A journeyman to grief: An archive blog for Black History Month 2022

It is too often assumed that the European past was a white monoculture. As Black History Month begins, it is important to challenge that assumption and any suggestion that a false history of diversity is being sown by politically motivated researchers. The reality is that not every life has left a trace in the archive. The gatekeepers of the past often made decisions (about whose life and career was significant) based on criteria other than merit. However, it is important not to suggest that only the lives of famous black people have mattered. If we can’t take out of the RCGP’s archive what was never put in, we can use what exists elsewhere to reconstruct stories of those who have not previously been in the spotlight. In this, the first in a series of blog posts, we look at an eighteenth-century teenager.

In May 1760, a Clerkenwell surgeon advertised that he was looking for what is termed a “Negro Boy, called John Chelsea”. Of particular interest is that this youth was not a domestic labourer or a fashionably exotic footman, but rather his apprentice. Tobias Smollett’s 1748 novel Roderick Random offers this description of an apprentice surgeon’s condition: “my master allowed me no wages, and the small perquisites of my station scarcely supplied me with the common necessaries of life... I became such a sloven, and contracted such an air of austerity, that everybody pronounced me crestfallen.” It is noteworthy that the advertisement suggests John had long been tempted away from service by “divers ill-disposed Persons”. Their identity is unclear, but one wonders if this is a dig at the community of (free) black Londoners, 57 of whom were spotted in a nearby, Fleet Street tavern, four years later, carousing until four in the morning.

At some point, John seems to have returned (whether because of the advertisement is lost to us) as he was buried the following April in the same parish aged just 17. John Chelsea’s burial record made no reference to his origins, but he may have been born in Jamaica. A surgeon with the same unusual name as the advertiser (and described as “of St. Thomas-in-the East”) is recorded as receiving a substantial payment from the Blue Mountain Estate there in a 1753 document now held by Derbyshire Records Office as part of the Estate papers of the Fitzherberts of Tissington.

The first African American to practise medicine, similarly, based on apprenticeship rather than university education, was James Derham (1762-c.1802), born into enslavement in Philadelphia. John Chelsea’s death means he did not go on to be the first identified black surgeon. Has someone else gone unnoticed?

About the writer

Philip Milnes-Smith is a Registered Archivist. He is a Diversity and Inclusion Ally for the Archives and Records Association.