Thursday 1 October 2015

Escape from slavery: a surprising parish register find

The RCB Library in Dublin* has made a very surprising discovery within its Church of Ireland parish records collection: the story of George Ellis Bernard Freeman who escaped from slavery in Africa and was subsequently baptised in Ireland in 1855.

This tale is the subject of the RCBL's Archive of the Month.

George's story is recorded as an annotation in the entries of baptism for the parish of Kilbrogan, county Cork, which centres on the town of Bandon.

Instead of the standard pro-forma information of who the child’s parents were and where they lived, this entry records his fortuitous escape from slavery. The record states that on 15 April 1855 the rector of the parish, Revd Charles Bernard, baptised a child aged about 7 years with the Christian names ‘George Ellis Bernard’ and, presumably, the surname of Freeman. The entry further fleshes out his story: that he was the son of an African chieftain from the interior of Africa, whose tribe was killed in war and, as a result, the boy was ‘sold as a slave’.

Since the British slave trade had been abolished in 1807 (and slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire in 1833), it is assumed that George was sold as a slave in the internal African trade.

He was found by Capt. Ed. Ellis, a master mariner from Bandon; according to the register narration, Captain Ellis had been trading 'up the river Gaboon and Cameroon’ in the 1850s, and ‘made [the child] free’ by bringing him to ‘this country for education and religious training’.

The use of the middle names of Ellis on the one hand and Bernard on the other may be a tribute or connection to the man who rescued the child in Africa, and the rector who baptised him in Ireland. Neither man appears to have adopted him, or at least that information is not recorded in the baptismal register, and he does appear to have received the surname Freeman.

The online Archive of the Month explores the background to this unusual entry and speculates what might have happened to George and the influences in Ireland giving him support. To date, no further information about what became of him has come to light. However, by putting the story on public record, the hope is that it may spark further interest and feedback from members of the public.

* The Representative Church Body Library

UPDATE, 2 October: What became of George?