It would be wonderful if the story of Carmarthenshire’s first black residents was positive, but it is not.
Sadly, they came to the county as servants, although it is not entirely clear what they actually were.
The 2008 Carmarthenshire Antiquary states that “it is difficult to know whether to describe employers of African servants as owners of slaves or employers of African servants”, as slaves living in Britain were atypical in because of the opinions of the Lord Chief Justice and Queen Elizabeth I, who both said there would be no slavery in Britain.
It was believed that Africans came to the county directly or after being in North America or the Caribbean.
It is believed that most of those who came to Carmarthenshire did so after it became “fashionable” for upper class and aristocratic families to own an African servant.
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But the sad fact is that Africans who arrived in Carmarthenshire in the 18th century suffered horrific, humiliating and barbaric treatment, including capture, incarceration and near-death experiences.
Alone and torn from friends and family, they lived without knowing the people, customs, language, or culture, although some built their own lives in the county with their descendants believed to still live in the area.
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Here are some of their stories …
Jacques of Saint Christopher
The first registered black resident of Carmarthenshire was an African man named Jack of St Christopher who is said to have lived as a slave in St Kitts in the West Indies before coming to Carmarthenshire.
As an adult he was baptized in 1723 in Pembrey and was said to have been “owned” by a man named Lawford Cole who lived in Stradey.
The parish register indicated that Jack was an “Aethiops of Lawford Cole”, a “gentleman” who owned estates in Carmarthenshire and Bristol.
Not much is known about Jack’s life, but there is no record that he ever married or had children. He died young and his burial is recorded in Pembrey in 1738.
Sabacon was baptized in his early teens in St Peter’s Church in Carmarthen on February 12, 1738. His baptismal inscription indicated that he was a “black boy”. His name was given to him by his “owner” and his last name was probably given to him because he was originally from the Gambia River in West Africa.
Kunta Kinte Island, formerly known as James Island but renamed after Roots’ character after he was born in the novel, was the location of a British slave fort, so it is likely that Sabacon was from this region and was a Mandika – a West African ethnicity.
In Carmarthenshire, Sabacon is said to have worked as a “laborer” and a marriage license was granted in December 1742, for the marriage of “Sabacon a Negro de Gambia” and “Candace de Gambia” to Kidwelly.
An upper-class man named Robert Thomas, who may have been the âownerâ or employer of Sabacon and Candace, witnessed the marriage.
The couple became independent from their employer and Sabacon and Candace moved to Kidwelly and had a number of children including: Sabacon, Seth and Samuel, all of whom died in infancy.
Sabacon was reportedly educated in Carmarthenshire and learned to read and write in Welsh and English.
After moving to Llandyfaelog in 1760, Candace died and Sabacon married a local widow named Olivia Samuel in Llandeilo Fawr.
The couple never had children and Sabacon later died and was buried in the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church in Carmarthen in 1784.
Benji Bach Du
Around 1740, a family who owned the Soho House and Farm in Furnace, Llanelli, arrived with a team including a black footman. The footman was small and the locals nicknamed him “Benji Bach Du” – “Little Black Benji”.
After a while the family left and the Rees family came to occupy the house, Benji worked for the family for a while until he moved to work at the nearby Cwmbach farm where he ate with family and slept in the stable attic.
But one day, after fishing in a pond near the Dulais River, Benji was found dead on the forest path from Soho House to Cwmbach Farm. Benji was found with five trout by his side but the cause of death has remained a mystery.
He was then buried in a nearby field after encountering difficulties in burying him on consecrated land.
Local families said that after his death, children were afraid to approach “Pwll Benji Bach Du” – “Little Black Benji Basin” and locals told folk tales of how the former valet of foot haunted the grounds near the farm.
Thomas ‘the black barber’ Rigby
Thomas Rigby – known at the time and in much of local history as “Thomas the Black Barber” was originally born in Africa around the 1780s, but was captured as a slave in the age eight and taken to work in appalling conditions in the West Indies.
After years of serving as a servant in the Caribbean, Thomas was taken to England and then to Kidwelly by the Reverend John Norcross. He was granted his freedom and eventually became a highly regarded figure in the community.
Thomas became a popular hairstylist and reportedly owned a barber shop on aptly named Thomas Street in Llanelli, near the Drovers pub where his future wife Mary worked.
Mary was a local girl and the couple married on January 19, 1819 and had six children. Thomas learned to read and write and taught Welsh at Llanelly and has been described as a “harmless and industrious man”.
He died in 1841 at the age of 58.
Black history month
October 2020 marks Black History Month which celebrates black culture, history, art, stories and the recognition of struggles and inequalities.
This year, after the murder of George Floyd that sparked a worldwide movement of Black Lives Matter protests, the month-long event that began in the 1980s is even more relevant than before.
The month features programs, virtual events and celebrations. You can find a list of events here and more information can be found on the official Black History Wales website.
Thanks to Carmarthenshire Antiquary and the Llanelli Historical Society for their research.