George Africanus: From slave to respected businessman

Slaves aboard a slave ship circa 1835 George Africanus was one of thousands of slaves trafficked to England to work in households

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A plaque to one of the UK's first black entrepreneurs has been unveiled in the city where he made his name - and money - in the 18th Century.

But how did a slave trafficked from west Africa become a Nottingham landlord and affluent businessman?

In 1766, aged just three, George John Scipio Africanus was taken from what is now Sierra Leone and forced into slavery.

But by the time he died, almost 70 years later, he owned his own business, was a rent collecting landlord, had the right to vote and helped keep the peace in Nottingham.

It is a tale which will surprise many, but perhaps shouldn't.

Dr Hakim Adi, reader in the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester, said: "His story is unusual but it was possible for people of slave origins to rise through the ranks.

"Certain individuals, with a prevailing wind and the right character, could make their mark. His is an important story that sheds a lot of light on that whole period of British history."

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British slave trade
Shackles used to hold slaves
  • Britain was at the heart of the slave trade for 200 years, helping to traffic millions of people from Africa into a lifetime of servitude
  • In the mid 18th Century it was considered an essential part of the Empire's economy but there was growing unease
  • A movement, largely led by Quakers, formed towards the end of the century and in 1807 the Slave Trade Abolition Act was passed
  • But the situation for slaves already owned did not improve until the Emancipation Act of 1833 and even then they were only freed gradually

Abolition in Britain

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George was given to the wealthy Molineux family, and would have worked in their Wolverhampton house. His owners probably gave him his English name - his original birth name is not known.

In 1772, owning slaves in England effectively became illegal - although it would be another 40 years before full abolition was achieved - and George was provided with an education and apprenticed to a brass founder.

Once he finished his training he settled in Nottingham where documents give a glimpse into his personality.

He married local woman Esther Shaw on 3 August 1788 at the city's St Peter's Church.

The union was lengthy, lasting until George's death in 1834, but it was tinged with sadness - the couple lost six of their seven children.

At some point, the pair established a servants' register - a business run at their home in Chandler's Lane in the city centre.

 3D computer image of what the Africanus house would have looked like Belong Nottingham created a 3D computer image of what the Africanus house would have looked like, based on plans held at Nottinghamshire Archive

Throughout his life George supplemented his income with other jobs, working as a labourer and brass founder, while Esther made hats.

They saved enough money to buy their home, making George a freeholder, which entitled him to vote.

Ballots were not secret until 1872, and in an 1826 election he voted for John Smith Wright of Rempstone - perhaps unsurprisingly as he was an abolitionist.

In 1829, he expanded the business, buying properties in Chandler's Lane for £380 which were converted into homes and rented out.

George also played his part in city life. Not long after the Luddites first sabotaged knitting machines in Nottinghamshire in 1811, a Watch and Ward group was established to protect against rioting gangs.

A leader of the Luddites, possibly a caricature of Ned Ludd The Luddites started in 1811 in Nottinghamshire and were opposed to the use of machinery in knitting. They fomented riots and smashed up knitting frames

As a responsible property owner, George would have been obliged to patrol the streets and his name is on the group's register in 1816.

He died in 1834, at the age of 71, leaving the business and property portfolio to his widow and daughter. But his will tells an interesting story.

Everything was to be left to his wife and only surviving child, Hannah Cropper.

But he appeared to have hated his son-in-law and his possessions were to remain "free from the control, debts or interference of [Hannah's] husband Samuel Cropper".

The will goes on: "Provided that in case my said Daughter shall at any time hereafter cohabit again with her Husband the said Samuel Cropper then she shall forfeit all her right to my said Furniture and Effects."

George Africanus' last will and testament In George Africanus' last will and testament, he left all his belongings to his wife Esther

His intentions appear to have been ignored and in a later census, Esther, Hannah and Thomas were all living together in Chandler's Lane.

George was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's in Nottingham's Lace Market, but over the years his resting place was forgotten.

It wasn't until 2003 that researchers from community development charity Belong Nottingham re-discovered his story, and recently unveiled a blue plaque in his memory on the Major Oak pub in Victoria Street - the location of the long since demolished Chandler's Lane.

Rosanna Ottewell, from the charity, said: "His story gives so many people a sense of pride that we have an African man in Nottingham's history who was a successful and well-respected member of the community.

"George's legacy is one of hope and triumph. After all, he was brought here to live out his life in servitude and wasn't free to do as he pleased. He must have been quite remarkable and quite driven - and we know this because of what he achieved."

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