CofI 19c registers: escape from African slavery

The RCB Library in Dublin is custodian of over 1000 collections of Church of Ireland records which have been transferred from the parishes where they were created to the library’s safe custody. Within each collection are various categories of records, the most widely–used of which are the registers of baptism, marriage and burial. These document the lives of millions of people – when and where they were born; who their parents were; who they married details of their spouses’ fathers and occupations; and ultimately if and when they received a Christian burial.

Recently, the RCB Library has found interesting information about the extraordinary survival and migration of a child from ‘the interior of Africa’, who was saved from slavery and brought to Ireland after his family and ‘all his tribe had been killed in war’. The story is recorded as an annotation in the entries of baptism for the parish of Kilbrogan, county Cork, which centres on the town of Bandon.

Baptismal entry of George Ellis Bernard Freeman, on 15 April 1855, Kilbrogan parish combined register of baptisms, marriages and burials, © RCB Library P144.1.2

Instead of the standard pro–forma information of who the child’s parents were and where they lived, this entry records his fortuitous escape from slavery. The record states that on 15 April 1855 the rector of the parish, Revd Charles Bernard baptised a child ‘aged about 7 years’ with the Christian names ‘George Ellis Bernard’ and presumably surname of ‘Freeman’. The entry further fleshes out his story: that he was the son of an African chieftain from the interior of Africa’, whose ‘tribe were killed in war’ and as a result he was ‘sold as a slave’.

Since the British slave trade had been abolished in 1807 (and slavery itself was abolished in 1833) we can assume that he must have been sold as a slave in the internal African trade, when along came ‘Capt. Ed. Ellis’ – master mariner from Bandon – who as the register entry continues to narrate had been ‘trading up the river Gaboon and Cameroon’ in the 1850s, and ‘made [the child] free’ by bringing him to ‘this country for education and religious training’.

Portrait of the Rt Revd Charles Brodrick Bernard (1811–90), as bishop of Tuam c. 1869, by James Buter, oil on canvas, from Tuam Synod Hall. After serving as rector in Kilbrogan he was appointed bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, in 1867.

Having witnessed his mother ruthlessly killed ‘ by a savage who sold him into slavery’, George came to the notice of Captain Ellis who was commanding an African trader, laden with palm oil for the port of Bristol, who, the source confirms ‘offered to purchase him to set the little boy free’. On the return voyage to Bristol, they stopped off on the coast of Ireland where the child was baptised (in Ellis’s home parish of Kilbrogan) before continuing to Bristol. On arrival back in Clifton, the child was sent to Hotwells infant school and where he initially seems to have thrived, making friends and learning easily.

However, as the source continues, the story does not have a happy outcome: ‘… poor little George’s days on earth were numbered. A severe cold turned to bronchitis, and the little ransomed spirit winged its way to heaven. A slow procession was seen in Clifton churchyard – a little coffin borne by four: following it was the infant–school master, with tearful eye, and the warm-hearted Captain Ellis, weeping as if he had lost his only son’.

For a more detailed analysis of this account, see Dr Susan Hood’s assessment by visiting the RCB website here: