Malvena Wells

An occasional series on eminent Scots unjustly ignored or forgotten

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is malvina-with-dorothea-and-joanna.jpg
Malvina Wells, with two of her charges

Way before the Black Lives Matter campaign (BLM) had the white man and woman kneel to other white folks, rarely black people, in deference to equal rights for black people, articles began appearing in the press about Scotland and its historical attachment to slavery. It was a topic back in the Seventies but not to the extent people debated whether street names were morally acceptable, named after slave traders and the like.We had forgotten how colonied we were in the mid-Ninties. In all my years, from childhood upwards, I never saw a black person as black. When I had the good fortune to meet one, usually someone studying medicine at Edinburgh University, they were to me an interesting individual, skin colour did not matter to me. I was curious about the land they came from, how they lived there, what language did they speak? I was interested in the same way meeting a Norwegian fascinated me, a Mexican or a Russian. They were exotic.

The debate back in th day on slavery centred on literature, especially that used in schools. A series of books entitled ‘The Story of Little Black Sambo‘ by the Scottish author Helen Bannerman became one target for radical expulsion. (I think the main book is still sold in the USA.) A mass of racist material was weeded out, radical black political writers, African and American, welcomed in. The eleoquent black American writer and activist James Baldwin was coming to prominence and people began to understand that sending missionaries to teach Christianity to the ‘natives’ of ‘darkest’ Africa was not necessarily a good thing, that and infecting them with flu and syphilis free of charge.

To my mind, the intensity of interest these last months in Scotland’s experience is suspicious. ‘Scots and slavery’ opinion pieces began appearing in newspapers, magazines, and in television discussions, coinciding with a rise in a swing favouring the reinstatement of Scotland’s self-governance. Trying to establish a trading harbour in Darien’s uninhabitable jungle to circumvent English trade blockades was categorised as a ‘colonial colony’, stretching the term past breaking point.

Behind the renewed interest in attitudes to race relations lies a colonial tactic forcing Scots to feel guilt if we dare complain of our colonial predicament, the ‘we were as bad as English’ argument. It implies Scotland owned chunks of the British empire. Scotland has never led slavery as a means of accruing wealth. The Englightenment saw a wide intellectual debate on the subject of one human dominating the life of another. Slavery was dubbed an abomination. Frederick Douglas was one of our champions.

Racism has been a latent evil in European thinking for centuries, still evident to this day, seen in newsreels of refugees stopped from gaining access to a new life in a white society. In Scotland, I argue the subject certainly needs careful analysis, but after independence. We have a huge job ridding ourselves of English appointed civil servants first. At the moment Scotland is coming to terms with the blatant racism of English upon Scots, a people considered inferior, mentally and physically, foreigners if ever allowed self-governance.

As the debate intensified, and universities began to question their existence as beneficiaries of gifts from the great and the not so good, capitalists who made a living from aspects of the slave trade, the debate was topped by a conveniently ready to broadcast, two-part BBC Scotland documentary, fronted by a non-academic in the subject, a jobbing actor, a Scot, of course, to add veracity to the narrative. Years back it might have been Billy Connolly. The documentary aimed to familiarise Scots about key Scottish individuals in the Victorian era who had benefitted from the trade. Incidentally, the East India Company is always featured in these narratives one way or another, and as expected, duly did. That British corporation was originally an English company founded in 1600 under Queen Elizabeth I and rose to exploit overseas trade, become a dominating global player. It rose to dominate half the world’s trade, the transportation of slaves just another ‘commodity’ with cotton, tea, sugar, silk, spices and opium.

Few if any articles on the slave trade mention how Scotland was the first to outlaw slavery years before England, a nation that retained its empire based on slavery. Scots were employed in building the British empire, never central to campaigns, invasions, territorial seizure or ownership. As soon as the Black Lives Matter (BLM), campaign came to the fore in this last year, the topic was given new life. People and institutions looked askance at where donations originated, and whether statues – a Victorian tradition continued until this day – should remain in place dedicated to those who supported the odious trade in human suffering.

No BBC documentary was broadcast about Africans, Anglo-Africans or Carrabean individuals who had lived in Scotland in past times, people welcomed and accepted in our society. Coffee table journalism is not inclined to do intensive research beyond looking at the obvious. In this febrile atmosphere I started to look at people who had settled in Scotland and integrated satisfactorily into Scottish society. It is always inspiring to search out the positive in human nature and promote it rather than the negative side.

A good place to start is the archive ScotlandsPeople, an archive full of fantasic facts and information gathered together. One name I chanced upon was Malvina Wells. Though this occasional series on forgotten Scots alights on those born here, Mavina Wells was accepted as a Scot by her peers, liked and by all accounts much respected, so admired she became knows simply as ‘Mally’.

An extract from a registry ledger showing the existence of Malvena Wells and her residency

A one-line biography of Malvena Wells would probably state, she was born into slavery in Grenada, later making a life for herself in Edinburgh in the 1800s. Take more time to look closely and there is a great deal more information to be found on Malvina’s life.

Malvina was a child of a slave family, born in the first decade of the 1800s on the Island of Carriacou in Grenada (precise records there are scant), and at some point before 1851, she moved to Edinburgh. She worked as a lady’s maid for a family by the name of Macrae. There is no record of her being brought to Scotland against her will, chained in the bowels of a slave ship. We can conjecture she did not choose Scotland voluntarily, but someone had to have told her of a country where slavery was illegal.

Like so many others white as well as black, she worked as a servant. By the 1860’s she had her own allotted household and remained working as a servant. Researching individuals by deed poll, residency and census, is time consuming, for me, a matter of keeping copious notes over many months, freturning to the subject as if a hour’s happy distraction, trying to make chronilogical sense of time and place, and only then investigating character and achievements from what associates had to say that new the person. Genealogy is not my specialism!

In this regard, I have had to rely on the work of others, and piece together all the bits. One place to look for Malvina is in a copy of History of the Clan Macrae by the Reverend Alexander Macrae. The book traces the various branches of the Macrae families, what they did for a living, where they lived, who their immediate heirs were. Tracing people in this way is very like those television art shows trying to trace the provenance of a painting that might be attributed to a master, worth many thousands of pounds, or a few hundred pounds painted by a copyist. One of the family stories tells us an ancestor had been the Governor of Grenada. Therein, we have the first potential link. The Clan Macrae book contained plenty of information about this part of Frances’ family tree including her great, great grandmother Joanna McLean – later Joanna Macrae – who, with her elder sister, was born and lived on the Dumfries Estate in Carriacou, Grenada. Scots name gets everywhere in the world.

At this point I am obliged to record gratitude to Frances MacDonald, who discovered Malvina some while back. She saved me a lot of running around. Frances made visits to the library at Aberdeen University, to read about slavery and plantations and to check the list of Governors of Grenada – “no relative appeared there”, but a Dutch relative had been Governor of Demerara! Like me, Frances also visited the General Register Office of Scotland in Edinburgh – one of the organisations later amalgamated to become National Registry of Scotland. This is the place where I tried to find record of Sicilian car mechanic Carlo Berninni forcibly repatriated by Churchill, leaving my mother bereft of a husband and me a father. In the circular document library you will find the relevant Sasine volumes from which to make notes by hand of property ownership, see wills, and get copies made.

Family History is made up of ‘lightbulb’ moments as well as false trails”, says Frances. “My grandmother knew and talked about ‘Mally’ who was nanny to both her father and grandmother. She said they were very fond of her. “My grandmother told how Dorothea and Mally would go out painting together in the country, both being competent artists.” Malvina’s artwork shows a fine competency, though becoming a full-time artist wa not a choice for any woman in those days. Late in the 19th century, women were welcomed into art colleges, though the best of the graduates rarely promoted as well as men. That is still the case, and those so elevated not always the best. But I digress.

Ancestry Research: Lightbulb Moments and False Trails – Open Book
A watercolour painted by Malvena Wells, pobably of a burn in the Pentland Hills

We know that Malvina spent her early life as an enslaved person in Grenada. Records from 1817 list her as “in lawful possession” of a man called George McLean. Malvina was then 13 years old, and the records describe her as “mulatto”, a term which was usually used for someone with a Black mother and a white father. Malvina’s death certificate lists her father as John Wells, a “planter”. In those days a ‘planter’ was ipso facto, a slave owner. I could find no record of who her arents were. We can assume both were enslaved, Malvina herself may not even have known who she was, as families were often forcibly separated. We do know that she had a sister called Frances Goulton, because she left money in her will to Frances’ children, Matilda and John.

Little is known about the first half of Malvina’s life. Owning slaves in Scotland became illegal in 1778, hence her ability to feel safe working in Scotland. It’s champions moved on to help Wilberforce do the same for England, culminating in abolition in the British Empire in 1833, when Malvina was about 29. Following abolition in the 1830s, the British government paid out £20 million in compensation to slave owners, around £17 billion in modern money. It was given to 46,000 slave owners, and of course there was no compensation for the people they had enslaved.

The first census in 1851 records her living at 33 Great King Street. By then she was 48 and working as a lady’s maid to Joanna Macrae, whose husband was a prominent lawyer called John Macrae. A lady’s maid was a high-status position within service, and one of the better-paid roles available to women at the time, many a Scot too.

Like Malvina, Joanna Macrae was also born in Grenada, where her family owned many enslaved people and ran a plantation. She was born Joanna McLean – in fact, she was the niece of George McLean, who is recorded as having Malvina “in lawful possession” in 1817. Although Malvina was in paid work for Joanna Macrae in Edinburgh, it’s likely the two women met in Grenada while Malvina was still enslaved. George McLean and his brother John (Joanna’s father) were both prominent slaveowners in Grenada, and records show that between them they made claims for compensation relating to 1,732 enslaved people after abolition.

When she was in her fifties, Malvina had left service. The census of that year records her living at 42 Thistle Street as the head of her own household. She’s listed as an “annuitant”, meaning she received some sort of annual allowance, and she has a lodger called Mary Johnston, who was a dressmaker. Like so many of the records that survive about her, it gives us a tantalising glimpse into her life .

There would have been few black people living in Edinburgh in Malvina’s time, few who were head of their own household like Malvina was in 1861. The year before, the famous African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass made one of several visits to Edinburgh. Malvina must have heard about his speeches in Edinburgh by 1846, when he first came to the city – and probably gone to hear him. There was a thriving abolitionist movement in Edinburgh in the mid-nineteenth century and a great deal of public conversation about race and about slavery. Malvina could not have been unaware of these campaigns, which would have been widely discussed in the drawing rooms of the city’s wealthy home.

At some point in the following ten years, Malvina began working as a servant again. By 1871 she was at 2 Randolph Crescent in the household of Edward Strathearn Gordon, an MP, and his wife Agnes, who was Joanna Macrae’s cousin. There’s no record of why Malvina returned to service – perhaps her annuity wasn’t enough money to live on, or perhaps there was some kind of actual or perceived obligation through her lengthy service with Joanna Macrae. Whatever the reason, Malvina appears to have remained an aid or servant for the rest of her life.  

By the final census of her lifetime in 1881, Malvina was once again a lady’s maid to Joanna Macrae, this time at 14 Gloucester Place. She was 75 by then, and she would remain in the household until her death in 1887 at the age of 82. Her death certificate records the cause of death as heart disease and states that Horatio Macrae, Joanna’s son, was present when she died.

Malvina is buried in the Peace Garden at St John’s Church not far from the places in the New Town where she lived and worked. Her headstonet is at the foot of a larger one for the Macrae family. The inscription is faint but readable: Malvina Wells, born in Carriacou West Indies, Died at Edinburgh 22 April 1887Aged 82 years. For upwards of 70 years A faithful Servant and Friend In the Family of Mrs MacRae. Edinburgh.

If you look hard enough, you can discover the good in people in Scotland, and remind the opponents of Scotland’s freedoms, how we can treat those traditionally at the raw end of colonialism.

POST SCRIPT: I was asked by the City of Edinburgh Council to consider objections to street names. I have none where countries are used, such as ‘Jamaica Street’, I have for those using people’s names, such as Lord Dundas. I added that the three-ton statue of Queen Victoria, plonked atop the Royal Scottish Academy on the Mound, against the strenuous objections of architect Playfair, should be removed immediately. After all, colonialism in all its forms is racist.


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2 Responses to Malvena Wells

  1. Robert McAllan says:

    ‘It is always inspiring to search out the positive in human nature and promote it rather than the negative side’. Inspirational as always, oh that those who would deny us our past could engage with that humility.

  2. duncanio says:

    What a fascinating and uplifting real life story GB, which illustrates perhaps how the Scottish Enlightenment applied to the concept of human slavery too.

    On a more general level you’re comment that behind “the renewed interest in attitudes to race relations lies a colonial tactic forcing Scots to feel guilt if we dare complain of our colonial predicament, the ‘we were as bad as English’ argument” really does resonate with me.

    I am sick to death of hearing people – friends and the unacquainted – that, to paraphrase, state that “Scottish Nationalism is just the same as xenophobia south of the border” or some such. These same people also tend to argue that Vietnamese ‘nationalism’ (which sought the removal of French then American colonists) or Irish ‘nationalism’ which wanted (and still wants) rid of their British i.e. essentially English overlords or Indian ‘nationalism’ which wished to free itself from the British Empire etc is somehow ‘OK’ but that Scottish Nationalism which seeks self government for this country is somehow ‘anti-English’, ‘hateful, ‘parochial’, ‘isolationist’ or some such.

    Some are being obviously disingenuous with this claim – the Unionist or Brexiteer – but others are simply in denial. That is, they refuse to accept that British Nationalism – the real thing – is the form of so called patriotism that considers itself to superior to that of other peoples and seeks to subjugate their ‘inferiors’.

    Scotland, and Scottish people, as an entity have nothing to be ashamed of.

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