Christian Sanderson (1790?-?)

by Jan Richardson


Christian ‘Sanderson or Saunders’, a woman with black hair, black eyes and a ‘Mulatto’ complexion, was convicted of robbery from a person in July 1833 at the Edinburgh Court of Justiciary and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation. Christian was not, however, born in Africa or the Caribbean. She was a widowed 43-year-old laundry maid born in Leith, Scotland who had a previous conviction of two months’ imprisonment. In addition to apparently having a mixed African-European ancestry, she also possessed several distinguishing features: ‘Nose large. Small Dark Mole on same. Another on left Cheek. Lost canine Teeth in Upper Jaw. Scar on Upper Lip, same Hairy.’

Christian’s life in Scotland prior to transportation is described in detail by Ian Duffield in his 1992 article about the life of ‘black Scots’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Christian, a widow with one daughter, was accused, along with two other women, of robbing money from an elderly man named William Gordon in a tenement in Borthwick Close, a narrow alleyway dating back to 1450 in Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile. Gordon said he wanted a drink of whisky but, as noted by Duffield, it seems more likely that he wanted a drink with the younger of the three women, Grace Thomson, prior to procuring her services as a prostitute. Either way, his plan was derailed and he ended up on the floor of the kitchen with his clothes torn, alleging that the three women robbed him of 16/- and a paper snuff-box. According to Jean McColl, ‘who evidently ran a disorderly house’ at the Borthwick Close property, Christian grabbed the whisky bottle and ran off with the other two women. She was discovered at another house in Borthwick Close, calmly seated at the fire and smoking a pipe. During questioning, she denied she had attacked or robbed Gordon, but did admit to having been in Bridewell (the Old Gaol) two or three times before. A watchman also declared that he had known Christian to be by ‘habit and repute a thief for ten years’. None of the witnesses, however, mentioned the colour of her skin and the precognition records do not indicate that she was of mixed race.  As noted by Duffield, Christian’s birth in Leith means that she had ‘no direct experience of plantation slavery’; however, ‘her alternative was an extremely harsh world of poverty and class and gender oppression’.

How did a ‘Mulatto’ woman come to be born in the port of Leith in Scotland in about 1790, well before the 1833 Emancipation Act outlawed slavery in Britain and its colonies?  According to June Evans, the historical record demonstrates that men and women of African descent had been present in Scotland from the early sixteenth century, forming ‘part and parcel of Scottish society albeit in positions of servitude whether at the Scottish Royal court, in aristocratic households or as slaves’. From the eighteenth century, arrivals included servants brought back from the colonies by planters, and children born abroad to Scottish fathers and African slave mothers. Other arrivals, says Evans, were African and Afro-Caribbean musicians serving in Scottish army regiments, servants brought back to Scotland by navy sea captains, and black seamen (slaves and free) who jumped ship in Scotland’s port towns. Christian’s father may well have been one of the black ‘sea-faring absconders’ who called the port of Leith home from the 1700s onwards. Alternatively, Christian may have been the daughter of a woman like Ann Bennat, a black servant brought to Scotland from Jamaica and baptised as a 19-year-old in South Leith in 1784.

In June 1834 Christian arrived in New South Wales, disembarking from the Numa with her two companions in crime, Grace Thomson and Isabella Sutherland. The 323-ton Numa arrived in Sydney with 138 female convicts and 24 children on board, as well as ’18 tons [of] gunpowder, and other Government stores’. Christian was assigned to ‘J.M. Weiss, Sydney’, but less than five months later, under the name ‘Christiana Saunderson’, was admitted to the Sydney Gaol before being transferred to the third class of the Female Factory for three months. There is no further trace of Christian until March 1842 when she was granted a ticket of leave under the name ‘Christian Saunderson’ for the district of Windsor, ‘Per the Governor’s Minute on a … recommendation by the Matron of the Female Factory’. The ticket was altered to Sydney on 31 January 1843 ‘for so long only as she remains in the service of Mr Weiss’. It was further altered to Windsor on 24 April 1843, ‘Saunderson having left Mr Weiss [sic] service’. Finally, it was altered again to Parramatta on 26 May 1843. Ten years later, on 26 December 1854, when Christian was about 64 years old, she was admitted to Parramatta Gaol under the name of ‘Christ[ian]a Sanderson’. She was ‘F.S.’ (free by servitude), a laundress and gave her place of birth as ‘Leith Edinboro’. She spent 24 hours in the cells but her crime was not recorded. In September 1856 Christian was admitted to the Parramatta Gaol to serve a three-month sentence, but there is no record of her offence. In September 1857, aged about 67, she was again admitted to the Parramatta Gaol for 24 hours for drunkenness, this time under the name of ‘Christiana Saunders’. Her trade was still listed as laundress and the register noted that she could both read and write.  This is the last trace of the black Scottish woman from Leith who was not only known as Christian and Christiana, but also by the surnames of Sanders, Sanderson, Saunders and Saunderson. It is not known what happened to her after she was discharged from gaol in 1857, whether she had any descendants, or when and where she died. The evidence, however, points to Christian dying alone and anonymously, and the unusual and intriguing story of her black Scottish heritage disappearing with her.

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Further reading:
Duffield, Ian, ‘Identity, community and the lived experience of black Scots from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries’, Immigrants & Minorities: Historical Studies in Ethnicity, Migration and Diaspora, vol 11, no 2, 1992, pp. 105-29.
Duffield, Ian, ‘Skilled workers or marginalized poor? The African population of the United Kingdom, 1812-52’, in Africans in Britain, eds David Killingray, Frank Cass, Ilford, Essex, 1994.
Evans, June, ‘African/Caribbeans [sic] in Scotland: A socio-geographical study’, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1995.



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