Monday, October 19, 2020

Black History Month: Eliza, Anne and Helen Edmonstone

For Black History Month 2020, Wakefield Museums & Castles are exploring four stories related to British slave ownership in the early 1800s. In the second post of the series, we are looking at the extraordinary lives of three mixed race sisters.

Eliza, Anne and Helen Edmonstone were born (1807, 1812 and 1813) into the messy mix of colonialism, violence and indigenous tribes of British Guiana, and later married into the family of an eccentric Wakefield naturalist. Their story begins in the world of slavery and ends in environmental activism and the creation of the world’s first nature reserve.

The Edmonstone sisters must have made quite an impression when they came to Wakefield in the late 1820s. They were described as tall, dark and beautiful maidens but the darkness of their skin also marked them as outsiders. On a visit in 1845, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin described them as ‘Mulatresses’, his only comment on them (an abhorrent racial slur today) forged purely by their skin colour and their mixed race heritage.

Early life in colonial South America

Eliza, Anne and Helen were born in hot, humid and remote British Guiana in South America, three of four sisters and two brothers. Their Scottish father was a wood merchant named Charles Edmonstone and their mother was descended from Amazonian royalty, ‘Princess’ Minda, the daughter of an Arawak chief from a powerful indigenous tribe.

Their home, Warrow’s Point on the Mibiri Creek, was an 11 day trek up the Demerara River from the coast line plantations, the ports and markets, and the decadence of the capital Georgetown. The Edmonstones’ domestic life was a curious set up. Two families of freed slaves lived in the garden (one of whom was John Edmonstone) and they were taught how to read and write by a Scotsman called Old Glen, a former sailor, soldier, plantation owner and preacher who lived in a hut at the end of the garden. The family regularly entertained military generals, politicians, tribal leaders and even enslaved people. It was here that their father became close friends with Anne’s future husband, Charles Waterton of Walton Hall. 

Mr Edmonstone’s Wood Cutting Establishment

Mibiri Creek, Demerara River

Thomas Staunton St Clair, sketched around 1808

A Residence in the West Indies and America (London 1834, Vol 2)

Copyright unknown

This multi-cultural home put the family at the centre of many tensions within colonial life. Charles Edmonstone’s family connections to the indigenous tribes put him in a unique position. He was employed by the British Government to track down enslaved people, who often made camps within the rainforest. This role brought violence and former slaves were sometimes killed by the hunters. The idea of hunting down those that had escaped their bondage is repugnant but was very common throughout the British colonies.

Despite his role as hunter, Edmonstone also insisted that all recaptured enslaved people be pardoned and never returned to their ‘owners’. Instead they were exiled to neighbouring islands. Edmonstone had the title of Burgher – captain and Protector of the Indians during his time in Guiana and was vocal in his belief that the indigenous people should have better treatment and protection.

A Scottish proposal

In 1817 the family left the colour, chaos and colonialism of Guiana for cold and grey Scotland. They were now wealthy and, having bought back the ancestral home, Cardross Park near Glasgow, attempting to insert themselves into Scottish high society. It must have been a huge culture shock for the children and their mother.

Ten years later, Charles Waterton, who had now completed four adventures in the Americas and been busily creating a museum in his house and the world’s first nature park in his grounds, came to Cardross Park to visit his old friend with a proposal to marry Anne. He had written the previous month stating that he had not ‘the courage enough to look for a wife’.

He would have found the Edmonstones in a poor state. The whole family struggled with the British climate - the sisters suffered from back aches, leg aches and headaches; their father’s health was deteriorating; and their mother was painfully thin and reliant on laudanum. Waterton’s proposal may have come as a relief to the mounting debts and uncertainty, for within two years the sisters were orphans.

To Bruges

Waterton’s family were strict Catholics so Eliza and Anne were sent to the English Convent in Bruges to be converted to Catholicism. They regularly wrote to their younger sister, Helen, in Scotland during their two year regimented stay in Bruges. Wakefield Museums and Castles holds several of their letters. They write with affection for their new surroundings:

‘It is just, my dearest Helen, that I should now answer the many letters you have written to me and endeavour at the same time to give you an account of the Many happy days I have spent in this Dear Convent .’ 

Anne Edmonstone to Helen, October 1827

As the wedding day grew closer, Anne expressed her nervousness and fear for marrying. Although she states she is ‘confident of his love’, in the month before her wedding she writes:

‘The time of my marriage approaches very quickly. I tremble when I think of it. One happiness is that it will be very private’

Anne Edmonstone to Eliza, 20 April 1829

Wakefield Museums & Castles collection

The couple married at 5:30am on 18th May 1829 at the convent. She was only 17 and Waterton was 47. There is a plaque commemorating the marriage at the convent today.

A tragic loss

Whilst the newlyweds departed for a honeymoon across Belgium, France and Italy, Eliza travelled to Walton Hall to meet Charles Waterton’s sister, Helen Carr.

‘I found Walton Lake beyond description and Mr and Mrs Carr a charming couple (to use our dear Father’s expression) lay aside your fears Annie Dear. I am certain you will like her at first sight. She spoke in the kindest manner and she longed very much for you arrival in England.

Eliza Edmonstone to Anne Waterton, nee Edmonstone, 23 June 1829

Eliza  and Helen soon settled into the surroundings of Walton Hall.

Walton Hall as it looked when Eliza and Helen arrived in 1831. Drawn by Waterton’s friend Captain Jones.

By the autumn of 1829 Helen was at the English Convent, Eliza had returned to Scotland, and Anne had settled into life at Walton Hall and entered a pregnancy that would end in tragedy. She gave birth to a boy, Edmund, on 19 April 1830. Anne died on 27 April. She was 18, a wife for less than a year, a mother for eight days.

‘Her Dear baby, “Edmund Waterton” is alive and well –she requested that you might be informed that she died – ‘most happy’ She had a deep seated conviction that she should die and this did not at all dis-compose her.’

J.G.Morris to Sister Marian Nyren at the English Convent, Bruges, 27th April, 1830

Family life at Walton Hall and beyond

Waterton requested to be made responsible for Eliza and Helen and within a few months had formed a new family unit of two sisters, a brother and a son, which would endure for the next 35 years.

I feel a great comfort in thinking that you are with him, that you will soothe his grief by your Sisterly and affectionate conduct.

Marian Nyren to Eliza Edmonstone, June 25th Bruges, 1830

 They were extremely close and rarely separated:

My sisters and I keep Spanish hours. We breakfast at eight, dine at one, and take tea and coffee at six….we are so close we are like three branches on a single stem’

Charles Waterton to Norman Moore, 1864


Eliza and Helen with baby Edmund

Extract from The Extraordinary Life of Charles Waterton, A comicbook adventure, Part Three, The Defence of Nature, 2015

Drawn by Richard Bell

Being the older sister, Eliza was in a position of responsibility - she managed the house and supervised Edmund’s education until he went away for school. She wrote the letters to Charles when he was away, with a note added by Helen. When Charles took a local polluting soap making business to court for pollution, it was a property owned by Eliza that settled the argument.

Both sisters suffered from ill health, possibly from the climate. Eliza had bad knees and lungs, Helen had kidney problems, and both suffered debilitating headaches. Waterton took them on European tours in search of cures, to various French and German spa towns and warmer climates. As with most journeys with Waterton, they had to endure mishaps like getting shipwrecked off the coast of Italy.

Lost to history

In his later years, Waterton obviously trusted his sisters with his legacy much more than he did his own son. Edmund was resentful, particularly of Eliza’s position in the family. Waterton changed his will late in his life to give Walton Hall and its contents to Eliza and Helen. When Waterton died in 1865, Edmund took the sisters to court. They avoided a confrontation by agreeing to leave Walton Hall for a house in Scarborough but they never settled in one place. Eliza died in Ostend in 1870 aged 63 and Helen died in 1879 in Bruges aged 66. Neither sister married.

As Charles Darwin’s comments show, the colour of Eliza and Helen’s skin marked them out at the time as exotic outsiders. Another visitor to Walton Hall compared the sisters to the Native Americans he had seen in Canada. An unspecified incident occurred with Eliza in 1854, which nearly led to the two sisters leaving Walton Hall for good. Could the distress caused have been related to her mixed race heritage?

These few descriptions of the sisters is all that we have. They did have their portraits painted but they are lost, as are the meticulous diaries they kept. We are forced instead to rely on their relationship with Waterton for an understanding of their lives.

Over the next fortnight, we will be sharing two further articles focusing on the connections between Charles Waterton of Walton Hall and the practice of slavery in the early 1800s.

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