Black History Month: The Story of Thomas Jenkins

Published: Thursday 6 October 2016
19th century map of Mauritius

October is Black History Month, during which archives around the country remember and celebrate important BME people from the past.

We’re marking Black History month with the story of Thomas Jenkins, a former student of Borough Road College, who taught in London and Mauritius.

Thomas Jenkins first appears in the BFSS archives in a letter dated 2nd May 1818 from William Watson, a Quaker of Hawick, Scotland, to William Allen the Treasurer of the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS). Watson describes Jenkins as “a young man native of Africa who has resided in Scotland since he was four. The son of a native chief, he was sent to Britain with a sea captain to receive an education. He overcame prejudice and is well educated and working as a teacher”. Watson thinks he came from “Cape Mountman in Sierra Leone” [Cape Mount in Liberia?]. [BFSS/1/5/1/6/7/1] The letter in our catalogue.

From other sources we learn that the infant Thomas travelled to Britain with Scottish sea captain James Swanson. It is thought that it was Swanson who named the child Thomas Jenkins – his real name is not known. Thomas and Swanson left Africa in Jan 1803 on board Swanson’s ship The Prudence, arriving in Liverpool in May 1803. From there they travelled to Hawick, where Swanson was taken ill and died in September 1803. It is believed that Swanson entrusted the boy to relatives in the Hawick area. His childhood is unrecorded, but he next turns up in 1814 when he was interviewed by the Heritors of Cavers and recommended to the Presbytery of Jedburgh for the post of schoolmaster at Teviothead. The Presbytery of Jedburgh however refused him the post for racist reasons, so the Heritors and other supporters set Thomas up in a rival school they created for him in a former smithy. Testimonials show that Thomas was a school master in Teviothead in 1817. [National Archives of Mauritius]. He is also said to have attended some sessions at the University of Edinburgh between 1815 – 1817.

Following Watson’s letter to Allen mentioned above, Thomas was enrolled at Borough Road College, the teacher training college of the BFSS in Southwark, London, on 8th June 1818.  He appears in the First Register of Student Teachers at Borough Road College 1804 – 1821, recommended for a place by William Allen.


Following his training at Borough Road College, Thomas taught at the newly opened (6th May 1820) British School at Pimlico in 1820. A testimony for Thomas dated 17th November 1820 talks of the “zealous and able conduct of Thomas Jenkins in assisting in the organisation and establishment of a school at Pimlico”. [National Archives of Mauritius]

Thomas also worked at the Fitzroy Sabbath and Day School on Grafton St in Fitzrovia, London, in 1821. [First register of student teachers]. Transcript of the First Register of Male Students at Borough Road College 1804 - 1821

It appears that he worked at these schools while waiting to go out to Mauritius, as documents show that James Millar, the Secretary of the BFSS, wrote to the Mauritius Government Agent in London several times in 1820 requesting passage to Mauritius for Thomas. [The National Archives]. He had apparently been offered the position by the Governor of Mauritius, Farquhar, who it seems failed to inform his staff of the offer, or authorised payment for Thomas’ passage. In fact, the BFSS archives also contains a letter dated 1832, in which the BFSS is still chasing the Colonial Office for payment for the outstanding 1820 bill for the passage and outfitting of Thomas for Mauritius. [BFSS/1/5/1/6/7/2] 

The money was partially repaid later that year.  [BFSS/1/5/1/6/7/3]

Thomas left Britain on 6th August 1821, having received his teaching certificate from the BFSS on the 1st August. He sailed from Gravesend, on board the Columba. On board the same ship was Prince Ratefy of Madagascar, who had been visiting Britain following the Anglo-Malagasy Treaty of 11 Oct 1820. A letter from Thomas dated January 1823 reports him tutoring the Prince on the voyage. [BFSS AR 1823].

The Columba arrived in Mauritius on 26th November 1821. The BFSS Annual Report of 1822 states that Thomas had been for some time under the care of the Society, and has now been sent out “to the Isle of France where, under the protection of the benevolent Governor, …he is at present employed in visiting and reporting upon the state of schools already established in that settlement; and after this object has been accomplished he will take charge of a Model School.” During the wait for the school to be ready, Thomas tutored another Malagasy Prince, Hafoumaina, in English. [BFSS AR 1823].

In Jan 1823 Thomas opened the free school with 6 pupils, which soon reached 30. Despite the free school being initially viewed with suspicion by the Afro-Malagasy population, by the time of the Governor’s visit in May that year the number of pupils stood at 56 girls and 75 boys. [BFSS AR 1824]. Thomas also taught in a Sunday school at St James Cathedral in Port Louis.


Image of cathedral in St Louis in the early 1900s

The BFSS maintained a strong interest in Thomas, and extracts from his letters survive in the BFSS Annual Reports of 1824, 1832, 1851, 1852, 1854, and 1858.

In 1851 Thomas wrote:

“I am going on steadily in the prosecution of my important duties as teacher of the rising generation in this colony. Many of the children who have received their education in the school since its commencement in 1822 are now in respectable mercantile houses or Government offices. Some are in charge of schools under the Education Committee. I have been nearly 29 years labouring in this colony. [BFSS AR 1851].

By 1858 the government schools in Mauritius had 2364 pupils enrolled.  [NA Mauritius, 1858 school return].  Thomas died in June the following year, after 37 years’ service to the colonial government as a teacher.  

He left a widow, Augustine Jenkins, a teacher in a girls’ school, and four children. At the time his son Daniel, a pupil at the Royal College, had his fees waived by the government. His widow’s petition to the government for a pension based on her husband's service was however refused, despite being supported by the Superintendent of Education, leading members of the community and the Bishop of Mauritius.

NB References to documents in other archives are based on papers written by researcher Mark Duffill, who undertook research in the BFSS archives, The National Archives and the National Archives of Mauritius.

Page last updated: Monday 10 October 2016