Black History Month

Photo of the frontispiece and title page of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African

As part of this year’s Black History Month, the Gardens Trust is highlighting black figures from British history who have been involved in gardening or inspired by horticulture.

This is part of our wider Heritage Lottery funded project Engaging With Our Future, which aims to show new audiences just how diverse, relevant and engaging garden and landscape history can be for everyone. By taking part in initiatives like Black History Month, we’re able to share stories of some lesser-known aspects of our past, all of which contribute to – and make richer – the tapestry of garden and landscape history in Britain.

Five figures from black history

We’ve chosen to shine a spotlight on five people, some of whom may be familiar if you know some garden history already while others may be completely new. Do you recognise any of the figures below?

John Ystumllyn

John Ystumllyn (d.1786) was a black gardener and family man who lived in 18th century North Wales. His story is known through a 1754 oil portrait and oral histories of his life that were collected and written down in Welsh in 1888. There are various accounts of how he arrived as a child in Criccieth – perhaps from West Africa or the West Indies – but it is likely that his journey to Britain was a result of the slave trade.

John was taken by Ellis Wynn and his family to their Ystumllyn estate, where he was given the name by which he is now known. Slaves were rarely seen in Britain, even though the profits of the slave trade permeated Georgian society at the time. But there was a fashion for the gentry to have a single black servant, as a way of them signifying their wealth and sophistication. John may have been acquired for this purpose by the Wynns, which would explain the small oil portrait of him painted when he was about 16.

Portrait of John Ystumllyn, 11 May 1754 (public domain via Wikipedia)

John learnt both English and Welsh, and worked as a gardener on the estate, learning about horticulture which, according to the 1888 account ‘he did more or less perfectly, as he was very ingenious. … He was also very fond of flowers and a good florist.’ His appearance seems to have led to some local notoriety, although he was far from the first black person to live in North Wales. In 1768 he married local maid Margaret Gruffydd, and together they had seven children. Some of their descendants are still thought to live locally.  Towards the end of John’s life, Ellis Wynn gave him a small thatched cottage and large garden at a place called Y Nhyra Isa.

The house and garden at Ystumllyn shortly after John died (public domain via Wikimedia)

John was said to be highly respected by everyone, his courage in making a settled life for himself in North Wales turning him into ‘something of a legend’ according to one biographer. A memorial stone, inscribed with a bleak verse in Welsh, was later placed in the churchyard at St Cynhaearn, where he was buried. A yellow rose has now been named after him to celebrate his life as one of the UK’s first known black gardeners. Read the announcement

Thomas Birch Freeman

Thomas Birch Freeman (1809 – 1890) was a Methodist missionary and botanist, born in Hampshire to an English mother, Amy Birch, and Thomas, an African freeman. Before his time as a missionary in West Africa, he worked as head gardener at Orwell Park in Suffolk, the inherited home of Arethusa Vernon and her husband Sir Robert Harland. Later, during his time as a missionary, he collected information for Kew on West African plants, and exchanged letters with its first director, Sir William Hooker. Towards the end of his life he purchased land in Ghana’s capital Accra and became a farmer.

Painting of Thomas Birch Freeman
Portrait of Thomas Birch Freeman (public domain via Wikimedia)

Some of his writing is available online, including his 1843 Journal of Two Visits to the Kingdom of Ashanti, Western Africa, in which he often writes about the local flora and fauna:

‘… I went into the forest, and saw a pretty variety of Justicia: the colour was pink and white, and the leaf large and deeply nerved, very much like Justicia Nervosa. I also saw a handsome species of Hibiscus, which I had never seen before; the leaf was large, and the flower pink and white.’

Social and garden historian Advolly Richmond is conducting research into Freeman’s contributions to botany and plant-collecting, which have been overshadowed by his work as a missionary in West Africa.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (d. 1784) was an enslaved African woman living in colonial Boston who became a published poet at the age of about 20. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773 and made her, according to one biographer, ‘the most famous African on the face of the earth.’

Poet Phillis Wheatley (public domain via New York Public Library)

After her book’s success, Wheatley was emancipated by her owners but was to die aged 31 in poverty. Influenced by the work of writer and garden-maker Alexander Pope, her poetry makes much use of the language around plants and nature, for instance in describing her 1773 departure from Boston for London with her owners’ son, in the hope of improving her health:

‘ADIEU, New-England’s smiling meads,
Adieu, the flow’ry plain:
I leave thine op’ning charms, O spring,
And tempt the roaring main.

In vain for me the flow’rets rise,
And boast their gaudy pride,
While here beneath the northern skies
I mourn for health deny’d.

In vain the feather’d warblers sing,
In vain the garden blooms,
And on the bosom of the spring
Breathes out her sweet perfumes.’

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his home in what is now Nigeria around the age of 11 years old and sold into slavery.  He bought his freedom for £40 and became a political campaigner and abolitionist in Georgian Britain.

Photo of the frontispiece and title page of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (public domain via Wikimedia)

Writing about agriculture in his homeland, he presents a perhaps idealised picture of the land’s fecundity and the people’s close relationship with it:

“Our land is uncommonly rich and fruitful, and produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indian corn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Our pine apples grow without culture; they are about the size of the largest sugar-loaf, and finely flavoured. We have also spices of different kinds, particularly pepper; and a variety of delicious fruits which I have never seen in Europe; together with gums of various kinds, and honey in abundance. All our industry is exerted to improve those blessings of nature.” [From The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself, published in London in 1789.]

A memorial dedicated to Equiano was erected by children from Edmund Waller School in Lewisham’s Telegraph Hill park in 2007, to mark 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade. Alongside, an African garden was developed by Gardens for Learning with support from the Horniman Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden.

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho was an enslaved African in Georgian Britain who became a celebrated writer and abolitionist, as well as a composer and shopkeeper. He was probably the first man of African descent to vote in a British general election, in 1774, and the first to have an obituary published in British newspapers.

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Gainsborough (Gilbert Stuart, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

His letters were collected and published in 1782 as The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. His learning included an appreciation of English plants and landscapes; for instance, in a 1768 letter to a friend, advising him to be nice to new acquaintances, Sancho writes “As to friendship, it is a mistake—real friendships are not hastily made—friendship is a plant of slow growth, and – like our English oak, spreads—is more majestically beautiful, and increases in shade, strength and riches, as it increases in years.”

Our thanks to Jill Sinclair for compiling this historical information.

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith