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Perspective: Painting reveals surprising story from the past.

Byline: Chris Upton

There's a rather striking painting by the French portrait artist, Reinagle, dating from about 1770. It shows an English country gentleman on a shooting spree, complete with beagles, gun under his arm, and young servant tagging along behind.

We can see the gentleman's house, a state-of-the-art Georgian building, in the far distance, alongside a church tower.

For all the world this looks like a scene in the Wolds or a country estate in the Home Counties. The reality is surprisingly otherwise.

For one thing the scene is taking place a ten-minute walk from the middle of Wolverhampton, and for another the servant is black.

The man in the picture is George Molyneux, ironmonger and merchant, and the land he is striding purposefully across was then called 'Mr Molyneux's Piece', a ten acre plot behind the house. Mr Molyneux has turned the lucrative profits from international trade into real estate, with enough left over to pay an expensive French painter to capture the occasion for posterity.

The young servant is something of a status symbol too. Black retainers were all the rage among the well-to-do of Georgian England, and added a certain exotic sophistication to one's household. Male servants, and especially black ones, were meant to be seen, not tucked away in the kitchen or the scullery. They were, of course, a by-product of the slave trade.

We know the name of this young lad. Not the name he was born with it has to be said, but the one he was given when he was christened at St Peter's on March 31, 1766. They called him George John Scipio Africanus. Two of the names were popular among the Molyneux family, the other two recall an ancient Roman general, the one who defeated the Carthaginians of North Africa. He was given as a gift to the Molyneux family in 1766, when he was about three-years-old.

It's clear that Mr Molyneux did not mean to keep his black servant forever. He was educated, apprenticed to a brassfounder in Wolverhampton and, at the age of 21, released from domestic service.

In 1784, George made the short journey to Nottingham to pursue his new profession as a brassfounder and married a local woman called Esther Shaw. Not that brassfounding remained his trade for long.

At other times he is reported to be a labourer and a waiter, and the family also set up a servants' registry from their home in Chandler's Lane. In his will, George Africanus calls himself a yeoman.

Like his erstwhile owners, George Africanus had gone into land.

George and Esther's life was not blessed by good fortune when it came to offspring. They had seven children, but only one, Hannah, survived into adulthood, though she at least lived to the ripe old age of 90. The loss of so many children in infancy is alluded to in the curious epitaph of one of them in St Mary's churchyard in the centre of Nottingham: Our life is nothing but a winter's day; Some break their fast and go away; Others stay dinner and depart full fed. The deepest age but sups and goes to bed. George John Scipio Africanus joined his children in the churchyard on May 25, 1834. A life begun in West Africa had ended, not in the West Indies, as did so many of his contemporaries, but in the East Midlands.

One wonders whether the black footballers who now ply their trade with Wolverhampton Wanderers realise that an ancestor of theirs was treading the same ground - exactly the same ground - 230 years before them.

Dr Chris Upton is senior lecturer in history at the Newman College of Higher Education in Birmingham
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 26, 2003
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