John Harvey of Caithness (or not)

This morning, when I was scrolling through my RSS feeds, I came across an article on the ABC website, about how John Harvey, one of the founders of Salisbury in South Australia had African heritage, yet had been born in Wick in Caithness way up in the north of Scotland.

My first question was why would a person of African heritage be born in Wick?

Given that he was said to have migrated in 1839 at the age of 18, he would have been born in 1821 or thereabouts, something which should be reasonably easy to check.

And then I came across a problem. If you search Scotland’s People, there are 25 John Harveys (or Harvies) born in the period 1820 – 1822 but none were born in Caithness.

So, why the connection?

My guess is that he indeed spent most of his early life in Caithness, and may genuinely have thought he was born there, but was in fact born somewhere else.

And of course, the sugar trade is probably the answer.

One of my distant ancestors, Robert Fairweather, was born in humble circumstances in Stracathro in Angus. He was obviously clever and somehow got noticed and ended up as a planter’s attorney in Jamaica.

He had a mixed race partner, who was probably the result of a liaison between a European person and an African person. The convention was that the offspring of such unions were acknowledged by the father, and that daughters were considered free and often had reasonable dowries (Miss Lambe in Jane Austen’s Sanditon would be an example)

Robert Fairweather’s partner had the rather Scottish sounding name of Catherine Allen, suggesting that her father was Scottish.

John Harvey sound like a typical Caithness name and there were certainly Harvey’s involved in the sugar trade, and by extension slavery, but most of them seem to have come from Aberdeenshire and worked in Grenada.

However, the will of one of the Grenada Harveys shows how things worked:

After various bequests to (white) family members comes the following

Also that a mulatto boy named David and two mulatto girls named Sally and Rachel may be bought from the estate of Josiah Marten Esquire and made free. A negroe boy and a [?] negroe girl be bought and given to each of them, the boy to David and the girls to Sally and Rachel. The boy to work on trade and the girls to be made shempstresses to help to support the said David, Sally and Rachel. David put to learn any trade and the girls Sally and Rachel bound to some good school mistress of good reputation to learn to be shempstresses and milliners and that they should also be taught to read and write and do every thing necessary about housekeeping, that they may be fit for service to gain their livelihood with ease. The expense of their education to be paid by my executors out of their division of my estate at Antigua and £20 currency be allowed each of them annually to keep them in clothes until they are able to so for themselves. £500 currency to each of the girls if they should behave well and be married to a free white man or a free mulatto.

(will of John Harvey, Antigua

So where there’s one Harvey who was successful, there could be others who did not become estate or slave owners, and  who lived and worked in Jamaica.

And I am guessing, and it is only a guess, that the John Harvey who migrated to South Australia in 1839, had been sent to Wick, or been brought to Wick by his father, to learn a trade, and had then migrated.

By 1839 slavery had been abolished, but I suspect that he had been born free in the West Indies and brought to Scotland at an early age.


I didn’t know what a shempstress or sempstress was – it’s an archaic word for seamstress. In a world where all clothes were hand made, someone who could sew and sew well would never lack work…


About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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