Maria Middleton (1809 - ?)

by Darryl Massie

 

Maria Middleton was born in 1809 in Belize, the then capital of the British Honduras. Maria and her family were slaves owned by Mary White, a wealthy landowner. In 1816 Maria’s household included her mother Cretia, her father Bryan Middleton, a 40-year-old mahogany cutter; Kitty aged 13; and Mary aged 3.

In 1825 Maria ran away from her owner and commenced living with William Maize, a ‘disbanded soldier, of one of the black regiments’.  On the night of 16 June 1826, William Maize allegedly had ‘grown tired of [Maria and] ordered her to quit his house’. A scuffle ensued during which Maize received a fatal knife wound. Maria was charged with Maize’s murder and was tried in the Belize Supreme Court on 19 September 1826. Maria’s barrister, Mr Waight, raised a technical issue regarding the court process but the objection was dismissed. The jury found Maria guilty and the judge sentenced her to death and directed her to be executed on 22 September 1826.  

It appears however that Maria had a wealthy benefactor in Belize. The day before she was to be executed Maria was granted a reprieve and in early 1827 her death sentence was commuted to transportation for life. The grounds for the commutation were related to the technical issue Maria’s barrister raised at her trial. Major General Eden Codd, the Superintendent of the British Honduras, arranged for Maria to be transported from Belize ‘in irons’ on board the barque Arethusa to Woolwich, England, where she was transferred to the Borneo for her journey to Van Diemen’s Land.

The Borneo departed London on 11 May 1828 for a ‘long and tedious voyage’ arriving in Hobart Town on 8 October 1828, a little over two years after the date fixed for her execution. En route, Maria and her fellow occupants endured extreme weather conditions. The ship was forced to seek refuge in Madeira for fourteen days to replace a mast and after arriving in Hobart Town underwent repairs for over ten weeks.

Maria’s convict records describe her as an 18-year-old (about two years younger than her age recorded in the Belize censuses) ‘servant of all work’ who is particularly adept at washing, ironing and needlework. She stood before the registering clerk as a young lady 4 feet 11 inches (149.86 cm) tall with a black complexion and facial features characterised by a broad oval visage, flat nose and large, thick lips. To the enduring discredit of the convict administration, even though Maria told them that her father’s name was Bryan Middleton, all of Maria’s official documentation referred to her as ‘Maria (a Slave)’.

The only relevant entry in Maria’s conduct register was that on 26 April 1832 she was charged with ‘stealing a blanket and other articles of the goods and chattels of Peter Rush of Hobart Town’. By this time Maria had married a free man, John Murray, with whom Maria had been lodging at the former ‘Hope and Anchor’ hotel together with Ann Davis, their assigned convict servant. Ann Davis alleged that when Maria and John moved to different premises in January 1832 to establish a boarding house, Maria had taken a blanket and other articles that didn’t belong to her. Maria was acquitted at the Magistrates Court hearing on 13 July 1832. Ian Duffield has conducted an analysis of Maria’s trial in which he suggests that an observer in court would readily infer that Ann Davis had made the allegations for her own sinister purposes.

As alluded to above, just two years after her arrival in Hobart Town, on 26 October 1830 Maria married John Murray, in St David’s Parish Church in Hobart. Almost eight years later, the couple had a daughter for whom they chose the delightful name Fedicia Exine.

Maria was granted a conditional pardon (number 1948) on 28 January 1839. The pardon was approved on 20 November 1840 but thereafter, sadly, as with so many of our convicts, Maria's evidentiary trail fades away.

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Further reading:
Darryl Massie, A Homicide in the Honduras: The Grace of a Mistress: A Slave’s Reprieve—how a teenage slave avoided the gallows in Belize, in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015 pp. 148-155.

 

 

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