The Dilettante Society on George Africanus

Words: Sophie Gargett
Illustrations: Christine Dilks
Monday 11 April 2016
reading time: min, words

"A former African slave turned wealthy and influential citizen, like so many other victims of colonial atrocities, the details of his early life remain frustratingly vague"


On 30 May 1834, the Nottingham Review published the obituary of a prominent and respected local businessman and property owner. Far from your average Georgian entrepreneur, George Africanus was the first known Black man to have made his home in Nottingham.

A former enslaved African man turned wealthy and influential citizen, like so many other victims of colonial atrocities, the details of his early life remain frustratingly vague. Were it not for his extraordinary later success, his story would have been lost to history altogether. From information woven together from local records emerges the tale of a remarkable man who, with a mix of belated good fortune and a determined spirit, overcame incomprehensible prejudice to become a Nottingham idol.

Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, as the great oceans began to be explored, intricate routes of passage began to form between Europe, Africa and Central America, primarily made by Portuguese, British, Spanish and French ships. These adventurous expeditions brought opportunity for trade unlike ever before: exotic new foods, fine fabric, delicious alcohol, tobacco, even the quintessentially British tea with sugar. All manner of luxury imports were brought to Europe and snapped up by the bourgeois, enriching the British economy and fuelling the Empire.

Among these foreign objects of desire, transported on the very same boats, were enslaved people from faraway lands being ferried across to be bought and sold like cattle. Seized against their will, they were condemned to a life of backbreaking labour in the very plantations that fulfilled the increasing demand for these exotic imports. By the 1760s, Britain was the foremost European country engaged in the slave trade, responsible for the enslavement and exploitation of an estimated 42,000 Africans each year.

Back on England’s shores, Black servants were becoming quite the fashionable addition to wealthy households. Enslaved people brought back from expeditions were sold at quayside auctions or at coffee houses in London. Seen as tokens of riches and refinery, they were as much used as decorative objects to complement the other exotic artefacts being acquired from ‘the east’ as they were for domestic labour. A large number who found themselves bought in these inhumane circumstances were children, favoured for their cuteness and ease of training, and it was in this way that George Africanus arrived in England.

Taken from his family in Sierra Leone, West Africa, around 1766, the young infant was given as a ‘present’ to Benjamin Molyneux (later Molineux), a wealthy gentleman from a prominent Wolverhampton family. His birth name was left behind along with his heritage, but he was baptised George John Scipio Africanus by the Molyneuxs. This was in reference to two victorious Roman generals dating back to the second century BC, Scipion and Africanus – the latter indicating the conquest of Africa.

In many references to George’s childhood, the Molyneux family are praised for their care of the boy – his time with them often referred to more as ‘adoption’ than servitude or slavery. But George’s own account is, of course, undocumented. The confusion and fear of the three-year-old child – his culture, language and family made instantly anonymous – is often overlooked in these historical accounts.

Nevertheless, the Molyneuxs were somewhat apt to progressive attitudes and George had the luck of the draw compared to his counterparts on the ships and plantations. At a time when education was a rare luxury for anyone not born into wealth, and prevailing opinion stereotyped Black people as either morally or intellectually lacking, George was educated before becoming a servant for the family. 


In 1772, with George aged seven, a legal judgement declared the status of ‘slave’ inadmissible on English soil, leaving many former slaves destitute and homeless. Meanwhile, George was apprenticed to a brass founder, paving the way for his later life of independence. Once free to travel and work as he pleased, George left Wolverhampton for greener pastures, and our next reference of him is in Nottingham, where he spent the remainder of his life.

Why George chose Nottingham is unclear, although based on the Molyneuxs’ ties to the area it is believed he had occasion to pass through in his youth. A town thriving on industry, laid with wide boulevards and many beautiful gardens would have seemed attractive. But this splendour would have been matched by much difficulty for (possibly) the first Black man in town. It would take a strong, determined and charming character to build a life here, but George did it with aplomb.

In 1788 George married a local lass by the name of Esther Shaw at St Peter’s Church in the city centre. While the marriage between a Black ex-enslaved man and a white woman would have undoubtedly been a controversial event, no first-hand accounts exist of the stigma that might have met the happy couple. Although the match was lengthy and prosperous, tragedy followed as all but one of their seven children survived to adulthood.

While Esther is listed as a milliner, George is recorded as having several occupations such as waitering, labouring, and his primary trade of brass-founding. In 1793, the pair opened Africanus’s Register Office for Servants, an agency for domestic labour within Nottingham.

This venture provided the family with a comfortable living and a chance to take control over their fortunes. It appeared that at the time of their marriage licence, Esther was unable to write even her own name, suggesting that George probably taught his wife to read and write, allowing her to run the office while he perhaps worked the posts they could not fill.

With business comfortable, George was able to buy the family home in 1829 along with a plot of land adjacent to develop more properties. With these most unusual gains for a man of his position, George acquired an entitlement unheard of for a Black man, and indeed, the vast majority of society – the right to vote. He became an active member of the local community as a landlord and officer in the Watch & Ward, a local policing organisation to quell civil disturbances and rioting. Upon George’s death in 1834, Esther continued the family business, which survived a further thirty years until her death.

In piecing together George Africanus’ story, we are missing a vital detail. Reports of George as a servant, a businessman, a community member and family man can be assembled, and the portrait we are left with is of a resilient and resourceful man. But omitted throughout is George’s own voice, with no chance given to express his personal experience of this seemingly seamless integration into Western society. 

As a pioneering Black man within Nottingham, George’s presence would have undoubtedly, in many small ways, advanced a local acceptance of other races. Articles from the Nottingham Journal (published one week after the fight for the abolition of slavery was finally won in 1834), report numerous services of thanksgiving, followed by jubilant celebrations across the county. However, we cannot say the same for his culture, which would have sadly remained largely unknown and misjudged, even to George himself. That he had the skill and boldness to make a success of his life here in spite of what he would have faced is admirable, but the heinous cause by which he came to be here, and the omission of George’s own voice, should not go unforgotten or excused.

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