neighbourhood Watch, to keep civil order. George features on an 1816 list of members.
George Africanus died in May 1834. His gravestone says he was 70, the internet says he was 71. In his will he left everything to Ester and his only surviving child Hannah. But there’s still a story there. Hannah had married a man called Samuel Cropper, a clock and watchmaker. From his will, it’s clear George did not have high opinions of his son-in-law. While his will left everything to Ester and Hannah, it was on condition that Hannah never cohabited with her husband again.
Years after George’s death, though, census records show Ester, Hannah and Samuel living at the same address.
George’s incredible achievements faded from memory for a while until he was featured in Nottingham Castle’s Black Presence exhibition in 1993. In 2003 a plaque was erected to him on the railings of St Mary’s Church and his grave was rediscovered in the noughties thanks to an historian who in 1911 had mapped the whole churchyard. A rededication service of the grave took place in March 2007.
In August 2015 a Nottingham tram was named George Africanus in his honour.
Sadly there doesn’t appear to be any preserved words from George himself. It would have been fascinating to read letters, diaries or anything else in his own words.
He was a black African slave, became a free man, he set up a business, married a white woman and had children, purchased property and was a landlord, was among the elite voting classes, became a member of an organisation designed to keep civil order and left the fruits of his labours to women… in the first half of the 1800s.
Why has no one made a film about this man?