Memorials and Memoirs: Piecing Together the Lives of Formerly Enslaved Women

Written by Verity Limond

Tucked against a wall in St John’s Episcopal Church graveyard on the corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road is a marble headstone, somewhat weathered, but with the following inscription still legible: 

Malvina Wells 
born in 
Carriacou West Indies 
Died at Edinburgh 
22 April 1887 
Aged 82 years 
For upwards of 70 years 
A faithful 
Servant and Friend 
In the Family of 
Mrs Macrae 
Edinburgh 

More than simply marking the burial place of a “faithful Servant and Friend”, this is the only known grave in Edinburgh of someone born into slavery. Although typically wordy in the style of nineteenth-century memorials, there is a limit to what a headstone can reveal about a person’s whole life. Malvina’s employment and addresses in Edinburgh can be pieced together from census records and Scottish statutory death registers. However, her last testament is the only document available to us that gives insight into her own priorities and choices. Another valuable source for the experiences of formerly-enslaved people who lived in Britain are personal memoirs, such as The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831), which might perhaps be used to flesh out the biographical details that are known about Malvina.  The sole indication in her headstone inscription that Malvina had previously been enslaved is the reference to her birthplace. She was born in 1804 on the island of Carriacou – which is today a dependency of Grenada – to an unknown black mother, who was most likely also enslaved, and a white slave-owning father called John Wells. While it is hard to establish the precise facts of her early life, Malvina is known to have been brought to Scotland by the Macrae family, probably when she was a young teenager.  

Malvina’s life and employment in Scotland was largely determined by the slave-owning Maclean and Macrae families, who were connected by the marriage of Joanna Maclean (who would become the Mrs Macrae named on the gravestone) to John Anthony Macrae. Malvina’s very existence disrupts the comfortable and, until relatively recently, widespread myth that the British slave trade was a peculiarly English activity in which Scotland was not much involved due to its Presbyterian values and abolitionist tradition. This myth ignores the historical reality in which wealthy Scots had as much of a stake in slavery as their English equivalents through Glasgow merchants’ involvement in Virginia’s tobacco trade and families such as the Macleans who were extensively involved in owning and trading slaves for their properties in the Caribbean.  

Figure 1: The headstone of Malvina Wells in St John’s Episcopal Church graveyard (Limond 2022) 

On her arrival in Scotland, Malvina worked for the Macrae family as a lady’s maid. Due to the ruling in the 1778 case Knight v. Wedderburn that had concluded slavery was not recognised by Scots law, Malvina automatically became free after entering Scotland even though the Slavery Abolition Act that outlawed slavery in most of the British Empire was not enacted until 1833. After leaving the employment of the Macraes, she lived independently on an allowance (presumably from her former employers) and rented out a room to a boarder, before later being employed by the Gordon family, who were cousins of Joanna Macrae. Her final job was, once again, in the household of Joanna Macrae to whom, as they were both at an advanced age, she probably functioned as more of a companion than a maid.  

As a free woman in Edinburgh, Malvina accumulated money, maintained links to her country of origin and created a network of employers who may also have been her friends. When she died, she left an estate worth approximately £68,000 in today’s money, which had been accumulated through smart investments. She requested that her wealth be divided between Joanna Macrae’s children with small bequests left to her niece and nephew, and a young man who sent her newspapers from Grenada. To date no trace of Malvina’s family members have been found in archival records, meaning that nothing is known of them except that they were still living in Grenada. 

While the gravestone is a fascinating and unusual trace from the past, it provides little information about Malvina’s life. Archival sources such as census records and her testament have filled in some gaps, revealing where she lived and who employed her at different periods in her time in Scotland. Predictably, it is easier to find information about the Macraes and the Macleans than about Malvina’s own family. Although frustrating, the fact that we have so little precise information about Malvina’s life and nothing written by her except her testament is not unusual.  

Figure 2: To the right, the headstone of Malvina Wells and to the left, the main Macrae family memorial (Limond 2022) 

The nearest comparable source that might give some indication of what Malvina’s life was like prior to her arrival in Scotland may be the memoir written by the formerly enslaved Mary Prince, a Bermudian woman who also managed to acquire her freedom when she was brought to Britain in 1828. First-hand accounts such as these were often the only source of information available to people in Britain about the treatment of enslaved people in faraway colonies and were used to support the abolitionist cause. Though less well-known than The Interesting Narrative (1789) by the formerly enslaved man and anti-slavery campaigner, Olaudah Equiano, Mary’s account was edited by the white abolitionists Susanna Strickland Moodie and Thomas Pringle, who also worked to publish the accounts of others, such as Ashton Warner, with similar experiences.  However, it has its limitations, since it only records Mary’s life up until 1831, at which time she wanted to leave Britain but was unable to do so. Without any further sources to shed light on the rest of her life, it is unknown whether Mary ever managed to return to the Caribbean. 

Without engaging in too much speculation, there may have been certain points of similarity between the lives of Malvina and Mary. Although born in Bermuda, as an adult Mary was embedded in a community in Antigua. She discusses her relationships with her mother, sisters and husband. As she had left her current ‘owner’ to assert her freedom in Britain, Mary was unable for several years to return to Antigua without being enslaved again. However, proponents of slavery who responded to her publication dismissed the idea that her relationships could be considered legitimate or meaningful. From the references in Malvina’s testament to her niece and nephew, and to the man who sent her newspapers from Grenada, it seems reasonable to infer that she felt a similar sense of isolation, although she came to Britain at a much younger age, possibly before having the chance to establish a social network as Mary had done. 

Mary recounts being flogged and badly treated by John Adams Wood, with whom she eventually came to England. There, she was stuck in limbo since to seize her freedom would leave her without any means of support. After several years she sought refuge in the Moravian church and found employment, eventually publishing her memoir. Her experience of employment as a free woman in England differs considerably from Malvina’s in Scotland, but it may be possible to gain an insight into Malvina’s perspective on her (now) employers from Mary’s account of the Darrell family to whom she was sold as a child. According to her account, they were at least not cruel to her and she remembers them with some affection. Any sympathy for Captain Darrell must be tempered by the fact that he sold Mary at the age of 12 to Captain Ingham, who flogged her severely. However, Mary’s attitude towards the Darrells is not hostile and may take us some way to understanding Malvina’s possible feelings towards the Macrae family to whom she was also sold as a child. It is possible that the inscription to a “faithful…Friend” may have reflected to some extent Malvina’s own feelings towards her long-time employer Joanna Macrae and her children. 

Inevitably, trying to get to grips with the perspective of someone whose voice does not meaningfully survive in written records entails some application of imagination. As the cases of Malvina Wells and Mary Prince show, even where some records can be located, there is still great uncertainty about an individual’s actions, priorities and motivations. Malvina’s and Mary’s lives followed different paths, although they share certain crucial similarities and some careful comparison of sources may help to give us a more detailed insight into the experiences of living free in Britain that women such as Malvina Wells and Mary Prince had.  


Bibliography

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Devine, T. M. (2015) “Conclusion.” In Devine, T. M. (ed.) Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 246-251. 

Equiano, O. (1789/2003) The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings.  London: Penguin. 

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Sheridan, S. (2020) “Where Are the Black Women?” Historic Environment Scotland, 9 Oct. Available at: https://blog.historicenvironment.scot/2020/10/where-are-the-black-women/

Sherwood, M. (2007) After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807. London: I.B. Tauris. 

Shields, J. (2021) Mary Prince, Slavery, and Print Culture in the Anglophone Atlantic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Williams, L. (2018) “Edinburgh’s part in the slave trade.” Historic Environment Scotland, 15 Nov. Available at: https://blog.historicenvironment.scot/2018/11/edinburghs-part-slave-trade/.  

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