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Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal; Extraordinary History of Mr Thomas Jenkins, Saturday, December 15, 1832, pp.361-362.

[Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal Contents]


   THE facts we are about to relate respecting this person are of so extraordinary a nature, that, if they had happened at a place distant from our scene of publication, or at a time remote from the present, we would have despaired of procuring credence for them, and, perhaps, on that account, abandoned the idea of giving them publicly. It happens, however, that, both in respect of time and place, they are so readily liable to be denied, if found incorrect, that we can bring them forward with the greatest confidence. 

   Mr Thomas Jenkins was the son of an African king, and bore externally all the usual features of the negro. His father reigned over a considerable tract of country to the east of, and, we believe, including Little Cape Mount, a part of the wide coast of Guinea, which used to be much resorted to by British vessels for the purchase of slaves. The negro sovereign, whom the British sailors knew by the name of King Cock-eye, from a personal peculiarity, having observed what a superiority civilization and learning gave to the Europeans over the Africans in their traffic, resolved to send his eldest son to Britain, in order that he might acquire all the advantages of knowledge. He accordingly bargained with Captain Swanstone, a native of Hawick in Scotland, who traded to the coast for ivory, gold dust, &c., that the child should be taken by him to his own country, and returned in a few years fully educated, for which he was to receive a certain consideration in the productions of Africa. The lad recollected a little of the scene which took place on his being handed over to Swanstone. His father, an old man, came with his mother, who was much younger, and a number of sable courtiers, to a place on the side of a green eminence near the coast, and there, amidst the tears of the latter parent, he was formally consigned to the care of the British trader, who pledged himself to return his tender charge, some years afterwards, endowed with as much learning as he might be found capable of receiving. The lad was, accordingly, conveyed on a ship-board, where the fancy of the master conferred upon him the name of Thomas Jenkins.1

   Swanstone brought his protege to Hawick, and was about to take the proper means for fulfilling his bargain, when, unfortunately, he was cut off from this life. No provision having been made for such a contingency, Tom was thrown upon the wide world, not only without the means of obtaining a Christian education, but destitute of every thing that was necessary to supply still more pressing wants. Mr Swanstone died in a room in the Tower Inn at Hawick, where Tom very faithfully attended him, though almost starved by the cold of a Scottish winter. After his guardian had expired, he was in a state of the greatest distress from cold, till the worthy landlady, Mrs Brown, brought him down to her huge kitchen fire, where, alone, of all parts of the house, could he find a climate agreeable to his nerves. Tom was ever after very grateful to Mrs Brown for her kindness. After he had remained for some time at the inn, a farmer in Teviot-head, who was the nearest surviving relation of his guardian, agreed to take charge of him, and, accordingly, he was removed to the house of that individual, where he soon made himself useful in rocking the cradle, looking after the pigs and poultry, and other such humble duties. When he left the inn, he understood hardly a word of English; but here he speedily acquired the common dialect of the district, with all its peculiarities of accent and intonation. He lived in Mr L—’s family for several years, in the course of which he was successively advanced to the offices of cowherd and driver of peats to Hawick for sale on his master’s account, which latter duty he discharged very satisfactorily. After he had become a stout boy, Mr Laidlaw of Falnash, a gentleman of great respectability and intelligence, took a fancy for him, and readily prevailed upon his former protector to yield him into his charge. “Black Tom,” as he was called, became, at Falnash, a sort of Jack-of-all-trades. He acted as cowherd at one time, and stable-boy at another; in short, he could turn his hand to any sort of job. It was his especial duty to go upon all errands to Hawick, for which a retentive memory well qualified him. He afterwards became a regular farm-servant to Mr Laidlaw, and it was while acting in this capacity that he first discovered a taste for learning. How Tom acquired his first instructions is not known. The boy probably cherished a notion of duty upon this subject, and was anxious to fulfil, as far as his unfortunate circumstances would permit, the designs of his parent. He probably picked upa  few crumbs of elementary literature at the table of Mr Laidlaw’s children, or interested the servant lasses to give him what knowledge they could. In the course of a brief space, Mrs Laidlaw was surprised to find that Tom began to have a strange appetency for candle-ends. Not a doup about the farm-house could escape him. Every scrap of wick and tallow that he fell in with was secreted and taken away to his loft above the stable, and very dismal suspicions began to be entertained respecting the use he put them to. Curiosity soon incited the people about the farm to watch his proceedings after he had retired to his den; and it was then discovered, to the astonishment of all, that the poor lad was engaged, with a book and a slate, in drawing rude imitations of the letters of the alphabet. It was found that he also kept an old fiddle beside him, which cost the poor horses many a sleepless night. On the discovery of his literary taste, Mr Laidlaw put him to an evening school, kept by a neighbouring rustic, at which he made rapid progress – such, indeed, as to excite astonishment all over the country – for no one had ever dreamt that there was so much as a possibility of his becoming a scholar. By and by, though daily occupied with his drudgery as a farm-servant, he began to instruct himself in Latin and Greek. A boy friend, who in advanced life communicated to us most of the facts we are narrating, lent him several books necessary in these studies; and Mr and Mrs Laidlaw did all in their power to favour his wishes, though the distance of a classical academy was a sufficient bar, if there had been no other, to prevent their giving him the means or opportunity of regular instruction. In speaking of the kind treatment which he had received from these worthy individuals, his heart has often been observed to swell, and the tear to start into his honest dark eye. Besides acquainting himself tolerably well with Latin and Greek, he initiated himself in the study of mathematics. 

   A great era in Tom’s life was his possessing himself of a Greek dictionary. Having learned that there was to be a sale of books at Hawick, he proceeded thither, in company with our informant. Tom possessed twelve shillings, saved out of his wages, and his companion vowed that if more should be required for the purchase of any particular book, he should not fail to back him in the competition – so far as eighteen-pence would warrant, that being the amount of his own little stock. Tom at once pitched upon the lexicon as the grand necessary of his education, and accordingly he began to bid for it. All present stared with wonder when they saw a negro, clad in the grey cast-off surtout of a private soldier, and the number XCVI. still glaring in white oil-paint on his back, competing for a book which could only be useful to a student at a considerably advanced stage. A gentleman of the name of Moncrieff learned that thirteen and sixpence was the utmost extent of their joint stocks, he told his young friend to bid as far beyond that sum as he chose, and he would be answerable for the deficiency. Tom had now bidden as far as he could go, and he was turning away in despair, when his young friend, in the very nick of time, threw himself into the competition. “What, what do you mean?” said the poor negro, in great agitation; “you know we cannot pay both that and the duty.” His friend, however, did not regard his remonstrances, and immediately he had the satisfaction of placing the precious volume in the hands which were so eager to possess it – only a shilling or so being required from Mr Moncrieff. Tom carried off his prize in triumph, and, it is needless to say, made the best use of it. 

   It may now be asked – what was the personal character of this extraordinary specimen of African intellect? We answer at once – the best possible. Tom was a mild unassuming creature, free from every kind of vice, and possessing a kindliness of manner which made him the favourite of all who knew him. In fact, he was one of the most popular characters in the whole district of Upper Teviotdale. His employers respected him for the faithful and zealous manner in which he discharged his humble duties, and every body was interested in his singular efforts to obtain knowledge. Having retained no trace of his native language, he resembled, in every respect except his skin, an ordinary peasant of the south of Scotland: only he was much more learned than the most of them, and spent his time somewhat more abstractedly. His mind was deeply impressed with the truths of the Christian faith, and he was a regular attender upon every kind of religious ordinances. Altogether, Tom was a person of the most worthy and respectable properties, and, even without considering his meritorious struggles for knowledge, would have been beloved and esteemed wherever he was known. 

   When Tom was about twenty years of age, a vacancy occurred in the school of Teviot-head, which was an appendage to the parish school, for the use of the scattered inhabitants of a very wild pastoral territory. A committee of the Presbytery of Jedburgh was appointed to sit on a particular day at Hawick, in order to examine the candidates for this humble charge, and report the result to their constituents. Among three or four competitors appeared the black farm-servant of Falnash, with a heap of books under his arm, and the everlasting soldier’s greatcoat with the staring “XCVI.” upon his back. The committee was surprised; but they could not refuse to read his testimonials of character, and put him through the usual forms of examination. More than this – his exhibition was so decidedly superior to the rest, that they could not avoid reporting him as the best fitted for the situation. Tom retired triumphant from the field, enjoying the delightful reflection that now he would be placed in a situation much more agreeable to him than any other he had ever known, and where he would enjoy infinitely better opportunities of acquiring instruction. 

   For a time, this prospect was dashed. On the report coming before the Presbytery, a majority of the members were alarmed at the strange idea of placing a Negro and born Pagan in such a situation, and poor Tom was accordingly voted out of all the benefits of the competition. The poor fellow appeared to suffer dreadfully from this sentence, which made him feel keenly the misfortune of his skin, and the awkwardness of his situation in the world. But, fortunately, the people most interested in the matter felt as indignant at the treatment which he had received, as he could possibly feel depressed. The heritors, among whom the late Duke of Buccleuch was the chief, took up the case so warmly, that it was immediately resolved to set up Tom in opposition to the teacher appointed by the Presbytery, and to give him an exact duplicate of the salary which they already paid to that person. An old smiddy [blacksmith’s shop] was hastily fitted up for his reception, and Tom was immediately installed in his office, with the universal approbation of both parents and children. It followed as a matter of course that the other school was completely deserted, and Tom, who had come to this country to learn, soon found himself fully engaged in teaching, and in the receipt of an income more than adequate to his wants. To the gratification of all his friends, and some little confusion of face to the Presbytery, he turned out an excellent teacher. He had a way of communicating knowledge that proved in the highest degree successful, and, as he contrived to carry on the usual exercises without the use of any severities, he was as much beloved by his pupils as he was respected by those who employed him. Five days every week he spent in the school. On the Saturdays, he was accustomed to walk to Hawick (eight miles going and as much returning) in order to make an exhibition of what he had himself acquired during the week, to the master of the academy there; thus keeping up, it will be observed, his own gradual advance in knowledge. It farther shows his untiring zeal, that he always returned to Hawick the next day – of course, an equal extent of travel – in order to attend the church. 

   After he had conducted the school for one or two years, finding himself in possession of about twenty pounds, he bethought him of spending a winter at college. The esteem in which he was held rendered it an easy matter to demit his duties to an assistant for the winter; and, this matter being settled, he waited upon his good friend Mr Moncrieff (the gentleman who had enabled him to get the lexicon, and who had since done him many other good offices), in order to consult about other matters concerning the step he was about to take. Mr Moncrieff, though accustomed to regard Tom as a wonder, was, nevertheless, truly surprised at this new project. he asked, above all things, the amount of his stock of cash. On being told that twenty pounds was all, and, furthermore, that Tom contemplated attending the Latin, Greek, and mathematical classes, he informed him that this would never do: the money would hardly pay his fees. Tom was much disconcerted at this; but his generous friend soon relieved him, by placing in his hands a carte blanche order upon a merchant in Edinburgh, for whatever might be further required to support him for a winter at college. 

   Tom now pursued his way to Edinburgh with his twenty pounds. On applying to the Professor of Humanity [Latin] for a ticket to his class, that gentleman looked at him for a moment in silent wonder, and asked if he had acquired any rudimental knowledge of the language. Mr Jenkins, as he ought now to be called, said modestly that he had studied Latin for a considerable time, and was anxious to complete his acquaintance with it. Mr P—, finding that he only spoke the truth, presented the applicant with a ticket, for which he generously refused to take the usual fee. Of the other two Professors to whom he applied, both stared as much as the former, and only one took the fee. he was thus enabled to spend the winter in a most valuable course of instruction, without requiring to trench much upon Mr Moncrieff’s generous order; and next spring he returned to Teviot-head, and resumed his professional duties. 

   The end of this strange history is hardly such as could have been wished. It is obvious, we think, that Jenkins should have been returned by some benevolent society to his native country, where he might have been expected to do wonders in civilizing and instructing his father’s, or his own subjects. Unfortunately, about ten years ago, a gentleman of the neighbourhood, animated by the best intentions, recommended him to the Christian Knowledge Society, as a proper person to be a missionary among the colonial slaves; and he was induced to go out as a preacher to the Mauritius – a scene entirely unworthy of his exertions. there, for any thing known to the contrary by his Scottish friends, he is still living. 

   Feeling that this tale requires only its own facts to render it both instructive and agreeable, we are little disposed to draw inferences from it. It is true: that is enough. Most of the individuals connected with the fate of Jenkins are still alive, and, while we accord them the praise due to their disinterested services in his behalf, we earnestly hope that no one will feel aggrieved by being noticed publicly in this manner, a liberty which we have been induced to take by the best of motives – an anxiety to put the facts of the story beyond a doubt. 

1 The mind of the reader will here at once revert to the well-known story of Lee Boo, who, about fifty years ago, was entrusted by his father, a king in the Pelew Islands, to Captain Wilson of the Antelope, for the same purpose. Lee Boo, it will be recollected, belonged to an order of uncivilized people who are not considered so hopeless as the negroes of Africa. Yet, while the dispositions of Thomas Jenkins were equally amiable with those of Lee Boo, it will be found that he more than realised all the expectations which were formed regarding the intellect of that promising boy, unfortunately cut off before his education had been well commenced. 

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