By Alice Millard, Research Assistant
During our survey of parish registers for entries relating to people of African, Afro-Caribbean, and Indian heritage*, we found the baptism of a teenaged boy called George Diamond Yacoodh in New Shoreham, 1869.
George’s baptism entry notes that he was a “native of Zanzibar”, but was living at St Saviour’s School in Shoreham at the time. His estimated birth year was 1852, which made him around 17 years old.
*See here, here and here for previous blogs.
George Diamond Yacoodh was in fact a Swahili man from Kilwa, a district in Tanzania. The story of how he came to be in Shoreham is a remarkable one.
I began by searching Ancestry to see how easily I could trace George on other records. Two promising records were returned in my search; both of them naval service documents and both for George. These records showed that he had joined the crew of the HMS Wasp on 3 December 1866, as an officer’s servant, nearly three years after his baptism in Shoreham. They also showed that he was born in “Kilwa [in Tanzania], East Africa”.
That left me wondering, how on earth did George find himself in a British school despite having been employed abroad in the Royal Navy?
I decided to look into the history of HMS Wasp.
According to a fantastically detailed website, the Wasp was a sloop (a smaller type of warship) commissioned by the British Navy to suppress the Arab slave trade which was then prevalent along the Swahili coastline of Africa, but primarily operated out of Zanzibar. At the time George was on board the Wasp, it was captained by Norman Bernard Bedingfield, who had risen to the rank of Vice Admiral by the time of his death in 1894.
A little more digging into the destinations of the Wasp revealed that it was stationed near the Mozambique Channel, along the East Coast of Africa, in December 1866. An article in the Maryport Advertiser (10 April 1868) reported that Captain Bedingfield had written a letter, dated 1 December 1866, which told of the vast number of dhows (small boats) carrying people from Kilwa, Tanzania – people who Bedingfield said were being “paraded so that we may see them”.
As George’s naval record showed that he was born in Kilwa, I believed it was quite possible that he was one of the many people who had been enslaved and were being “paraded” in Zanzibar, as reported by Captain Bedingfield in 1866.
George’s naval record also shows that he was not a pupil at the St Saviour’s for very long as he had joined the crew of the HMS Gladiator on 12 March 1870. This time, he was employed as a Gun Room servant, where he would have served the junior officers of the ship.
The mystery of his short time at St Saviour’s prompted me to look into the records of the school. St Saviour’s became Ardingly College in 1870, when it moved from Shoreham to Ardingly, Haywards Heath. I contacted the College Archivist who was able to locate George in the admission register. The details given were as follows:
George (Yacoodh) Diamond
Supposed age 16
Entered by Lieut. Reed. of the HMS Excellent, Portsmouth
Joined July 1868 and left August 1870
I was a little surprised that George had not been enrolled at the school by Captain Bedingfield, so I searched for details on Lieutenant Reed. Through locating his naval record on Ancestry, I discovered that Reed had joined the Wasp on the very same day as George – 3 December 1866. He was also on board the Gladiator during the time that George was employed as a Gun Room servant.
Although I could find no proof, I thought it was feasible that it was actually Reed who initially employed George in Zanzibar, possibly as his personal servant whilst on board. I subsequently learnt that it was common for formerly enslaved East African men (then known as ‘seedies’) to be employed by the British Navy for service in the East Indies.
After George’s service on board the Gladiator, it appears that he and Lieutenant Reed went their separate ways. George joined the crew of the HMS Castor in 1872, a Royal Naval Reserve training ship, which was stationed at North Shields. He did not leave until September 1877.
Sadly, I have not been able to trace George’s whereabouts after September 1877, despite a number of hours searching death records, census returns, and further naval records online.