A slave called Malvina who lived in Edinburgh for 70 years

The gravestone in St John's graveyard, Princes St, Edinburgh, memorialises Malvina Wells as faithful servant and friend to a prominent family in the capital for more than 70 years.

The New Town, Edinburgh, in the mid 19th Century, around the time that Malvina Wells arrived in the capital from Granada. PIC: Creative Commons.
The New Town, Edinburgh, in the mid 19th Century, around the time that Malvina Wells arrived in the capital from Granada. PIC: Creative Commons.

Born in Carriacou, Grenada in 1804, Malvina was a long way from home when she found herself in the grandeur of 33 Great King Street, in the heart of the New Town.

Malvina was earlier listed in the slave register for Grand Bay estate on the island as a 13-year-old ‘mulatto’ - a now offensive term for a person of mixed ancestry.

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It is known the teenager’s mother was black and her father white. On the register, she was recorded as being in the ‘lawful possession’ of George McLean, attorney to George G. Browne Mill and John Mill.

On a date unknown, Malvina was brought to Scotland to work as a servant to Joanna Isabella Macrae, whose father, John McLean, was a prominent slave owner on the island in the South Caribbean Sea.

Head of the Macrae household at 33 King Street was John Macrae, writer to the signet, one of Edinburgh’s most esteemed legal roles.

It is not clear when Malvina arrived in Edinburgh but she spent decades at the service of the Macrae family and was to die in old age in one of their homes.

Malvina was by far the first slave to end up in Scotland with research by Glasgow University tracing at least 67 slaves who went on the run after being brought here by their masters.

But research by the Legacies of Slave Ownership programme at UCL has built up a fascinating picture of Malvina’s life in the capital and her long association with the same family.

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In 1861, when aged 57, Malvina was living at 42 Thistle Street with a boarder, a dressmaker, and was in receipt of an annual payment.

Ten years later and she had moved to 2 Randolph Crescent, the household of Edward Strathearn Gordon and his wife Agnes Joanna Gordon, who was also born in Grenada.

Later in life, she with Joanna Macrae following the death of her solicitor husband with the two women listed as living at 14 Gloucester Place. By this time, Malvina was aged 75.

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It was at this house that Malvina died on April 22 1887, aged 82, from heart disease.

On her death notice, she is listed as a domestic servant and daughter of John Wells, a planter.

Her mother’s name was not listed.

Lisa Williams of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association touched on the life of Malvina Wells in a recent article on Edinburgh and the slave trade for the Historic Environment Scotland blog.

Ms Williams said: “Her grave is, significantly, the only known grave in Edinburgh of someone who was born enslaved.”

Ms Williams added: “There are many mentions of people of African or Indian descent living in Edinburgh from the late 17th century to the early 19th century.

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“At this time Scots were heavily involved in the slave trade and the East India Company, and it was fashionable for the rich to have an ‘exotic’ servant.”

Malvina Wells was listed through her life as both a slave and a servant, but it also appears she was a friend to many - and very much a person of Edinburgh.