The Petticoat Patrimony project in Wakefield looks at the hidden stories and legacy of Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen Edmonstone. The sisters were direct descendants of the indigenous peoples of Demerara and, as curators and enablers of Charles Waterton’s life, were victims of historical patrimony. Petticoat Patrimony seeks to redress this and challenge existing perception of Waterton, slavery, gender and racial stereotypes.
Part one in this series, which looks at the sisters’ roots in Demerara, is available here.
Victims of a cover up
In order to understand how it is that Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen’s native heritage and their personal legacies, because of that heritage, have been whitewashed from history, it’s important to note how a series of letters published in Volume VI of The Magazine of Natural History 1833 began the process of distancing Charles Waterton from slavery.
It began with Waterton claiming, in a letter to the magazine, that fellow naturalist and explorer – and Waterson’s greatest rival – John James Audubon was not the author of The Ornithological Biography. Audubon was at that time lauded as the world’s best illustrator of birds as a result of a book he published in 1828. Waterson wrote that he “possessed undeniable proof that, when Mr. Audubon was in England, he did actually apply to a gentleman to write his history of the birds for him”.
Audubon’s son responded firmly by writing, “Mr Audubon, and no other person, is the bona bide author of the Ornithological Biography. I shall not notice Mr. Waterton further, except to express my thanks for his generous conduct, in withholding his attacks on Mr. Audubon for two years after the book in question was published, and during the time the author was in England”. (p369 The Magazine of Natural History 1833)
Waterton’s privilege and reliance on enslaved people
The following letter in the same publication was from Robert Bakewell, the son of Audubon’s wife Lucy. His “observations on Mr. Waterton’s Attacks on Mr. Audubon” highlighted Waterton’s privilege and reliance on enslaved people to achieve his success:
“Without making any comparison between the merits of Mr. Waterton and Mr. Audubon as writers or travellers, I cannot but remark that in some things they present a remarkable contrast.
“Mr. Waterton travelled from his own rich plantations in Demerara, surrounded with his slaves and attendants. Mr. Audubon was a solitary wanderer in the forests of America, often dependent on his gun for support. While Mr. Audubon is exposed to dangers and privations, and looks forward to the patronage of the public for his sole support and reward, Mr. Waterton is tranquilly seated in a magnificent English mansion, surrounded by paternal acres, and endeavouring to deprive the solitary wanderer of that patronage.”
“I never possessed a slave”
Waterton’s response came the very next month in the following volume of The Magazine of Natural History (pages 464–469) and is full of vitriolic rebuttals to both Audubon’s son and Bakewell’s comments. Part of his defence was to claim absolute absenteeism from the exploitation he had been accused of. From Walton Hall, he wrote:
“I never possessed a slave in my life, or any part of a plantation. From 1807 to 1812, at intervals, I administered to the estate of an uncle, and others; during which period, the yellow fever and tertian ague kept me frequent hints that there was not much pleasure to be expected from being surrounded by slaves and attendants.”
He then included detail of just how much he had suffered and how ill he had become during his wanderings. Interestingly, Waterton’s friend Charles Edmonstone, the father of Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen, features greatly in this section of the letter.
“I was so wayworn, sick and changed, that they scarcely knew me on my return to the house of Mr. Edmonstone, and three months elapsed before I could carry a gun.”
Accepting this repost to Robert Bakewell as the only truth merely colludes with a narrative that continues to support Waterton’s assertions about his involvement in slavery. The context of this quote challenges this and has never, until now, been properly addressed.
Waterton’s denial of exploitation as architect of his own public persona
The quote however, “I never possessed a slave”, is used much by those looking for evidence of Waterton’s innocence and who forget that he was the architect of his own public persona, with prolific publications and submissions to various magazines and newspapers. In 1833, the same year the Slavery Abolition Act was passed which completely abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, it would have been important to distance himself from what had gone before. This exchange, which played out in The Magazine of Natural History, gave him the perfect opportunity to do so.
Life for Waterton in 1833, saw him living at Walton Hall with his son Edmund, a four-year-old child of mixed heritage. Edmund’s mother Anne-Mary (née Edmonstone), and her sisters Eliza and Helen, were all granddaughters of ‘Minda’, an indigenous woman from a high-status tribe on Demerara. The sisters’ father was one of the most prolific and successful Scottish slave traders at that time.
Family ties to, and associations with, the Edmonstone family had kept the Waterton connection to slavery in the public eye. 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.
The Demerara Rebellion
The most brutal of rebellions took place in 1823, led by enslaved carpenter Jack Gladstone and enslaved peoples from the ‘Success’ plantation which had been owned by the Edmonstone family until 1821 when it changed name. The plantation had been sold to Sir John Gladstone, first Baronet and father of the future British prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone 1892–1894.
The 1823 Demerara Rebellion highlighted to an increasingly horrified British public the role Robert Edmonstone, Eliza and Helen’s cousin, played in the arrest and accusation against Rev John Smith, an English missionary. Robert Edmonstone added to and falsified Jack Gladstone’s statement to show that Rev Smith was the main instigator of the rebellion, and this led to Smith’s arrest. Smith was sentenced to hang as he had also refused to serve in the militia when martial law was declared. He died due to the terrible conditions he and his wife were kept in before the sentence was carried out.
Subscriptions were later made in Britain to aid his widow Jane (née Goddon) and it was a high-profile campaign. Jack Gladstone was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted and reduced to deportation and hard labour. He was sent to St Lucia.
Uncle Christopher Waterton’s legacy
Ann Hurst, Wakefield’s first female newspaper owner and proprietor of The Wakefield and Halifax Journal, began her anti-slavery campaign in 1823 with editorials and articles informing and educating the (male) electorate about the horrors faced by enslaved people.
As citizens of Wakefield, neither the Edmonstone sisters nor Charles Waterton could deny their links to slavery. So by 1833, when Waterton wrote in The Magazine of Natural History, he chose to be deliberately vague about the details of who owned the estates he worked on when he was in Demerara. The uncle he referred to was his Uncle Christopher who owned four plantations on Demerara: ‘La Jalousie’, ‘Fellowship’, ‘Le Bienfait the Windsor’ and ‘The Fellowship’.
Christopher Waterton returned to live in ‘Woodlands’, an estate near Doncaster, in 1804. He had named his wife and Charles Waterton as sole executors of his will. This same will of Christopher Waterton expressly protected, freed, and financially provided for a “negress called Diana and her two children, Sally & Samuel”. These ‘mulatto’ children were most likely cousins of Charles Waterton. The will also bequeathed vast sums of money to Charles Waterton’s father, Thomas Waterton (who died in 1805), who in turn left Walton Hall to Charles Waterton. Other money from Christopher Waterton went to Charles Waterton’s younger siblings.
Abolition and the whitewashing of Waterton
One of the ‘others’ referred to by Waterton in his letter to The Magazine of Natural History was likely to have been Charles Edmonstone, his father-in-law to be. Ten years after the Demerara Rebellion, the anti-slavery movement had gained real traction across the land. Wakefield had elected its first MP, Unitarian Daniel Gaskell, on an abolitionist platform. No wonder Waterton, in his repost to Bakewell claimed he “never possessed a slave”.
When Bakewell wrote in defence of Audubon, he accused Waterton of “travelling from his own rich plantations in Demerara, surrounded with his slaves and attendants”, having left the “tranquillity” and “magnificence” of his “English Mansion surrounded by paternal acres”. It was a very public reminder that Waterton’s own paternity was deeply rooted in the slave trade.
By covering up the Waterton family connections to slavery in his repost, and being deliberately vague, Waterton literally wrote out the connections of his wife, his sisters-in-law and his son to their own heritage. By accepting what Waterton wrote without challenging why he wrote it, or the context in which it was written, we merely play into a white male narrative of history that prevents everyone from learning about Eliza, Anne-Mary and Helen’s HERSTORY.
This is the second part of 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. Part three is available here.