Marian Mitchell (1803?-1863)

by Jan Richardson


Marian Mitchell (also known as Mary or Maria Mitchell) arrived in New South Wales on the Planter in 1839, having been sentenced at the Old Bailey to 10 years’ transportation for stealing money. The London Morning Post, reporting on her trial, described her as ‘Maria Mitchell, a black woman, about thirty years of age’. The indent of the Planter recorded that Marian was a married 25-year-old Roman Catholic laundress with one male child. She was born in Martinique and had a black complexion, ‘Black and woolley’ hair and black eyes. The indent also described Marian as a ‘woman of color’.

Fifteen years earlier, in June 1823, the Morning Chronicle reported that ‘a very pretty looking young woman of colour named Mary Michell’ appeared before a magistrate at Bow Street. The newspaper reported that Marian was about twenty years old and a native of Martinque. She said that when she was ‘very young’ she went to Malta and that, after marrying a man named ‘Michell’ in the 10th regiment, she sailed with him to Portsmouth, where he died shortly afterwards.  Marian made her way to London where she found employment but, after six months, her employer’s business closed and she found herself homeless and without work. She fell on hard times and, while plying her trade as a prostitute, was attacked by a gang of women in the Haymarket who gave her alcohol and robbed her. The magistrate took pity on Marian and, rather than sending her to prison, arranged for her to be admitted to the local workhouse.

Having been born in Martinique in the French West Indies in about 1803, Marian was most likely a descendant of the four million African slaves trafficked to the Caribbean, principally by Britain and France, to work on sugar plantations.  On 1 August 1834, the 1833 Emancipation Act came into effect, outlawing slavery in Britain and its colonies. In September 1834, the Morning Chronicle reported that an ‘emancipated negress.—Mrs. Mary Mitchell, a black woman’ was charged with disorderly conduct. The newspaper noted that ‘The defendant entertains some strange notions of the privileges which the Slavery Abolition Act has given to the negroes.’ Marian, who was accused of abusing a man ‘in the most disgusting language’, stated that he had called her a ‘nigger slave’ but that she was a ‘free nigger now’ and that ‘all man know we be mancibated’. Furthermore, she said that she had been told that ‘all de nigger may do as dey please’. The magistrate was not convinced by Marian’s argument and sentenced her to ten days in gaol as a ‘disorderly prostitute’.

After being convicted at the Old Bailey in 1838, Marian arrived in Sydney on board the Planter in 1839. In December 1846 she applied to marry John Wood, a ticket-of-leave man, but permission was denied, ‘the female being married’.  Marian received a ticket of leave for Parramatta in 1847 and a certificate of freedom in 1850. After this, however, she had regular brushes with the law and spent several terms in gaol.  In April 1852 she was charged by Caroline Smith, ‘a woman of ill fame’, with stealing ten shillings from her but was eventually acquitted. In October 1852, Timothy Sullivan, a ‘wild looking’ seaman from the Emma was charged with ‘violently assaulting Mary Mitchell, a coloured woman, native of Paris’. In 1855, ‘Susan Millett, and Mary Mitchell, a coloured woman’ were charged with stealing chickens and sent to prison for fourteen days.

In January 1863, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that ‘Mary Mitchell, a vagrant, found lying drunk in Market-street, was sentenced to be imprisoned [for] one month’. One week later, Marian was dead and the newspaper reported the results of an inquest into the death of ‘Margaret [sic] Mitchell’, aged 48 years:

The deceased woman was a negress, originally from the Mauritius, and had been many years in the colony. She was a confirmed drunkard, and was very frequently in gaol for various petty offences.… Her constitution had been thoroughly broken up by dissipation and exposure, and on Saturday last she suddenly expired.… Verdict—“Died from serous apoplexy accelerated by intemperance”.

The newspaper stated that Marian was 48 years old but, if she was born in about 1803, she would have been closer to 60 years of age. The report also said she was from Mauritius, an error that was repeated on her death certificate, which recorded her place of birth as the ‘Isle of France’, as Mauritius was also known. In death, as in life, the confusion regarding Marian’s age, place of birth and even her name—not only being referred to as Marian, Mary and Maria, but also as Margaret—has contributed greatly to the difficulty in piecing together the remarkable story of Marian’s journey from slavery in Martinique, via Malta and England, to life as a black female convict in New South Wales.

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Further reading:
Jan Richardson, 'Caribbean stories: born in the West Indies, tried in the British Isles, transported to New South Wales', in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart, 2015, pp. 114-130.
Duffield, Ian, ‘Skilled workers or marginalized poor? The African population of the United Kingdom, 1812-52’, in Africans in Britain, ed David Killingray, Frank Cass, Ilford, Essex, 1994.
Postma, Johannes, The Atlantic Slave Trade, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 2003.
Thomas, Hugh, The Slave Trade: the history of the Atlantic slave trade 1440-1870, Phoenix, London, 2006.



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