By Alice Millard, Research Assistant
Following on from the blog on Charles Douglass and Ann Glanville, published in October 2021, this blog explores the story behind another entry in the parish registers. This time, we are looking into the life of Maria Sophia Rose; a Bengali woman who, at a young age, was brought to Britain by Colonel James Capper of the British East India Company and lived in Ifield.
Please note that some of the language used in the original parish records includes offensive and insensitive terminology. The inclusion of these terms is not an endorsement of such language, but are there to authentically represent the original document.
During a search of the parish register transcripts, I came across an entry in the Ifield burial register which showed that a woman called Maria Sophia Rose was laid to rest on 13 May 1847, aged 86. Accompanying Maria’s burial entry was a small note describing her as “a woman of colour”.
Throughout my search of the transcriptions, I had not come across this surprisingly modern use of terminology and was curious about Maria’s heritage and how she came to live in Ifield. As the burial entry gives her age at death as 86 this meant that she was born around 1761. A quick search of the baptism records on Ancestry brought up many entries, but I found one that I believed to be Maria’s:
Maria’s baptism entry describes her as a “Negro Girl about 12 Years old”. This would make her year of birth c1764. Despite the discrepancy of three years between her age on the baptism entry and the burial entry, I strongly suspected this was the same Maria. The description given of her ethnicity is likely to be a misnomer. The archaic term “Negro” was commonly ascribed to individuals from Africa and is thought to have come from the Spanish word for black. In this instance, it is possible that the vicar settled upon this word without much thought for Maria’s true birthplace. At the time, the average British person’s vocabulary for, or awareness of, other ethnicities was extremely limited.
MARIA SOPHIA ROSE
a Hindoo native of Bengal
In the East Indies.
Brought to this country at about
Ten years of age
By Colonel James Capper
And from that time domesticated
In the family of his brother
Richard Capper Esq.
In the County of Hertford
And for the last thirty years
A resident in this Parish
From her attachment to
Mrs Elizabeth Lewin
Daughter of the said
Inscription transcribed in Sussex Archaeological Society vol. 22
Maria’s memorial inscription (M.I.) gives us an insight into her life and how she came to be in England; a relatively rare biographical record for many people, not just for early diaspora. The M.I. tells us that Maria was a “Hindoo native of Bengal”, a region of India. Maria was at least no longer a practising Hindu as she had been baptised under the Church of England. However, many Bengalis were, and still are, Hindus. It is therefore likely the inscriber conflated her ethnicity and her religion; reflecting the cultural prevalence of Hinduism in Bengal, and more widely across India.
The M.I. tells us that Maria was brought to England by Colonel James Capper, who was an army officer in the British East India Company (BEIC). The BEIC was founded in 1600 in order to trade with countries in the Indian Ocean. It quickly became a monopoly and it accounted for half of the world’s trade. You can read more about the BEIC on Wikipedia and discover the BEIC archives at the British Library.
James married Mary Johnson in London in 1772. Two of their daughters, Eliza and Louisa, were baptised at the BEIC’s Fort St. George in Madras, India. The BEIC’s activities in India were, by this time, extensive; Bengal having been conquered in 1757.
We do not know how, why and when Maria came to be associated with James. Looking to her M.I., the use of the word “domesticated” to describe her early life in England feels ambiguous, but suggests an oppressive effort to adapt Maria to life in England. It is possible that she was one of the hundreds of thousands of Indian people who were exploited into indentured service and slavery during Britain’s colonial rule in India. Yet, despite having been brought to England by James around 1774, Maria’s M.I. tells us that she joined the household of his brother Richard Capper.
Richard Capper was a senior barrister of Lincolns Inn, London, but lived in Bushey Hall, Hertfordshire for much of his life. We can assume that Maria lived in Bushey Hall at some point, although it is also possible she resided in a London property; Richard had several London residences in his life, including a property in Great Ormond Street and John Street, both in Holborn, and in Lindsey Row, Chelsea.
At some point during the 1810s, Maria moved to Ifield. As her M.I. states, she was ‘attached’ to Elizabeth Lewin nee Capper, the third daughter of Richard Capper. Richard’s wife Mary had died in 1810 and Maria became part of the household of Elizabeth, who married Rev. Spencer James Lewin (1766-1842). Spencer was born at Ifield and became the Vicar of Ifield for 52 years. Whilst it is likely that Maria joined Elizabeth’s household as a servant, by the 1841 census Maria was living on independent means and separately from the Lewins. Perhaps, Maria received a pension from the family, or was left a sum of money in a will.
Maria’s life in Bengal, London, Hertfordshire and Ifield will remain obscured. But, the existence of her memorial inscription testifies to the impact she had upon the Capper and Lewin families, who chose to mark her death with a permanent tribute.