By Arthur de Graft-Rosenior

The intriguing legend of Tom Jenkins reminds the untrained scholar that the ‘ugly truth’ of slavery is far better than ‘beautiful lies’ about ‘lands flowing with milk and honey’. Invaluable research from The Hawick Archaeological Society 1870, uncovers the voyage on 5th September 1802, of slave ship, The Prudence which left Liverpool for trading under captain James Swanson (a naval surgeon).  Among its human cargo, ‘a six-year-old farmhand, son of a slave-trading chief called ‘King Cock-eye’ (a one-eyed slave trader)-who it was believed ‘paid them for Tom’s safe voyage to Britain – most likely in the hopes that he would receive a good education and better quality of life there’.  Hawick Archaeological Society testified that: ‘“Others who sailed on The Prudence were not as fortunate: the 123-ton ship was completing a slave voyage”. ( The Smiddy and the School Teacher | Historic Environment Scotland)

A slave ship with the most unlikely of names; a twenty-three year old naval surgeon captain reaches The Windward coast of Sierra Leone; an unlikely ‘gentleman’s agreement between the one-eyed slave trading chief and the captain of ‘The Prudence’.  What were the intentions? A ‘business model’ shaped by divine providence for Scotland in Africa and Africa in Scotland?

‘Pagan birth’ or rough diamond?

Probably born in the wake of The Haitian Revolution, a time, pregnant with expectations, when black people of the diaspora were experiencing the birth pains and creative turmoil of a new and genuine civilization, struggling to be born, this story arguably contributes to the legacy of Black Atlantic humanism that Paul Gilroy and other writers like him charted.  Robin Kelley gives clear view of the depth of the influence of Gilroy’s black Atlantic paradigm.  ‘Today the movement of peoples, ideas, and goods across and between borders similarly changes relationships and knowledge related to these migrations. People’s strongest connections may no longer revolve around state power’. (The Modern Paul Gilroy: Modernity, Transnationalism, and the Impact of The Black Atlantic on History). 

After Swanson’s death shortly on arrival from delerium tremens’ – an illness caused by withdrawal from alcohol”, and under the care of Swanson’s sister in Teviothead, not far from Hawick, the young Tom Jenkins once again found himself in the sellers’ market.  Only that this time Tom Jenkins overcame prejudice by elevating himself through hard work and relentless study to be tested and approved by the local heritors and become arguably, Britain’s first black teacher. A void ensued around the life of Tom between 1803 and 1817 during which, he is believed to have worked as ‘a cowherd and peat driver at the farms of Caerlanrig and Falnash’.  Remarkably: ‘He went to the village school in Teviothead and in his spare time he taught himself Latin, Greek and Mathematics, often late at night by candlelight. He was regularly seen in and around Hawick buying books with his wages’. (Blog The Smiddy and the School Teacher).

In 1803, a young boy arrived in Liverpool on board a ship called The Prudence.

Britain’s first black teacher?

In context, how much of Tom Jenkin’s story is rooted within the eclectic tradition of history as story-telling through knowledge or appreciation of the past? How are facts and events interwoven to help relate the past to the present? Looking at history through Tom Jenkin’s eyes, by the age of around 18-20 years old, despite his hard work, Jenkins confronted prejudice after he was rejected for a teaching post advertised by the Presbytery of Jedburgh in Teviothead. Scotland’s Storytelling cultural tradition, provides an opportunity for students of life to gain an insight from untold history that leaves them wiser or better educated about life as a journey and the destination as an outcome of divine providence.

How much does the influence of certain factors like family background, religious convictions, political beliefs, the influence of individuals, in particular his benefactors including the Quakers who recommended him as a missionary of the Christian Knowledge Society, the Professor of Humanity (Latin), at college [in Edinburgh], the British and Foreign School Society, the Borough Road College in London, his time at the Fitzroy Sabbath and Day School on Grafton Street in Fitzrovia in London before being sent to Mauritius (located far off the eastern coast of Madagascar)-influence, shape and impact his style of teaching?

With the help of the Heritor’s (leading parishioners) of Teviothead who believed in Tom Jenkins, they helped to open a local independent school in the Blacksmith’s Smiddy.  In 1817, they elected him to the post and recommended him to the Presbytery of Jedburgh installing Jenkins as most likely the first black school teacher in Britain. After attending classes at the University of Edinburgh, on 8 June 1818, Tom arrived at Borough Road College in Southwark, London, and with the backing of influential abolitionist Quakers, William Watson and William Allen, he enrolled himself onto the teacher training course, taught at two London schools, while helping to set up the British School in Pilmlico in 1820.  How would these abolitionist influencers’ implementation of Quaker standards augur well for the future career of young Thomas Jenkins?

The First Register of Male Students at Borough Road College 1804 – 1821.

In 1820, Tom reappears in the records as a professional teacher in London.

First “Model” Free School on the island of Mauritius

Armed with his Teacher Training certificate, Tom Jenkins, on 1st August 1821, boarded the ship, Columba, headed for Mauritius.  What manner of man?  Pagan African? Rough diamond? Or polished jewel?

On the invitation of Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar, the Governor of Mauritius Tom Jenkins was charged with helping the colony build its education system (specifically for the local black population).  There, in 1821, as a qualified teacher of the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS): ‘He eventually took charge at the first “Model” Free School on the island and worked for the British government as a teacher for 37 years’ (ibid1).  En route, he even tutored fellow passenger, Prince Ratefy of Madagascar. 

Jenkins’ legacy in Mauritius is unrivalled as In Jan 1823 Thomas opened the free school with 6 pupils, which soon reached 30.  ‘By the time of his death in June 1859, a year after Mauritius announced it now had 2364 pupils enrolled in the free government schools that Tom had started’ (NA Mauritius, 1858 school return via BFSS archive).

A brass plaque commemorating Tom Jenkins’ career was unveiled in 2003 Tom’s former workplace in Teviothead  (designated as a listed building in 1987) and can be found on the front of the building.

In the tradition of the philosophical movement of Black Atlantic humanism, Tom Jenkins’ story arguably made the case for the recognition of black humanity in a world of chattel slavery.  Paul Gilroy’s development of the term “Black Atlantic Humanism” has fuelled debates on the impact of contributions by people of African descent on the intellectual heritage of the West.

The impact of a business deal by the 23-year-old captain James Swanson of Hawick on a young African son of “King Cock-eye” (a ‘one-eyed’ slave-trader) born somewhere on the Guinea coast of west Africa (probably in the modern Sierra Leone) is self-evident.   His story also puts the heart of the Hawick Archaeological Society on the map of the world as Black History Month looks back on and celebrates the life and career of Brunel alumnus Tom Jenkins. (Brunel Is seen as the home to the archives of the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS).  His teaching style apparently developed along the lines of Christian social reformers pioneered by Joseph Lancaster.

However, despite leaving a legacy of 37 years in the service of the colonial government of Mauritius, where he also took charge at the first “Model” Free School on the island and writing his name into the history books of two continents, Jenkins’ widow, (fellow teacher Augustine Laurencia with whom he had four children). was refused a pension.