Saturday, August 13, 2011


I’ve been curious about this, which I presume was copied from a family bible at some time, and passed on to Winning Pendergast who included it in her family history of the Sutherlands:

“John Sutherland Sr.... died on his way home from Black River, Jamaica, W. I. on Board the ship Williams, Captain Wheatley off the Island of Cuba, June 21, 1765 in the 59th year of his age which would place the year of his birth 1706.”

I have found references to a Captain Wheatley, in charge of the ship Williams in the 1770s, which seemed to be doing the Jamaica to Bristol run. Jamaica depended on enslaved labour to produce sugar; England increasingly relied on sugar as it became more available and less costly. Once the Williams emptied its hold, it would have returned to Jamaica with the trade goods produced in England by its increasingly underpaid workers. While some ships also included a third stop at one of the slave forts on Africa’s coast, research by Kenneth Morgan of Brunel University demonstrates that by mid-century Bristol merchants “increasingly favored regular, direct routes instead of multilateral voyage patterns” (4). Black River, Jamaica would have been a likely destination as it was the principal British settlement in the region. I am intrigued that it was also known for producing: “cocoa, ginger, pimento, or as it is called Jamaica pepper, and vulgarly allspice; the wild cinnamon, the machineel, whose fruit though uncommonly delightful to the eye contains one of the worst poisons in nature; the cabbage tree” and other various items. However, Black River was not uncontested, and tensions with Spain in particular would have been a source of some anxiety for travelers and merchants alike.

I’ve generated a list of possible Captain Wheatleys. It wasn’t an uncommon name at the time, and there were a number of seafaring Wheatley families, which complicates matters a bit. I have been able to rule out the Captain John Wheatley who purchased a young enslaved woman who would come to be known as the poet Phillis Wheatley (coincidentally I’ve just published about her). Additional possibilities exist, but I’d have to go into archives on other continents. Unfortunately, as Morgan points out, Bristol‘s in-and-out letter books were destroyed in 1814, and the Bristol customs records in the Reform Bill riots of 1831. Strangely, the best records for eighteenth-century Bristol shipping are apparently in Melbourne. Since I’m not going to Melbourne, I’ve accepted that I’m not going to resolve this one.

That said, given all that I’ve read, it is interesting to imagine John Sutherland in Black River, a world so radically different from Sunbury on Thames. Was it his first trip? I don’t know; if not, he would have brought back tales that might have been passed down in the family of what was understood as the new world. Such a precedent might even explain the willingness of Thomas Sutherland (1772-1850) to relocate multiple times in his life, from England, to Edinburgh, to Canada.

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