Sir John Reresby was quite an interesting chap. Being from a Royalist family, he spent much of the interregnum in quasi-exile travelling throughout Europe , returning after the restoration to become an MP and Governor of York. He was also that finest of historical figures- an autobiographer. His “Memoirs” and “Travels” are full of nuggets for the historian. I was reading them for his view on the Dumbarton’s Regiment, but I came across this strange, sad, grotesque, but thought provoking story.
Reresby tell us:
I had a fine black of about sixteen years of age, presented to me by a gentleman who brought him over from Barbadoes: This black lived with me some years and died on the 20th of October , 1676, of an imposthume in his head
However, some six weeks after the burial, it came to Reresby’s attention that in London the story had been put about that the cause of death was not a brain abscess but:
I had caused him to be gelt [gelded], and that the operation had killed him
Reresby claimed that this rumour was spread by the duke of Norfolk and his family, with whom he had some legal dispute, in the hope that Reresby would be convicted of a felony and forfeit his estate. Reresby had the coroner exhume the body, where the tale becomes all the more macabre and disturbing. The coroner summoned a jury. However, when the decaying body was uncovered to the breast, this jury was so horrified, they refused to allow it to be exposed further. Unable to inspect him personally, they interviewed eleven witnesses who had helped lay him out and others who:
several, because of his colour, having a curiosity to see him after he was dead
The jury, having heard these ghoulish witnesses, declared that he was killed Ex visitatione Dei, by the hand of God.
However this was not good enough for Reresby’s opponents and they sent down two lawyers and a surgeon to inspect the body. It was found that, though most of the body was badly decayed, the genitals were “perfectly sound and entire” and after having a possible attempt by the visiting surgeon to make a post-mortem incriminating wound foiled, they had to concede that no emasculation had taken place.
So what do we make of this sordid tale? I will admit to a fairly limited knowledge of slavery in England at the time, and I welcome correction or elaboration. The mid-late Seventeenth Century saw the infancy (or perhaps adolescence) of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It was established in the plantations of South America and the Carribean, but the worst of the large scale transportation of slaves was for the next Century.
The word “slave” isn’t used at all in Reresby’s account but there is little doubt that this was what the dead boy (his very anonymity speaks volumes) was. It would seem that there were both “free” and “slave” black people working in England at the time- Pepys “blackamoor” cook was, it seems, a regular domestic employee. However he was “presented to” Reresby as a child and, since he came from Barbados, was almost certainly the son of slaves on a plantation. The language in which he introduced the story of his slave is very much one of possession. I first came across the passage whilst skim reading for something else and initially assumed that the “black” he referred to was a horse, only shamefacedly re-reading when the truth became apparent to me.
The position of slavery on English soil was somewhat ambiguous- on the occassions when slavery was challenged in the courts, the verdict, from as early as 1569, generally supported the position that there was not such thing as slavery under English Law. This did not however lead to any suggestion of a general emacipation, and that his status as a slave would probably have been denied by a court would be of little use or consolation to the little boy given to Reresby.
We must remember that the period also does pre-date, by a century, the quasi-scientific racial theories of the enlightenment and the evangelism of the abolishinists.
Unlike on the plantations, it would seem that in Seventeenth Century England, Africans were not generally employed as cheap labour. They seem to have been desired of their exoticism and used as (often liveried) servants for display by the rich and eve royalty. This desire to display them is illustrated by their use in contemporary portraits. These portraits invariably featured a young, good looking African, (see the couple of examples I’ve included, there are more, with some more background here). Reresby’s description of the boy (I do so wish we had a name) as “fine” suggests he may have been picked out as a child for his beauty.
That the accusation was directed at Reresby says something about the status of the “slave” in England, distinct from those in the New World or on the transatlantic passage. Had the charges about him been proved and he had caused the boy’s death he would have committed a felony, and the cause of the boy’s death was the business of the coroner- i.e. his life and person had at least some of the same legal status as a “free” person. Although he could be given away or, presumably, sold he was, legally at least, a person as well as a chattel, and Reresby didn’t even consider suggesting otherwise as a defence. The same could not be said of the plantations or passages where assault or homicide would not conceivably result in criminal liability for the overseer or owner.
The accusation of gelding itself is a bizarre one. Reresby repeatedly calls it “ridiculous” repeatedly and it seems no means a common, or known practice. At sixteen, any castration would be too late to create a eunuch in the Asian tradition or a castrato singer. The accusation is no doubt related to the handsome youth reaching his sexual virility. Was the European paranoia about African male sexuality already established in the 1670s? Was the accusation (assuming, of course we take Reresby at his word and it was not true) pitched at play on the lurid prejudices of the public to further embarrass Reresby, or was there, in fact some scandal involving the boy which gave seed to the accusation?
Even from the little we can glean it was a sad tale. The nameless boy may well have had a better life with Raresby than he would in Barbados, possibly no worse than another domestic in the house of an aristocrat of the time. His legal position as a slave was ambiguous, but his de facto lack of freedom clear. He was taken from the plantation, but also probably from his parents, conceivably for the sake of his looks. He was given away by his owner, probably to curry favour with an influential man and lived out his short life as an object of curiosity. Even if he was not, in fact emasculated, in death he found no dignity, leered at as a corpse, exhumed and his cadaver used as a political pawn.