Slave trader's son who set up his own school

1st February 2008 at 00:00
Britain's first black teacher was brought here by slave-ship captain.

It would be hard to find a pupil who has not heard of Mary Seacole. Most teachers have devoted lessons during black history month to the achievements of Linford Christie or Ms Dynamite.

But, while teachers are keen to promote the accomplishments of black Britons, mention is rarely made of Britain's first black teacher.

The story of Tom Jenkins is to be told in detail for the first time in a book to be published soon.

Tom was born around 1797 on the Upper Guinea coast in West Africa. While British slaves had been given their freedom in 1772, slave trading was not abolished until 1807.

Tom's father, a local chief known as King Cockeye, had established a reputation as a prominent slave trader. When his son reached the age of six, King Cockeye entrusted him to James Swanson, captain of the slave ship Prudence. The African chief hoped that his son might receive a better education in Britain than in his home village. Tom was named by the crew.

James Swanson died not long afterwards and Tom was taken to Teviothead in the Scottish Borders to be cared for by Swanson's sister. Attending the local school, he taught himself Greek and Latin in the evenings, collecting scraps of candlewax to illuminate his late-night studies. In 1814, 17-year-old Tom applied to teach at his former school. But his application was rejected on the grounds of what was described as his "pagan birth".

In response, Tom set up his own school. His reputation spread, and at one point he had 45 pupils when the school that had rejected him only had four.

Jacob Middleton, a civil servant researching the history of education, said Tom was reputed to be the first black teacher in Britain. He added that poor record-keeping by schools at that time meant there may have been others whose work had not been documented.

"In a relatively heterogeneous area, issues like race would not necessarily be commented upon," he said.

Nonetheless, Tom's achievement was compounded by the lack of diversity in his local area. Little has been written about him. Chris McGrath, head of Stainburn School in Workington, Cumbria, had not heard of him despite years working in anti-racist education until he saw a plaque in Tom's former school.

"He was clearly a remarkable man and a significant educator," Mr McGrath said. "There were barriers to achievement then as there are now. It's interesting to compare."

Black teachers remain rare in predominantly white areas such as Teviothead and Workington. Only 1.7 per cent of Britain's teachers are black compared with 3.5 per cent of the population.

Mr McGrath said that Tom's story should be taught to pupils, irrespective of their backgrounds. "It's not just schools in urban areas that need to challenge stereotypes," he said. "Tom Jenkins was an important man for all Britons."

Tom eventually moved to Mauritius, where he opened the first British free school in the island colony. He established several more schools and married one of the teachers. The couple and their four children lived in Mauritius until Tom's death in 1859.

Tom's former school is now an art gallery and home of the Rocking Boat Press, which will soon be publishing a full account of his life.

Teviothead Primary, which had six pupils, closed in 2004.

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