The Petticoat Patrimony project looks at the significant contributions made by sisters Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen Edmonstone, as curators and enablers of Charles Waterton’s life. Waterton, from Wakefield, was an explorer, plantation overseer and naturalist, who became best known for his work on conservation. The stories of the Edmonstone sisters’ who, as direct descendants of the indigenous peoples of Demerara on the north coast of South America, were also women of mixed heritage, have been the victim of historical patrimony.
Eliza and Helen’s legacy as surrogate mothers to Waterton’s son Edmund, and custodians of the Waterton estate in Wakefield, has been forgotten. This project seeks to remedy this and has been working with a range of global ethnic majority researchers and artists to highlight the heritage of the sisters and challenge existing perception of Waterton, slavery, gender and racial stereotypes.
Eliza, Anne and Helen, by Zainab Jode
Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen Edmonstone were women whose father, Charles Edmonstone, Scotland’s most prolific and successful slave trader, dictated how they lived their lives, even from beyond the grave.
Anne-Mary, aged, just 18 when she was married to Charles Waterton (age 47) as part of a business deal between her father and Waterton, died just 21 days after giving birth to a son, Edmund. Anne-Mary disliked any reference to her pregnancy and was deeply embarrassed by it. Anne-Mary’s sisters, Eliza and Helen, moved int with Waterton to raise the boy, manage Walton Hall and bring with them, their father’s money.
Born in Demerara and direct descendants of the indigenous Arawak royal line, the girls, for they were girls when the moved to Wakefield from Scotland, grew into very different kinds of women.
Eliza, fiery, pipe smoking, canny with money and unafraid of fighting for what was rightfully hers, took Edmund to court when he claimed land she owned was his, and Helen, more of a sensitive soul whose early trauma linked to her mother being poisoned with intent to murder, had a deep interest in the natural world, lived at Walton Hall alongside Waterton. Eliza and Helen were hidden scientists, conservationists, educators and advocates of nature.
The Edmonstone heritage in Demerara, Guyana
Early Spanish explorers and administrators used the terms Arawak and Caribs to distinguish the peoples of the Caribbean, with Carib reserved for indigenous groups that they considered hostile and Arawak for groups that they considered friendly.
When Eliza (b.1808) Anne-Mary (b.1810) and Helen (abt.1813) were born on their father Charles Edmonstone’s plantation on Demerara, indigenous women had been be exploited for political, social, economic, sexual and financial gain by Europeans since the early 16th century.
The girls’ grandmother ‘Minda’ was an indigenous woman and the daughter of an Arawak chief who had been ‘married’ to William Reid from Banffshire, Scotland. Sources refer to her as a ‘Princess’ however this European language, along with a European societal structure, had been imposed on the indigenous peoples by the European invaders and has been used ever since.
The ‘marriage’ between ‘Minda’ and William gave access to knowledge of the indigenous peoples culture, and by extension, their knowledge of the geography, terrain, traditional crafting, hunting, and information of local plants including those with medicinal properties.
The exploitation of this group of people ensured the success of the plantation owners and managers. The most famous of these was Waterton, who wrote three volumes of essays on natural history and a book Wanderings in South America, published 1825. Waterton frequently visited Charles Edmonstone’s plantations to make use of his slaves and resources, collecting specimens and information about the medicines used by the indigenous people. One of Minda and William Reid’s children was a girl called Helen (Reid).
European exploitation of indigenous peoples in Demerara
Charles Edmonstone had arrived from Scotland in 1780 and quickly established himself as a successful plantation owner. So successful was he in fact that Lieut. Col. Thomas Staunton St. Clair, who set off for Georgetown on 25 November 1805 and arrived in the colonies in 1806, went on to write about his experiences with Edmonstone in his book, published in in 1834.
“The first thing generally done as a European on his arrival in this country is to provide himself with a mistress from among the blacks, mulattoes or mestees. These women perform all the duties of a wife except presiding at table, and their utility in domestic affairs, their cleanliness and their politeness are acknowledged by all. So long as women continue faithful and constant to their protectors by whom they are chosen, they are always countenanced and encouraged by their nearest relatives and friends, who call this a lawful marriage for the time it lasts.”
When Charles Waterton left England on 29 November 1804, arriving in Demerara in 1805 to manage his Uncle Christopher’s three plantations, this exploitation of women and the indigenous population was endemic [for examples, search for ‘Charles Waterton’ on this UCL site]. It is this environment of male entitlement that Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen spent their formative years and in which their father indulged producing, according to his will (entered into records 1828), at least two other ‘mulatto’ children not ‘Of the Body of Helen Reid’.
Charles Edmonstone, slave owner
By marrying Helen, the daughter of Minda, Charles was able to further exploit information about the landscape and hunt down runaway slaves, kill and punish those he recaptured on behalf of the crown for which he was greatly rewarded with, amongst other things, freedom of taxes and special grants to enable him to cut timber. This allowed him to amass incredible wealth and he became known as a zealous defender of ‘our’ authority and possession. An example of Charles Edmonstone’s treatment of slaves is documented in the Essequebo andDemerary Gazette 28 January 1804:
Further examples of the type of justice escaped ‘negros’ might expect once captured by Edmonstone can be found in this article from the Essequebo and Demerary Gazette, 18 April 1807:
Rewarded and revered for being a defender of the European colonies, a description of the rewards he reaped from harnessing the knowledge of the land that came with the links through his wife Helen is found in a chapter from ‘A Residence in the West Indies and America’ Volume II by Lieut. Col Thomas Staunton St. Clair writing in the year 1808.
Edmonstone and his business partner John Jones were amongst the most prolific and successful slave traders in British Guiana. By 1817 they already owned the Vreedenstein plantation but bought two more estates, De Jonge Rachel on the west bank of the Demerary River, and Goede Verwagting, which they combined and renamed ‘Plantation Wales’, bringing their total ownership of enslaved people to 643.
Waterton’s praise of Edmonstone
The population of Georgetown were so grateful to Edmonstone for the work that he did for the colony that, in 1817 they presented him, after fundraising from the settlers, inscribed with a silver plate with the following words provided by Waterton.
A token of Gratitude
From the inhabitants of Demerary
Charles Edmonstone, Esqr,
Whose integrity, and many excellent qualities,
During a residence of 37 years in the colony,
Gained their sincere esteem:
His prudence and humanity, entitled him
To the command of repeated expeditions against the
Revolted negroes of Guiana;
And his courage, always ensured success.
This is the same Charles Waterton who, just seven years later, wrote on the practice of slavery in his 1825 publication of ‘Wanderings in South America’:
“It can never be defended; he whose heart is not of iron can never wish to defend it… it is a traffic that should have been stifled at birth.”
This quote is often taken completely out of context in order to reinforce and perpetuate the illusion of Waterton as someone who did not benefit from slavery. However, reading on, this section from his book demonstrates just how much he was prepared to use his voice and the power of his writing to diminish the realities of the enslaved people he, and his future father-in-law, normalised and exploited.
And Waterton’s reward of a wife
Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen’s paternal line gave them access to extraordinary wealth, a childhood steeped in violent and traumatic experiences and, as women of mixed heritage, a psychological branding that followed them wherever they went. The girls had no more rights than the slaves their father had massacred during one of the bloodiest and most violent periods of Demerara’s colonial history.
As females, Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen belonged to him and he could choose to do what he wanted with them. He chose to give Anne-Mary, to Waterton, a man who had, publicly declared, in 1817, that he, Charles Edmonstone was a man of ‘integrity’.
This is the first in a series of articles on the Edmonstone sisters, on the run up to International Women’s Day on 8 March. It is based on research by Helga Fox, Sarah Cobham, Catherine Clarke, Abibat Olulode and Zainab Jode. The second in the series is available here.