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John Semple and his family

It is not clear how strong John Semple's connections to Scotland were and it may be more appropriate to consider him, and his descendants, as English planters.

In 1785 John Semple signed a petition of planters to the States General of the Netherlands and in 1798 he was the owner of plantation De Twoo Gebroeders, later known as Plantation Brothers, in Demerara. He (or possibly a son?) was later described by the missionary, Rev John Smith, as ‘a friend of instruction’ who helped built a chapel on the plantation. This Mr Semple was, by the time of the slave rising in 1823, the ‘former owner’ of the plantation [The Demerara Martyr, 1969].

In 1831 Dr John Hancock published an article on tetanus (lockjaw) in infants among the enslaved populations of the West Indies, describing the successful practices of the native Indian midwife on Brothers in preventing the disease.

John Semple married Johanna Barbara Schultz and had three children - Robert, Sarah and John Semple. The youngest, John, was born in Liverpool in 1807, others in Demerara.

Robert Semple became a store-keeper in Berbice, establishing the firm of Robert Semple & Company, in partnership with George and James Laing. The business had connections to Liverpool. In 1817, in Glasgow, he married Adriana Moore, the daughter of a merchant in St Eustatius and they had more than six children [Sarah 1822 - after 1911; Robert 1824 - 1852; Ann 1826 - after 1911; John 1827 - after 1901; Jane b.1829;  and William b.1831], at least five of whom were born in Berbice [Census returns]. In letters to his mother in 1825, Andrew Watson referred to the Semples and in this year two of their daughters went back to Britain [NLS MS 19334 f55 Andrew Watson to his mother (Mrs Traill), from Berbice, 30 Apr 1825.] Adriana was in Liverpool in 1841, with three of the children. Adriana's sister Elizabeth married James McInroy and her sister Jane married Duncan McBean.

Mrs Wray, the widow of the Berbice missionary, Rev John Wray (died Berbice 1837), visited a family called Semple in Glasgow ‘who formerly resided in Berbice, and to whom [Mrs Wray] had been very kind in sicknesses, and who were very pleased to do her a kindness in return’ [Life and Labours of John Wray, 1892]. This was probably Adrianna and her family.

In the early 1840s Robert wrote two letters from Liverpool to government ministers on the shortage of labour on Berbice, following emancipation, and addressed an anti-slavery meeting in Liverpool, which was campaigning for emancipation in the neighbouring Dutch colony of Surinam [Anti-slavery Reporter, 1840]. Robert Semple died in Liverpool in 1850/51.

Robert’s sister, Sarah Semple (born 1801 in Demerara), remained unmarried and cared for Robert’s children after his death. By 1871 she had been joined by Robert’s second son, John, a widower with four children, who had returned from living in New Zealand. John had, from 1845, attended Wadham College, Oxford.

Robert’s brother, John Semple (born 1807, in Liverpool), became an army officer, serving in the West Indies where one of his children was born.

Robert Semple and Princess

In 1819 Robert Semple owned three slaves, including Princess, aged 20, black and born in Berbice. By 1822 Princess had given birth to two male children. Shortly afterwards Semple sold her to Dr Hugh McGee.

Princess made complaints to the Fiscal, against both Semple and McGee, about excessive punishment. These are considered in detail by John Lean and Trevore Burnard in 'Hearing Slave Voices: The Fiscal's Report of Berbice and Demerara- Essequebo' in The Journal of The British Records Association (Oct 2002):

 In May 1823, Princess, recently bought from Robert Semple by Dr Hugh McGee, brought a complaint before the Fiscal against her master for giving her a severe punishment. The Fiscal interviewed Princess along with her brother and her mother and the following story emerged.

Princess arrived at McGee’s house with her mother, brother and infant child. According to Princess, McGee gave her and her mother 'a glass of wine' and, afterwards, entreated Princess to 'come and sleep with him'. Princess replied she was 'just come out of lying in, and that it was too soon to take a Husband' . . .

. . . by the time she had joined Hugh McGee's household she was an experienced slave, not just in the household but in the courtroom as well. Her accusations against McGee did not signal the first time that she had been in front of the Fiscal. Princess featured as a complainant against her previous owner, Robert Semple. Princess had made her case in the following manner:

That this morning soon she saw a woman of the name of Cuba sitting down asleep; she said to her ‘What was you doing last night that you did not sleep?’ At the same time Mr Semple came out of his bedroom and asked me what I said. I told him. He said 'You always have something to say: better shut your mouth. I answered him again, ‘Master I don’t speak with you. I speak with Cuba and then I came downstairs and went into the kitchen. Master followed me into the kitchen and told me I had better go to my work than meddle my tongue. I answered him, ‘I am doing my work, and you come to trouble me; i was not speaking to you.’ Then he went to the store and took a horsewhip and began to flog me. I asked him for what he flogged me; he said for badness. I told him ‘So long as you flog me for nothing, I shall go to the Fiscal’ and I came away.

Robert Semple replied in terms that Hugh McGee would recognize. He declared that Princess 'was insolent as is apparent by her own statement and was haranguing her mother who pushed her out of the kitchen and desired her to hold her tongue. She refused to be silent and had to be told several times to bring the horsewhip'. Nevertheless, such disobedience was unusual. It was the 'First time I have had to recourse to such measures in the four years that I have owned her'. The Fiscal, MS Bennett, reprimanded Princess for what he thought was an unnecessary complaint, and said if she did so again she would be punished. Her previous experience would make her more cautious when presenting a remarkably similar complaint to the Fiscal very soon after being sold by Semple to McGee. By outlining a seduction and by making it clear that her complaint was as much about the affront that McGee’s conduct was to her status as to her person, she was able to shape how her complaint was seen. Princess wanted to make sure she was seen not as an ‘insolent’ slave who could not hold her tongue in front of her superiors, but as a privileged slave who had been wronged. The two cases speak volumes about the ways that seemingly powerless slaves could manipulate situations to their advantage.



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