The remarkable discovery of Brighton’s Black History Group

PUBLISHED: 15:37 25 November 2015 | UPDATED: 15:37 25 November 2015

A dhow used in the Zanzibar slave trade, 1873 © liszt collection / Alamy

A dhow used in the Zanzibar slave trade, 1873 © liszt collection / Alamy

© liszt collection / Alamy

Brighton’s Black History Group made a remarkable discovery when investigating a forgotten grave in the city’s Woodvale Cemetery. They unmasked the poignant story of a young African boy rescued from a slave dhow. Words by Suchitra Chatterjee

When Bert Williams, (one of the co-founding members of Brighton & Hove Black History) and Ebou Touray, (the group’s chair), made their way up to the Woodvale Crematorium in Brighton several months ago, neither had any idea of what they were going to find.

Bert had received a tweet from a colleague about the surprisingly well-preserved grave of a young African boy, hidden away in the vast expanse of Woodvale, and as weeds and debris were pulled away from the headstone, yet another piece of Brighton’s and Hove’s hidden black heritage was uncovered.

Who was this African child who had been laid to rest in a Sussex cemetery over 145 years ago? Carved on his gravestone were the words, “In memory of Tom M.S. Highflyer, Rescued from a slave dhow August 24, 1866, Baptised by his own request at Brighton, March 30, 1870, Died at Brighton June 20, 1870, Supposed to be about 12 years old.”

Of course, Sussex itself was no stranger to slavery; many prominent families across the county had links to the trade. John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller, a High Sheriff and MP for Sussex from 1801 to 1812 supported slavery, and it was no wonder, for the compensation his family received when slavery was eventually abolished in England was the modern day equivalent of £1.9m.

Tom’s rescue was reported in the London Evening Standard on 1 September, 1868 when the HMS Highflyer finally returned to the UK, docking in Portsmouth as summer headed toward autumn. The HMS Highflyer hadfor a number of years been part of the Royal Navy’s African Anti-Slave Trade Squadron, which in its heyday freedmore than 150,000 men, women and children.

The article stated: “Captain TMS Pasley of the HMS Highflyer captured a slave dhow for which prize money is about to be distributed and three African boys all were found on board the dhow have been brought to England and will, we hear, be well cared for by some of the officers. They had become great favourites on board and been named respectively Tom Highflyer, Sam Oldfield, and Bob Dhow.”

Tom was named for Captain Pasley and the ship, Sam after Midshipman Henry Oldfield and Bob for the vessel he had been rescued from. After the ship docked in Portsmouth, Sam and Bob both disappear from searchable records (so far) but Tom still had a part to play in Sussex history. In 1872, The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor published a tract called Black Tommy’s Two Homes.

It alleged to tell Tom’s story from his rescue by the HMS Highflyer to his death in Brighton some two years later. It did not name anyone other than Tom but it made very interesting reading. Tom was apparently sent to Brighton to be educated, probably within a year of his arrival in England.

He had at first accompanied an unnamed Royal Naval Officer from the Highflyer to his home and was for a short time training to be a servant and/or page boy. This family had to go abroad but they made provisions for him to go to school in Brighton and lodge with “a kind woman and her husband who were like a father and mother to him.” Tommy apparently studied in a bible class with another boy who was also to be baptised on the same day as him.

The mother and sister of the Naval Officer from the Highflyer came down to Brighton to witness the event. The sister of the Naval Officer became his godmother and she presented him with “a beautiful bible’ as a gift afterwards. Despite the fresh sea air of Brighton, Tom’s health declined and his death three months later was in the home of a retired coastal guard Henry Thompson and his wife Eliza on Great College Street, more than likely the kindly couple mentioned earlier.

It was Henry who registered his death in the parish of Brighton a few days after Tom passed away and the cause of death was put down as a “tubercular liver and dropsy.” The death certificate is a poignant reminder of Tom’s origins, a boy slave rescued from the horrors of a dhow, and most touchingly of all the words, “son of an African, name unknown.” Long ago he would have had another name, one from his life before he became human chattel.

He would have had an African name but to us he has to be Tom, the moniker given to him by the crew of the HMS Highflyer. Once upon time he was someone else and we must never forget this. Some six months before Tom’s death, his rescuer, Captain Pasley also passed away, in Kendal Westmoreland, leaving a wife, Emma, who was born in Trinidad and the mother of his five children.

It is not known if the Naval Officer mentioned in The Church Missionary Juvenile Instructor is in fact Captain Pasley; the story says that the Naval Officer who took Tom into his home was a “young master”; Pasley as we know was in his late 30s when he rescued the young boy so it is possible that it was one of his junior officers who took responsibility for Tom. Tom’s burial service was performed by a Reverend Charles Baber who was a curate at St Mark’s Church in Kemp Town.

Interestingly, there is no record of who paid for Tom’s gravestone. Normally, this can be traced in the burial archives but in the case of young Tom, there is no information available.From the newspaper clipping in the Standard announcing the arrival of young Tom to English soil, to the elegant gravestone purchased in his memory, the very short life of this child tells an even bigger story.

It is the story of slavery and what part the British Empire played over the years in its origins and of course its steady demise, starting with the Somerset ruling of 1772 to the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. Slavery came to an end with a cash price, paid to slaveholders throughout the British colonies rather than the slaves themselves, and many prominent English families with descendants today are probably unaware of the part their ancestors played in this horrific practice, for in its day, slavery was an unthinkingly normalised institution.

Tom Highflyer died in Brighton, far from his birthplace. He was first cared for by the crew of the HMS Highflyer and then possibly provided for by Captain Pasley. Research into the home of Henry Thompson the man who was present at Tom’s death, and his wife Eliza seem to show that they were good people, taking care of two nieces throughout their lifetime.

Tom might have lost his African family but he possibly found another one here in Brighton. As the writer of the article in Church Missionary said of Tom, “he passed away quietly and peacefully,” and found his least earthly home in a cemetery on an English hill-side, thousands of miles from the country in which he was born, and from the blue waters in which his chains had been broken and he had been set free…” 


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