Maria: An Enslaved Woman in the St Vincent Botanical Garden

Dr Christina Welch uncovers the story of Maria, an enslaved African woman, and her three children, Chance, Frances, and Liverpool, who, at the end of the long eighteenth century, find themselves connected to the St Vincent Botanical Garden.

Published on 13th October 2023

As with most information about enslaved people, the little we know about them is located in archival records relating to financial transactions. But by building a wider picture of the St Vincent Botanical Garden, and those who lived and worked there, I hope to bring some life to these four named individuals. Central to this context is the Scottish naturalist and superintendent of the Garden, Alexander Anderson (1748-1811).

Botanical garden map

Map of St Vincent botanical garden (c.1785-1811), MS/609/1

The Linnean Society holds a late-eighteenth century archive of material produced by Anderson who was superintendent of the St Vincent Botanical Garden from 1785 until shortly before his death in 1811. It comprises the natural histories of a number of Caribbean islands, and a list of plant species growing in the Garden around the year 1800. The Garden had been founded in 1765. The information held in this archive is fascinating, not only in what it contains but also what is missing, and I have been fortunate enough to have led a collaborative interdisciplinary project funded by the UKRI focussing on St Vincent Botanical Garden in the time of Anderson.

Anderson’s Caribbean natural histories contain descriptions of topography and climate, but in places are almost travel diaries. The plant catalogue he wrote includes not only names of plant species, but also some information on plant used by the indigenous people of the St Vincent, and the enslaved Africans trafficked there to work on the sugar plantations. By going beyond a scientific account of regional geography and a plant inventory, the Anderson archive held at the Linnean provides a fascinating glimpse into aspects of the late-eighteenth century Caribbean through the eyes of a Scottish naturalist.

Tyley, breadfruit tree

John Tyley, Artocarpus incisus (breadfruit tree), c. 1800, MS/608

This peek into the wider context of the Garden and the man himself, is furthered by the inclusion of botanical illustrations, some of which were painted by John Tyley, a mixed-race self-taught artist originally from Antigua whom Anderson employed, and whose work accompanies Anderson’s plant catalogue. But what this archive doesn’t include is anything much about Anderson’s domestic life, nor about the enslaved Africans who worked in the Garden. Indeed, from the archive held at the Linnean Society you’d never know Anderson was married and had a child, nor that many enslaved Africans worked in the Garden…and it is here, in Anderson’s personal life, that we find Maria and her children.

On 8th June 1789, Alexander Anderson married Elizabeth Alexander in the Anglican Cathedral in St Vincent’s capital, Kingstown. Elizabeth was born and grew up on Antigua, but her father had strong connections with St Vincent. How they met is unknown but diary entries from Anderson’s nephew state that socially she was well connected on the island, and it’s clear from Anderson’s natural histories that he was a likeable man capable of making solid friendships. In a letter dated 2nd May 1789, Anderson wrote to his mentor, William Forsyth, stating, “I have some intention of taking [an agreeable companion] for Life (I mean a wife) I think I know one who from her good nature & sense will make me happy, she has no money more than myself, but as it never adds to happiness, I regard it not…”. A year to the day after their wedding, their daughter, also named Elizabeth, was baptised.

What Anderson didn't tell Forsyth is that Elizabeth was deaf. She lost much of her hearing following a childhood accident (although there is no information on what this was nor when it happened). Nor did he ever mention that on the day of their wedding, he signed a rather extraordinary document which named Maria and her children. At this time, upon marriage, all that a woman owned became her husband's, and this included enslaved Africans. However, in this case, Anderson gave up this legal entitlement. The document, an indenture, transferred the ownership of Maria, Chance, Frances, and Liverpool, from Elizabeth to two trustees, with the agreement that, once the marriage has taken place, the four enslaved individuals “shall not be under [Anderson's] power or control… but at the sole and separate disposal of …Elizabeth Alexander" (1).

This was a highly unusual act but given Elizabeth’s disability, it seems evident to me that Maria must have been essential to Elizabeth’s daily life, presumably assisting her to communicate effectively. By ensuring Elizabeth had sole authority over Maria and her children, Anderson was protecting them and her should he pre-decease her (which he did). Whatever happened to Anderson, Maria and her three children would stay with Elizabeth.

Guilding, St Vincent botanical gardens

Lansdown Guilding, "View of the botanic garden in St Vincent", from An account of the botanic garden in the island of St Vincent, from its first establishment to the present time (1825).

There is little doubt that Tyley, Maria and Elizabeth all interacted within the Garden grounds. Tyley resided in the Garden, and Maria as a domestic enslaved African would have resided with or close to Elizabeth. She would also have known the Garden grounds well: extant material states that Elizabeth collected seeds in the Garden where she, with Maria by her side, would have encountered the enslaved workers whose labour and horticultural knowledge was central to its success, where Tyley painted, and where their children played. A document from a subsequent superintendent of the Garden, strongly suggests Maria’s children grew up in the grounds of the St Vincent Botanical Garden (2).

Anderson note about Chance

Slip inserted in Anderson's plant catalogue, giving permission to Chance to seek another master, c.1808-1811, MS/609/1

A slip of paper slipped into Anderson's plant catalogue provides another tantalising glimpse of Chance - if it is indeed the same person. It simply reads: The bearer / Chance / has my permission to find an owner for himself. Alexander Anderson. It suggests that Chance wanted to leave the Garden and go elsewhere. To do this, he needed the permission of the head of the household and superintendent of the garden, Alexander Anderson - despite the fact that Anderson was not his owner.

It is only by researching other types of sources, like legal documents, and exploring them alongside the archives of the Linnean Society that the lost identities of an enslaved African woman and her children can be recovered. While the indenture reveals how much Elizabeth depended on Maria, the extent to which the lives of these two mothers were intertwined remains unknown.

Dr Christina Welch is Reader in Theology, Religion and Philosophy, University of Winchester.

Dr Welch's research has been supported by UKRI Hidden Histories fund.


(1) The indenture can be found in Deed Book 1789-1790, British Library, EAP688/1/1/37, (images 73-77)

(2) George Caley to Sir Joseph Banks, 29 July 1818, in Neil Chambers (ed.), The India and Pacific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, Vol. 8 (2014).