213 : Attempts to help young blacks 1890-1892

Some Britons were concerned over the fate of young blacks when the evidence suggested they were enslaved. In March 1890 the Victoria Gallery in Regent Street, London opened an exhibition called the Stanley and African Exhibition. Stanley had just spent three years crossing Africa on the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, which he detailed in his two volume In Darkest Africa and in many speeches and articles. The exhibition was supported by the Royal Geographical Society and the Anthropological Society, the CMS, the British South Africa Company’s Duke of Fife and William Mackinnon of the British East Africa Company.[i] There were displays of fabrics, weapons, shields, carvings and masks. There were two Africans – Gootoo and Inyokwana, whose photographs were published as postcards.[ii] They were the subject of soul-searching by British liberals who wondered about their fate when the exhibition closed. Apparently the boys were the property of a Boer [amended 29 April 2022: born in South Africa to English parents – see John Brown’s email comment below] married to John Thorburn, an Englishman in Swaziland. The boys would return to that slave or semi-slave status, and so Charles Allen, secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society of England, took legal action.

The Court of Chancery of London had the role of representing children of any nationality who were in the United Kingdom and lacked a legal guardian. The court’s decision was published in The Times on 8 May 1891. The initial writ of habeas corpus had been made in November 1890 when it had been discharged as the judge thought the two lads were no worse off than children of their age in England, and neither expressed a wish to be removed from Mrs Thorburn’s custody. That judge believed they would return to Africa as her domestic servants. Allen then asked to be considered as their guardian for the time being. Evidence indicated Swaziland’s semi-independence meant Britain’s abolition of slavery did not apply there and local practice would keep them as wards of the Thorburns free to go when they reached maturity. Allen’s lawyers said the Thorburns had no rights as the boys had been given to them by a labour agent and were, to all intents and purposes, enslaved. Allen’s committee would provide finances to support them. The defence lawyers indicated if Allen was successful then busybodies would be able to ask for guardians to be appointed for thousands of British children, and the court did not have that power. The judge said the Thorburns ‘had no legal title to these infants’ and the court possessed the necessary powers. A guardian would have legal powers and would be subject to checks. The Thorburns were willing to be guardians. It was recommended that guardians were appointed.[iii] The Society concluded this decision made it easier in the future to stop African children from being taken from Britain without guarantees about their freedom. John Thorburn, writing on other matters concerning Swaziland, had a letter published in The Times in June.[iv] The documentation survives in the Anti-Slavery Society papers at Rhodes House, Oxford.[v]

Sannie Koopman left a touring South African choir to work for African American William Henry Thompson who was active with Christian missions in England. He was based at 107 Boelyn (sic Boleyn, surely?) Road, Kingsland, London but was living in lodgings at Wharfe Lane, Chesterfield in 1892. Koopman lodged there with Thompson and his wife since April, having been in St Helens. Thompson, his wife and daughter sang at mission meetings. Koopman was to help out. Having told Thompson she had had a miscarriage she went to the workhouse on the advice of a doctor. Her trunk was opened and a new-born male baby’s body was found in it. This led to an inquest when the mother refused to say anything. The jury decided the baby had died from a lack of attention at birth, and they expressed their sympathies to the Thompsons.[vi]

‘An intelligent dark-coloured girl’ the illegitimate daughter of Harriet Evans of Hawarden Castle in Cheshire was to be taken into care and placed for her own protection in an industrial school because her surroundings were assessed as ‘dangerous’. This was reported in the Western Mail (Cardiff), 31 October 1891 and the Cheshire Observer (Chester), 21 November 1891, p 2.


[i] Annie E. Coombes, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in late Victorian and Edwardian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp 67-68.

[ii] Coombes, Reinventing Africa, pp 78-79; Morning Post (London), 31 March 1890, p 1.

[iii] The Times (London), 8 May 1891, p 13; Coombes, Reinventing Africa, pp 82-83.

[iv] Coombes, Reinventing Africa, p 83; The Times (London), 1 June 1891, p 14.

[v] www.johndhb.me.uk/ftreebiogs/jthorburn.htm states he was not present in London in 1891 and that he died in 1909. Thorburn’s Struggles in Africa: and how I transported a steam-boat on wheels 1,600 miles across the country was published in 1890, apparently in Swaziland.

[vi] Sheffield Independent, 5 May 1892, p 6; Sheffield Independent, 13 May 1892, p 2.

One thought on “213 : Attempts to help young blacks 1890-1892

  1. I was interested to come across this website as I am the owner of the referenced site http://www.johndhb.me.uk/ . John Thorburn was a distant cousin who had a very colourful career in southern Africa, married 3 times, although the third was bigamous, and had at least 17 children, one of whom married Alexander Mitchell Miller (usually named as Allister Miller), who was a significant figure in the politics and development of Swaziland from the 1890s through to his death in 1951 when flags in the kingdom were flown at half mast in his honour.

    Specifically pertinent to this article is that, as far as my researches have shown, the Mrs Thorburn who was identified as being the ‘owner’ of Gootoo and Inyokwana was of entirely English origin and was not a Boer. She had been born Catherine Mary Florence Parr in Bedford, South Africa, to English parents, George John Parr and Catherine Cleaver, both of whom hailed from Oxford, England, but had eloped to South Africa after marrying in 1859 when both were under age. Catherine Mary Florence was their only child, probably being born in late 1859 or 1860.

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