Cornwall Black History

By Robert Burns

Cornwall has a mixed and interesting history with the Black community and the slave industry.

The divide on slave trade in Cornwall is historically easy to see, ordinary and predominantly White Cornish people were against slavery and their actions speak volumes to this day. From the 18th century many of them would not take sugar in their tea as a protest against slave sugar plantations. The story of enslaved Joseph Emidy (see below) is an example of decency. The connection with the Cornish Methodist church to the underground railway in the USA, helping slaves to escape the Southern States to the North and to the abolitionists in Britain. Indeed the pub choral sing arounds here are still called ‘Shouts’ (Shouts & Hollers of the cottonfields).

Joseph Antonio Emidy

Joseph Antonio Emidy, who had been enslaved by the Portugese, and then pressganged by the British, was abandoned in Falmouth Cornwall by the Admiral Sir Edward Pellew of the Indefatigable in 1799. With the help of locals, he became a music teacher and eventually headed the Falmouth then Truro’s Philharmonic Societies.

However we have found that in some ways people living in Cornwall are in denial over the regions involvement in the Black slave trade good or bad, which is sad in the 21st Century.

Often in Cornwall we hear a similar argument to the retort given to Black Lives Matter that ‘All Lives Matter’, when no one has said they don’t. Here in Cornwall when in discussion about Cornwall’s involvement in the Black Slave Trade, some say that the Africans came to Cornwall and kidnapped White slaves, as though it is an excuse not to acknowledge the regions appalling Black slave.

The stories of Cornish slavery are actually true, the White Slave Trade was based on the North African Barbary coast, for the Arabs a White servant/slave was a money and status symbol as it was to have a Black servant/slave in a White British household.

From this period, it was registered that in 1640 between 3,000 and 5,000 English slaves were taken during the Barbary Slave Trade (up to 500,000) from the whole of Europe. In comparison, to an estimated slave trade of Black Africans is estimated at least 12.8 million people traded, and hundreds of thousands that died in attacks on villages or drowned at sea.

The story for the Cornish rich and greedy is the opposite and cannot be dismissed as not part of Cornish slave history.

Thomas Corker (1669-1670 – 10 September 1700) of Falmouth, left aged 14 and went to west Africa to work for the Royal African Company (RAC) (1660 to 1821). He was assigned to the Guinea coast and then to York Island (now Sherbro Island) and became the main slave agent of the RAC in Sierra Leone. The RAC was set up by the royal Stuart family and the City of London to trade on the west coast of Africa. The RAC was responsible for shipping more enslaved people to the Americas than any other institution in the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Corkers’ descendants in Sierra Leone are still powerful today. Over time the family name has changed to Caulkers. To our shame, Corker was memorialized by a Baroque marble and freestone monument at the Church of King Charles the Martyr in Falmouth. 

Sir Rose Price of Penzance was notorious and made his fortune on the backs of slaves in his sugar plantation, Worthy Park, in Jamaica. This helped to trigger the Cornish sugar protest, he was often seen parading his slave servants around Penzance. Indeed his walled garden Trengwainton was funded by slavery. There are many, many more examples on Cornwall Live.

However, one of the biggest influences then and to this day is Sir William Trelawny, 6th Baronet of Trelawne near Looe, Cornwall. A wealthy and influential man, he was Governor of Jamaica 1765-1772.

Parish of Trelawny, Jamaica

Just before his arrival, Jamaica had been divided into 3 regions Cornwall (most westerly), Middlesex (central Jamaica) and Surrey (where Kinston-upon-Thames in located in England). The capitol of Jamaica is Kingston.

Trelawny left his mark and his ego on the land he governed. Under his jurisdiction , the new Trelawny Parish was named after him. The new port and capital of Trelawny, Falmouth, was named after his place of birth – Falmouth, Cornwall, England. Under Spanish rule, Martha Brae Point had been the capital of the area. Falmouth, Jamaica took over and became one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean.

Falmouth in the 1840s by Adolphe Duperly

Things turn full circle. Britain had taken Jamaica from Spain in 1655. By the time Trelawny arrives just over 100 years later, there were 100’s of sugar plantations worked by 100,000’s of enslaved Africans. When the Spanish left Jamaica, the Africans they had enslaved took to the hills and controlled Jamaica’s interior. They were known as Maroons and they fought the troops sent against them. Compromise came after the First Maroon War with Cudjoe’s Treaty of 1739, the Maroons were were given land in the interior, but forbidden to harbour runaway slaves. The treaty was broken by the British in the Second Maroon War. The British captured 600 inhabitants of Cudjoe’s Town and were shipped to Nova Scotia then to Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1800, just up the coast from where Thomas Corker was stationed 100 years earlier. He had married the daughter of a Sherbro chief and his descendants on Sherbro Island (then York Island) became chiefs and wealthy slave traders ruling the area from Sherbro Island to Freetown up the coast.

When we view the situation today we know that we cannot change history. We in Cornwall should never bury our past but look to this as a new future with friends, these ancestors of slaves are as linked to the sea as the Cornish, they even eat a version of the pasty called the patty.

The beef patty is a product of colonialism and migration developed after the introduction of the Cornish pasty to the Caribbean, mixed with Cumin and curry seasonings (of Indian laborers) and cayenne pepper (from African labourers) who settled in Jamaica. “The firecracker taste of the Scotch bonnet, a hot pepper indigenous to Jamaica, sealed the flavour.”

We should be strengthening links with our brother and sister descendants of slaves not denying them. Jamaica is forever linked with Cornwall and Falmouth, it still surprises us that no official Twinning has been organised.