Genealogy and Black Britons in the 18th century

Kathy Chater recalls how a chance discovery in family history threw up much wider questions about perceptions of black Britons in the 18th century.

As a family historian, about a year ago I began to suspect that one of my ancestors, born about 1800, was black. I read books on black history, accumulated about 600 parish register entries, mainly of servants, and became interested in what happened to them after the deaths of their masters. While looking for the will of one of these masters, I noticed the name John Scipio in the index to wills in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury  (PCC) 1750-1800. It is a surname which seems to have been given only to black men (after the Roman north African general) so I knew this would be of interest. The will itself does not mention Scipio’s colour, only that he was the servant of Elizabeth and William Snelgrove, and that he lived in Mile End Old Town in the parish of Stepney, East London.

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