“On the 20th of the 7th month; a party of Negroes, consisting of 14 men, 12 women and 22 children (including one youth  of 18), arrived by the steamer from London, and were located in the inner Court of our old workhouse; having reached Plymouth too late for the Packet by which they had hoped to proceed to Lagos.  It was afterwards ascertained that they were self-emancipated Slaves from Havan[n]a on their way back to their mother country.”

Thus begins the opening of a fascinating account of a group of Cuban slaves on their arrival in Plymouth via Southampton written by Lydia Prideaux, whilst staying in Plymouth in 1855. (reference 16M97/13/11). The Cuban Emancipados had arrived at Southampton by steam packet, before being taken to Plymouth to await the African packet which would then take them to Lagos and from there to their native Lucomi.  Many of them had been in Cuba for more than 20 years, but their desire to return to their homeland was great.  They had bought their own freedom to do this. So what does this journal reveal about this group of ex-slaves?

 

16M97-13-11a

A page from Lydia Prideaux’s journal.

Lydia records that they wished to travel to Lagos “whence they could quickly get to their own Country, which they called ‘Lucomi’.”   Lydia records one of the reasons for why they had left Havanna was “to secure the safety of their free born children”. This will no doubt strike a chord with many of us in light of the events in the world today.

16M97-13-11c

A page from Lydia Prideaux’s journal.

So where did the emancipated slaves stay in Plymouth?  Well, although we might think the accommodation was not desirable, they were housed in the inner court of the old workhouse.  Lydia Prideaux along with a number of local people in the town took an active interest in their welfare, arranging games for the children, while others helped in providing religious services in Spanish or other arrangements for the passage home. She records in her journal that one of the emancipated slaves, named Ricardo commented on the workhouse as follows:

“I was told Ricardo accompanied Mr Brown to our Workhouse and was much struck with the Bedstead and Bedding for each person, saying “The Queen must be very
rich, to take such care of the poor people”.”

Lydia also records in her journal views expressed to her about slavery from the Cuban Emancipados. She writes that :

“The wife of Serano seemed surprised at, and highly to appreciate the information that there were no Slaves in England. It is believed that in order to discourage their leaving Cuba, the danger of their being made Slaves of by the English had been set before them, as well as a greatly exaggerated account of the risk of the Voyage”

DSC_2166

Drawing of the Emancipados at Plymouth found in Lydia Prideaux’s journal.

Lydia also writes:
“Much anxiety was felt by their friends here that they should not again fall into the hands of the Slave-dealers, and after many enquiries we had the comfort of learning that with common prudence they would be safe at Lagos”

So they settled into a routine in Plymouth and with the help of family and friends, more was learnt about their life in Cuba and what work they had undertaken as the following photograph reveals:

“When conversation had become a little more easy than at first, my Brother got them to write down the names of all their party. At his request they afterwards added their supposed ages; – the time they had been in Cuba;- how long in Slavery there; – what their employment;- and how much each had paid for freedom. From these details a tolerably complete Table was drawn up; by which it appears that most of the men were porters probably on the Wharfs; the Women Launderesses, as before stated, some had kept stalls in the Market; one man was a cook; one a mason; – one a shoemaker. Some had been free twenty years; others not more than two. The price paid for their freedom was in most cases four or five hundred dollars each….”

16M97_13_11 page 10

A page from Lydia Prideaux’s journal.

So nearing the end of their stay in Plymouth and before embarking on the next stage some of free Cubans were sad to leave England with Lydia recording:

“Some of them manifested much feeling at the thought of leaving England, and the unknown circumstances to which they were entering, for they had been taken young from Africa, and were anxious about a further maintenance; so at least I understood one of them. They showed to more advantage at our House than in the bustle and dirt of the Workhouse, and I thought a longer acquaintance would have increased the regard we already felt for some of them”.

16M97_13_11 page 11

A page from Lydia Prideaux’s journal.

Their brief time in Plymouth before embarking on the next part of their journey, touched many and the support given by the townspeople reflected in this fascinating journal of Lydia Prideaux.  Sadly, nothing is known about whether they made the next step of the voyage safely, but we are left with an insight into the lives of a small group of people freed from slavery and wishing to start a new life in their home country.  This may ring true even today.

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A list of names of the Cuban emancipados found at the back of Lydia Prideaux’s journal.

Gina Hynard, Search Room Team

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