Saturday, April 22, 2006

Diary of Lady Shelburne - Thomas Coulican Phoenix

In recent posts I've reproduced parts of Lady Shelburne's diary -- as you can see from the listing in the sidebar. I identified the people, places, and events of the diary as best I could, using mainly online sources and an occasional printed one when handy. If I couldn't track something down quickly, I left it alone or made a best guess about it.

I'd like to go back to one of those little mysteries. On November 25, 1768, Sophie wrote: "This morning I had christened, at St. George's Church, a little negro boy of five years old, that was given me by Mr. Richard Wells on Friday last, by the names of Thomas Coulican Phoenix; the latter he had been called after the ship he was brought in. He is pretty and very good humoured, and I hope by proper care will turn out well."

I wonder. Why would Sophie be "given" a little Negro boy? Why would she accept such a gift? Who was Richard Wells? What was the ship he was brought in?

As answers all I have is surmises.

Taking the ship first:

My first find turned out to be a dead end. Not long after the appearance of the biography containing the extracts from Sophie's diary, there appeared a reference to this name, Thomas Coulican Phoenix, in Notes and Queries, a periodical for passionate antiquarians. In March, 1877, one of N&Q's most frequent contributors, A.O.V.P., participated in a discussion thread that had been begun the previous month concerning "Unusual Christian Names."

* It's a digression, which is absolutely in keeping with the ethos of N&Q, to give the beginning of the thread. On a page of the magazine, along with contributions headed "Gloucestershire Provincialism," "Think To It," "Yankee," and "St. Mary's, Newington, Surrey," is one headed "Unusual Christian Names," by J. Charles Fox. He jotted down names from the registers of Youlgreave in Derbyshire saying he was struck by the number of infrequent names he found and adds: "In 1708 William and Mary Castle caused their son to be baptized Windsor, thus making the curious combination of "Windsor Castle." And also: "In 1739 the vicar enters: 'Baptized Charity, the daughter of the Lord knows who.'"

This discussion morphed into one on unusual family names and A.O.V.P. took up this thread in an entry headed Phœnix, writing: "Some time ago there was a correspondence in "N.& Q." as to the origin of the family name Phœnix. The following quotation from Lady Shelburne's diary may therefore perhaps be of interest to some of your readers." He then quotes the diary entry and gives a full citation to the biography. There's nothing more. (The Fitzmaurice biography seems to have been popular in its day since there's another reference to it on the same page, one about an old measure of land, Uncia, Unciata Terræ..) {Source: Notes and Queries, 5th S. VII, Mar-Apr, 1877.}

A second effort was more fruitful. My friend Mitch, who's studying for a PhD in English History at Duke, told me the ship Phoenix appears in The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999). It took me a while to find the time to retrieve and view this source; when I did, I found a whole bunch of slave ships named Phoenix.

In our period (in and around 1768), there was one that had been constructed in New York in 1759. This ship took slaves from Biafra, Africa, to Kingston, Jamaica, in 1765 and 1768, returning to Liverpool after each voyage. There was another that had been constructed in Salisbury, Massachusetts, in 1753. It sailed in November, 1760, from Liverpool to the Windward Coast of Africa (roughly the modern Ivory Coast). The database entry says the ship was "captured before slaves embarked" and says it's not known who did the capturing. A third Phoenix was constructed in Spain at an unknown date and later registered as a British vessel. It departed Bristol in 1766 to pick up slaves in Biafra and deliver them to Dominica. It never made it back to England, having sunk due to natural causes after departure from Dominica. From the dates of voyage and outcomes, it seems likely that the Phoenix in which the boy came to England was the first (made in New York). It's just possible that he arrived in the second of the two voyages in our period, landing in Liverpool in 1768, but why he wasn't sold off in Kingston is a question that needs answering.

The night after I did this research in The Transatlantic Slave Trade I kept waking up with bad dreams about the fate of the Africans who were captured, sold into slavery, shipped across the ocean, and made to work cane into sugar for the rest of their (presumably short) lives. The database entry for the voyage that may have brought the boy to Liverpool records, laconically as databases do, that 40 of the 400 Africans who were its cargo "died between last port of purchase and first port of disembarkation." Horrible though their deaths certainly were, they may have been fortunate.

Next: Who was Richard Wells?

I thought at first he was a Virginia planter, but this seems far-fetched. More likely, he was an ancestor of Orson Welles, the famous director (movies and theater). Writing about his origins, a biographer says:
I was surprised to discover that Orson Welles, who was not noted for his modesty, had completely hidden the distinction of his liberal forebears on both sides of his family. It was startling to find that his finest American ancestor on his father's side was a Quaker, Richard Wells, from Cottness near Sheffield, Yorkshire.
Our author adds: "Richard Wells's father, Dr. Gideon Wells, was both poet and physician and attended the health of many ruling families of England, including the parents of George Gordon, Lord Byron." Gideon Wells died in 1760 which puts the reach of his life near the bounds of Sophie's diary and makes it plausible that the Shelburne's knew him or of him. When his father died, Richard, the eldest surviving son, was forced to sell the family estate to settle its debts. He then emigrated to America and became a Quaker. In 1773, after our period, he was to become principal officer of the Bank of North America in Philadelphia. {Source: Orson Welles: Rise and Fall of an American Genius, by Charles Higham, St. Martin's Press, 2002. pp. 5, 14, 15.}

Richard Wells was an author of pamphlets, as well as Quaker and banker. He wrote The Middle Line (Philadelphia, 1775) at the height of the crisis leading up to the Declaration of Independence, taking a "line" as the title indicates, between the extreme separatists and the Anglophile conservatives. In fact his politics at this time were practically identical with those of Sophie's husband, Shelburne. He also wrote A Few Political Reflections Submitted to the Consideration of the British Colonies (Philadelphia, 1774) and "To The Freemen of America," (Charleston, South-Carolina Gazette, June, 6, 1774). Wells was later to become a member of the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery, and, in all three publications, he combined political rhetoric with arguments against slavery and the slave trade. In 1789 he would petition Congress to enact a "remedy against the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow men." {Source: Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 2, p. 91}

Next: What about the little boy?

Putting together guesses about the ship and Richard Wells, I surmise that Richard Wells came to England in 1768 along with other Americans to confer with Shelburne about the crisis in colonial affairs in America. Their goal would be to resolve differences and avert armed conflict, though both sides must have realized that intransigence had progressed too far on both sides for such a resolution to be easy to achieve. I surmise that he had been able to rescue one of the slaves from the Phoenix; it's possible, even, that he obtained passage from Philadelphia to Liverpool on the Phoenix to become more familiar with the doings of slavers and the trade and that he purchased or was given the boy who had somehow escaped been sold into slavery in Kingston.

If this is true, then he might have brought the rescued slave to Sophie for her to raise in England. I can imagine she would have welcomed the opportunity to make a stand in this way against the evils of slavery and the slave trade and do what she could to make amends.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this investigation. I came across this passage quoted (without explanation) in Lord Fitzmaurice's "Life of Shelburne" and was a little baffled, so the probable back-story here is interesting.