“Cumba” – the story of one slave woman owned by Captain John Burch, Christ Church. From Africa to Barbados to England


“Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of Negroes, and therefore seeing she would not yield by perswasions to company with a Negro young man he had in his house…”

… from John Josselyn as recounted in Two Voyages to New England, published 1674

One story of millions

by West Side Davie

“Cumba” was her name. She died a slave in Romford, England in April, 1668 – the property of John Burch and his wife Margaret of Hogsty Plantation. (I’m not sure whether Captain John Burch of Barbados is also referred to and is the same as Colonel John Burch of Barbados, but this family history and other websites seem to say it is the same man. I remain open for correction!)

Today, Cumba is remembered as Havering’s first black resident in an excellent article by Professor Ged Martin just published in the Romford Recorder:

It was 350 years ago this year that a fabulously rich couple, John and Margaret Burch, arrived in Romford.

They’d made their money in Barbados, exploiting slave labour to produce the bonanza crop: sugar.

In 1664, they retired to England, buying Romford’s biggest estate, Gidea Hall, then usually called Giddy Hall. The mansion, demolished in 1930, stood just east of Raphael Park.

Madam Burch, as she was fawningly called, brought her personal maidservant from Barbados, the ultimate status symbol.

Cumba was Havering’s first black resident. A slave, a piece of property, Cumba survived the English climate just four years.

But when she died, in April 1668, somebody had the humanity to record her name in the register of Romford’s St Edward’s church. “Cumber, a ffemale Blackamore servant from Guyddy Hall, buried.”

Today, “blackamore” is an offensive term. But in 1668, when “black” was used to ­describe complexion, it was an attempt to identify Cumba with some dignity. The double “ff” ­indicated a capital letter.

… read the entire article Cumba: Havering’s first black resident remembered on the 350th anniversary of her arrival.

We know very little about Cumba, but we still know far more about her than we do about millions of other people who were enslaved with her and since. We know about the times in which she lived, and we also know a little about the socially-condoned cruelty of slave owners. I believe that much of history has been ‘cleansed’, but not all of it. What passed for ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ when Cumba lived gives us some idea of her personal circumstances, what she probably saw even if she was not herself subject to all of the abuses. We simply don’t know the details of her life, but we know the times.

So to learn more about Cumba, we will talk of the people around her: the powerful elites of society at the time…

John Burch, Hogsty Plantation, Barbados

In 1644, Captain John Burch was deeded 120 acres in Christ Church, Barbados. Burch also owned Noddle’s Island, now part of Logan Airport, Boston, Massachusetts. John Burch bought Noddle’s Island from George Briggs of Barbados. Briggs had bought Noddle’s Island from the 17th-century English colonist Samuel Maverick. (also worth a read: Samuel Maverick at Blogspot)

Samuel Maverick, son of Anglican Reverand John Maverick, was one of the earliest settlers in Massachusetts, who became one of the largest landholders and the first slave owners in the colonies. He became an important man, with the King making him Commissioner to settle disputes, and giving him land in New York as well. No doubt his peers considered him a fine example to follow: a hard working, god fearing family man, although he did run into trouble for being a Royalist.

But Samuel Maverick was also the sort of man who ordered one of his male slaves to rape one of his female slaves.

“Mr. Maverick was desirous to have a breed of Negroes, and therefore seeing she would not yield by perswasions to company with a Negro young man he had in his house; he commanded him will’d she nill’d she to go to bed to her, which was no sooner done but she kickt him out again, this she took in high disdain beyond her slavery, and this was the cause of her grief.”

—John Josselyn, Two Voyages to New England, 1674 as recounted in The cause of her grief: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England

And there is the illustration of the time that our slave Cumba lived in. A man could order the rape of a woman, and still be considered “the only hospitable man in all the Country, giving entertainment to all Comers gratis.”

The will of John Burch also tells us much:

John Burch of Guydiehall, cb. Essex, Esq. Will dated 17 Nov. IGUS. Funeral not to exceed £300.

To my -wife Margaret t B., my manor & lands of Gruidiehall in the p. of Ilornechnreh, the house, the parke with the warren, & the Unicorno Inne for her life, then to my sister ltebeccah llothersall. On my purchase of tho
s d manor I settled a lease of 1000 years of a part of the lands in the names of Tho. Kendall, Esq., since dee’ 1 , & of Win. Drax, Esq., to be for my wife & sister.

To my said wife £1500, books, Jewells, plate, coach-horses, coach & produce, & the one moyetie of my plantation called Hogsty, in S’ John’s p.,

I. of Barbadoes, cont. 500 a., negroes, cattle & stock, & the moiety of my storehouse in the town of S’ Michael’s, & the other moiety to my sister Rebecca H., & the reversion of my wife’s j to her, & the remainder of the whole to my 2 nephews Tho. If. & Burch

II. All produce to be consigned to M 1 ‘ Tho. Cooper, merchant, & whereas my brother-in-1., Thos. II., hath, in pursuance of an agreement of marriage had between Tho. Muddiforde, son of S r Tho. M., lit., & Frances, the dan. of the said Thos., since dee’ 1 , contracted a debt of £1200, secured by a mortgage of some est. in the Barbadoes, I give to my six nephews & nieces, the ch” of my s d sister ltebeccah, £1200, to redeem the said mortgage, & to be secured to them. To my sister £500. Eliz. Clarke, my housekeeper, £100. My cosen Tho. Cave, £100. My cosen Abigail, wife of Geo. Ash, £50. M 1 ‘ Tho. Cooper, £100. Governors of Christ’s llosp. £100.

To my nephews & necces John, Tho, Burch, Eliz., Reb a & Anne H., & my neece Abiah Trott, the dan. of my sistor Eliz. Trott, £300 apiece at 1G or m. All residue to my wife & sister.

My wife sole Ex’trix in Eng., & my loving friends Col. Sam. Barwiek, Capt. James Thorpe & L l John Sayera Eiors. in T. at the B’oes., M r Tho. Cooper & M 1 W” 1 Drax, overseers in Eng., £30 a piece.

To the chapel of Rumfonl, in the p. of Ilornechnreh, 2 silver ilaggons of £12 apiece. £5 to the minister for my funeral sermon.

Proved 4 Dec. 1GGS by Marg 1 B., p. r. to the others. (151, Henc.)

Proved also in B’os 8 Eeb. 1GG8-9 by Chr. Codringtou with a copy attested by the Lord Mayor. (Barbados Records, vol. xv., p. GO.)

No matter that we study history as we should, we must never forget: There are 27 million slaves in the world today…

more than at any time in human history.


Filed under Africa, Barbados, Culture & Race Issues, History, Human Rights, Race, Slavery

9 responses to ““Cumba” – the story of one slave woman owned by Captain John Burch, Christ Church. From Africa to Barbados to England

  1. RLL

    Good article to get one thinking BFP. Thank you.

  2. John

    Here is another interpretation which gives rise to a rather different dimension.

    Hog Stye plantation is today known as Hothersall Plantation probably because John Burch left it to his sister Rebecca Hothersall.

    According to the Queree Papers, Hothersall Plantation remained the property of the Hothersall family until 1796.

    John and Margaret Burch clearly had no children of their own. John seems to have had only two sisters living at the time, both of whom he took care of in his will.

    John died four years after he returned to England. I suspect he returned to his country to die.

    I believe from the reference in the will to his Friends, Samuel Barwicke, James Thorpe and John Sayers that he had become a Quaker before he died.

    Perhaps Cumba also became a Quaker.

    I note in the Burial Register she is not described as a slave.

    In fact, the description of her is “a ffemale Blackamore servant”, …. servant, not slave.

    I think the use of the term servant is very significant.

    I suspect she was given her freedom by John Burch in Barbados and chose of her own free will to leave Barbados for England with her former owner and remain in his employ.

  3. akabozik

    John’s interpretation might make sense. Think of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ written by John Newton, former slaver captain.

    Although he continued slaving after his nominal ‘conversion’ to Christ, as the Lord took him he finally found the courage to renounce slavery. Some say he was too late, and some say he was a hypocrite, but Jesus changes hearts so who are we to say what was in the heart of John Burch or John Newton when they died?

  4. John

    I think also the use of the terminology “Blackamoor” as opposed to Negro is also significant in the burial register of the parish church.

    I have found in the book by Ligon who was in Barbados from 1647-1649, that Negro was used at the time to signify a person was non-Christian whereas according to the SOED, “Blackamoor” was used to describe the appearance of the person.

    It would be great if the Quaker Meeting records of the time and place could be searched.

    Usually, a Quaker who relocated brought a letter of introduction from his/her meeting to the one he/she sought to join. If my theory is correct, there should be a record in the English meeting for John Burch, his wife and his servant from the Barbados Meeting to which they belonged.

    Given the location in St. John I would guess it would have been the Cliff Meeting. Unfortunately, Quaker Meeting Minutes from Barbados are not available …. either lost, destroyed … or hopefully, misplaced and yet to be found.

    Also, there may very well be a record in the meeting minutes of the burials of John Burch, his wife and servant.

    I found in Barbados that just because a person’s burial was recorded in the burial register for the parish does not mean the person was buried in the parish church.

    Quakers had their own separate burial customs, which is not to say all were not buried in the parish church, indeed there are some that were.

    I get the impression that the Parochial burial register was the official record that the dead person would no longer be paying his parochial taxes and the authorities (Vestry of the Parish) should seek those taxes from his successors.


    Thank you West Side Davie and John for the information on another lost piece of Bajan history.
    Only recently saw the rather harrowing film 12 Years A Slave by the black British artist/director Steve McQueen starring Chiwetel Ejiofor who takes the lead role as Soloman Northup whose neglected/lost autobiography was found by Steve’s wife.
    They are of course many histories of African people who were brought to the Americas for the slave plantations which undoubtedly are yet to be unearthed.
    Those of Soloman Northup of New York and Cumba of Pigsty Plantation, Barbados are but two important and welcome additions to the growing corpus of knowledge which hopefully will provide a deeper and more profound understanding as to the development of old world economies from slavery and the riches of the new world and the pernicious ideology of racism that distorts relations and plagues us now in this 21st century.
    By the way a Quaker buriel ground is located at the intersection of Government Hill/Belmont Road……………………..Quaker Road???

  6. John

    If you are interested in Quaker burials take a look at the restored area opposite St. Philip’s Church.

    That is just one of many.

  7. John

    In 1644, Captain John Burch was deeded 120 acres in Christ Church, Barbados
    If you look at the list in the link you will see that in 1641, Thomas Hothersall had 1000 acres in St. John, the Poole Claybury area.

    Here’s my surmise.

    The Burch and Hothersall families became partners, lets call them Friends, … or Quakers even, around the same time. They were out of Essex and George Fox frequented the area, holding meetings.

    It was mutually beneficial for them to work together.

    Thomas Burch probably got rid of his 120 acres in Christ Church (should be easy to check who he sold the land to) and went into business with Thomas Hothersall.

    The families thought alike, believed alike and worked together to better themselves and their property, which included slaves.

    I suspect Thomas Hothersall sold (perhaps even gave) what is now Hothersall in St. John to Thomas Burch.

    Why should he not, his son married Thomas Burch’s daughter Rebecca.

    When Thomas Burch died he willed it back to the Hothersall family through his daughter.

    It is easy to miss the opportunities families working together, believing together and praying together bring to business … in today’s secular and brutish world it is understandable to miss the obvious.

  8. John

    For me the interesting thing about the possibility that the major landowners at the beginning of the Sugar Revolution being Quakers is that much of what our historians and politicians tell us about maltreatment of slaves is rubbish.

    Historians at least generally accept that Quakers treated their slaves well!!

    Coomba may be an example.

    From what I can determine, my grandfather’s slave ancestors were freed from as long ago as 1721, more than a century before emancipation so Coomba’s fortune is totally understandable to me.

    The Quakers also had a significant hand in emancipation. The 12 directors of the Clapham sect for which Wilberforce spoke in parliament were comprised of 9 Quakers.

    Quakers could not be MP’s until the late 1800’s nor would they serve in the Army or Church. That is why many successful businesses were Quaker operated because all that was left to them was business to finance the practice of their beliefs.

    Amazing a movement started by a single man, George Fox, could have had such an effect on world history.

    I am beginning to believe that every field and hill in Barbados is a world heritage site because I feel it was the Quaker experience here which opened men’s eyes to the iniquities of slavery and led to its abolition.

    There may be more slaves in this world now than ever, but man kind has no excuse for allowing the situation to persist because of what happened here in Barbados.