In July 2020, we spoke to Opera Singer and broadcaster, Peter Brathwaite, about his pioneering Rediscovering Black Portraiture series. Since then, Peter has been researching his family history and got back in touch earlier this year to let us know that he’d discovered a number of connections to a portrait held in our archive. We caught up with Peter to find out more about his research.
Peter Brathwaite - photo by Inna Kostukovsky
You've been tracing your family history on your mother’s side. Can you tell us more about what you uncovered?
When researching my family tree, I noticed that one name kept popping up: the Reverend John Hothersall Pinder, a white plantation chaplain and catechist (a teacher of the principles of Christian religion).
The first mention I discovered was in a two-hundred year old letter written by my 4x great grandmother Margaret Brathwaite. Margaret was born in 1790 on the Caribbean island of Barbados, the British Empire’s earliest and most profitable colony in the New World. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Hon. Miles Brathwaite II, a prominent white enslaver, and an enslaved African mother, whose identity is not yet known but we might assume was enslaved on the Brathwaite plantation. Margaret’s white heritage gave her a marginal advantage in Barbados’s rigid racial hierarchy — she was granted full freedom as a teenager, and received an education.
On the 2nd July 1821, having been visited at home by the Reverend John Hothersall Pinder, Margaret wrote a letter to celebrate her family’s official conversion to Anglicanism. In the letter she set out a charge for her family to celebrate a Brathwaite family festival on July 2 every year. Margaret's descendants have celebrated this Family Festival every July 2 since.
Margaret’s husband Addo, my 4x great grandfather, was born in around 1742, probably in Ghana. He was captured, sold and forcibly transported to Barbados where he was enslaved on one of the sugar plantations owned by the Brathwaite family. He started as a field worker, progressed to the status of domestic servant and was freed for “good conduct” at the age of 73. The Brathwaites gave Addo their surname. When I found a copy of Addo’s freedom papers (or manumission papers), it was actually Pinder who signed these off and stamped them – we can assume because of Pinder’s high status in Barbados society at the time.
Transcript extract of Addo Brathwaite’s freedom papers
Pinder’s name surfaced a third time in my research as Margaret and Addo named one of their sons after him - Aaron Pinder Brathwaite, who went on to become a school teacher.
Although actual details about the lives of my black ancestors are few and far between, digging into their relationship with John Hothersall Pinder has enabled me to start to build a picture of the plantation system they were part of. It is a process that exposes how white colonial power continues to control what is known about people of colour in enslaved societies. The final, and most surprising mention, was his marriage to Margaret’s cousin, Ann Brathwaite Gibbons.
So who was John Hothersall Pinder?
John Hothersall Pinder by Samuel Cousins, after Sir William Boxall, mid 19th Century © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG D40224)
Pinder was born into a Barbadian enslaver family in 1794. He received his formal education in England at the independent boarding school Charterhouse and then the University of Cambridge. Upon ordination in 1819, he returned to Barbados, where he became Chaplain at the Codrington plantations — owned by the Church of England’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. These two sugar estates were highly profitable enterprises, generating annually in excess of £5 million in today’s money. Along with the cattle and horses, Africans enslaved on the Codrington estates in the 18th century were branded with hot irons on their bodies with the word “SOCIETY”. When they died from disease, injury or overwork, they were simply replaced. As Barbadian historian Sir Hilary Beckles points out, from the beginning of the 19th century, the Church of England defended its right to own and brutalise enslaved Africans, claiming that enslavement was “Christian”.
John Hothersall Pinder helped to bolster this view through authored works such as his proslavery Advice to Servants; being five Family Lectures delivered to Domestic Slaves in the island of Barbadoes, in the year 1822 (London, 1824). In his role as a catechist, he oversaw the establishment of Society Chapel, a separate chapel for the 300 plus African men, women and children enslaved on the Codrington estates — a crucial step in the Church’s project to “promote the gradual civilisation” of the enslaved population, and in turn maintain a harmonious society in the face of abolitionist advances in Barbados and back in the “Mother Country”.
Pinder reported directly to the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of York. The most surprising aspect of my research has been finding out that my own ancestors are mentioned in reports detailing Pinder’s progress in converting the local population. The records show that John Hothersall Pinder considered my ancestors to be useful Christian role models for his enslaved workers.
He has lately added to his congregation a very religious family of free coloured persons. He [Addo Brathwaite] was formerly a slave and emancipated for his good conduct — he has now a comfortable house with 12 acres of land and 11 slaves, he is 73 years of age and the father of 18 children. His example will no doubt prove of much service. He has lately ordered a copy of the family Bible.
Addo’s family set an excellent example to the rest of the congregation, by their attention and good behaviour.
Addo’s family are regular, and behave with the greatest propriety. They seem to attend to me and remember my sermons and texts.
Extracts from Reports of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1824. British Online Archives
As a free mixed race family in pre-emancipation Barbados, my 4 x great grandparents Margaret and Addo Brathwaite were accorded some privileges but denied most. Freed people strove to become Christians not only for the spiritual gains of faith, but also because being “British, Christian and a loyal subject” helped to justify their claims to civil rights in a society where they were neither enslaved nor entirely free.
Despite being freed, social conventions in Barbados prohibited Addo and Margaret from taking communion alongside white Anglicans. It’s more than likely that these unwritten rules are what led them to join Pinder’s all black congregation at Society Chapel in the parish of St John, Barbados.
Pinder’s chapel was a short walk away from my ancestor’s own plantation.
The fact that Addo and Margaret Brathwaite owned 11 enslaved workers, inherited from the white Brathwaites, is a difficult truth to digest – but it illustrates the complexities of a society where ownership of enslaved people was regarded as a fundamental property right of both the white elite and free persons of colour. In time, Margaret and Addo actively acquired the expensive manumission fee necessary to liberate enslaved men and women on their estate. Margaret was a seamstress and many of the enslaved women she freed began their new lives with that same skill — she trained them up in one of the few occupations considered respectable for a middle class woman.
How do you go about tracing your family history?
The start of my research was supported by Barbados genealogical researcher Dr Patricia Stafford. Many of the parish records I’ve found have been accessed via ancestry.com. The Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies, 1813-1834 are free to view via the National Archives and are an invaluable resource for finding details about enslaved individuals, and names of individuals who owned enslaved men, women and children. However, a major roadblock is that there are no registers of enslaved people before 1812.
Another invaluable source is the website of the UCL Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. This is where I initially found biographical details for John Hothersall Pinder and discovered that his portrait is held in the National Portrait Gallery archive. I have also accessed The West Indies in Records from Colonial Missionaries, 1704-1950 via the British Online Archives – and I have found clues about my ancestors in the Barbados Mercury Gazette (1783–1848), digitised by the Barbados Archives.
It is never easy to explore a heritage characterised by inequalities, silences and exclusions. Exploring a range of sources allows me to get a better understanding of what has not been documented.
Has it been possible to find a portrait of your ancestors? How do you think the portrait we do hold can help us to understand and tell the story of these often hidden histories, and what can we learn from the discoveries you made?
Margaret Brathwaite’s father, the enslaver Miles Brathwaite II (my 5x great grandfather) was a patron of the arts and even invited the late 18th c/ early 19th c portrait artist Ralph Stennet to operate a studio from one of the Brathwaite sugar estates. There is a portrait of Miles Brathwaite II dating from around this time, but none of my ancestors of colour.
Miles Brathwaite II, by an unknown artist
Portraits such as the one of Miles Brathwaite II and the National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of John Hothersall Pinder are portals into understanding hidden histories. However, simply displaying these works can re-inscribe inequalities. Access to such images needs to go hand in hand with increased contextualisation and full historical insight. Without this we risk contributing to the reproduction and magnification of colonial hierarchies.
The Brathwaite family festival has just celebrated its 200th anniversary. Can you tell us more about this?
We are very lucky to have a transcript of Margaret Brathwaite’s original letter. In many ways her literacy serves as a portrait of her. It is one of the few surviving sources written by a freed woman of colour in early 19th century Barbados. Yes, it illustrates her strong religious beliefs but also shows what her early freedom meant to her — the year she wrote her letter there were nearly 80,000 men, women and children enslaved in the colony of Barbados. In the capital of Bridgetown, enslaved people who had tried to escape were confined to an outdoor public holding cell known as The Cage. They waited there until they were claimed by their owners or tried. This reality is probably what prompted Margaret to choose ‘Hark, my soul! it is the Lord’, with words by the anti-slavery poet William Cowper as the Brathwaite festival hymn. A bold choice that could represent an act of resistance in an oppressive society.
The Festival starts with the hymn, followed by prayers and readings. The letter (the charge left by Margaret) is then read followed by a roll call of all descendants who are asked to share a scripture, verse, prayer, poem and in recent years any reflections. The event is followed by a delicious feast.
You were able to attend the festival in 2020 and 2021 via Zoom. What was that like?
It has been an honour to attend the festival. The singing of the Brathwaite family hymn is always a highlight. As a family we are enormously proud of how Margaret Brathwaite harnessed her freedom and education as a woman of colour in British West Indian society - at a time when freed people of colour were routinely excluded from the majority of occupations and opportunities.
The fact that the Festival has been celebrated continuously for 200 years is testament to Margaret’s enduring spirit.
Screenshot from the Brathwaite family festival. Photo by Lisa Soares.
What’s next for you? Will you continue to research your family history? Are you still working on the
Rediscovering Black Portraiture series?
I’m currently rehearsing a new opera based on Richard Powers’ novel The Time of Our Singing, which will premiere at La Monnaie opera in Brussels. I am also working with Getty Publications on a book based on my Rediscovering Black Portraiture series. I’m delighted that the Renaissance instalment of Rediscovering Black Portraiture will form the basis of my debut solo exhibition Visible Skin: Rediscovering the Renaissance through Black Portraiture, a new outdoor exhibition across King’s College London’s Strand Campus. The show runs until 10 December 2021.
My work to recover knowledge about the lives of enslaved ancestors, especially those whose identities remain unknown is ongoing. This work, like my Rediscovering Black Portraiture is about agency and restorative justice.