Friday 14 October 2022

Jamaican ship's cook: her poison mystery 1764

 Maybe the mysterious cook previously worked in the Jamaican
canefields, like these women?

It's Black History Month. And here's a newly-found story about a rare BAME woman seafarer. 

So this is about race, gender, ships. It's part of the history of maritime diversity, labour and seafarers' forgotten lives. A fluke and your occupation could affect whether you ever arrived home from the sea. 

Only a fragment about this mysterious West Indian woman can be found. And the same words about her are repeated word for word in seven British newspapers. No more information than that is available. 

The story's a gift for a dramatist with a Sherlock Holmes touch. So I hope someone creative will make fiction from this small seed in the Derby Mercury, 10 Feb 1764. 

'We hear that a whole Ship's Crew, lately arrived from Jamaica, have been poisoned by a Black Woman-Cook they had on board, who after she had committed it, threw herself into the Sea and was drown'd. They are all dead except the Captain and two Men, who are very bad.'

Seven good questions to ask

Q. 1. Why does her story matter?

 A. Because women crew were very unusual.Black women  crew were even more unusual. This is the frst black woman ship's cook I've heard about in 40 years of researching maritime women.

Picture from 'Seamen “Love Their Bellies”: How Blacks Became Ship Cooks'  

Q. 2. How did the ship come to have a woman cook, unusually? 

A. Because a cook was needed. This person was available and affordable. It was was common for cooks to be black or disabled.
(See Guadeloupean William Buckland's story Buckland seacook BAME Maybe another black cook recommended  her. Indeed she may have been the widow of a black cook on board who'd died.  

Want to know more about the brief and late history of women cooks (usually white)? See my book From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains: 250 Years of Women at Sea,pp 214-219. 

This picture from it shows (left) Chief Cook Betty Fitch and Freda Price (right) Second Cook, in the tinned food storeroom on the Langleeclyde c1950. (Courtesy Maud McKibbin). Freda and Betty were highly appreciated for their good cooking.

Q. 3. Why did she poison these men? 

A. If it was deliberate, because she was angry and wanted redress. Revenge? Perhaps the ship was a slaver and she was one of the enslaved people who'd endured a bad voyage and seen her shipmates die. Perhaps someone on board had offended her. by assuming she was sexually available,  or had expressed dislike of food she had cooked?

A. If it was accidental, she might have had been supplied with bad ingredients.

Q.4. Why did she throw herself overboard

A. Surely because she knew she would be punished on landing. It was better to end the misery now, and by her own hand.

A. If it was accidental, she might have felt ashamed, and/or feared summary justice. Seafarers could hate bad cooks, because seafaring was hard enough without dismal food.

Q.5. What poison would she have used, if it was deliberate?

A. Women such as her were sometimes doctresses with a knowledge of herbs. Possibly she had a selection of herbs with her. 

A. If the poisoning was accidental, it could have been because the food she was expected to cook had gone off, There were plenty of opportunities were victuals to deteriorate as the 4,000-miles,oyage from Jamaica took between between three  weeks and four months depending on winds etc. 

Q.6. Why didn't everyone die?

A.  Possibly because the cook was given two lots of ingredients to cook, and those for the crew were inferior to the officers' rations. This status difference would not be unusual.

A.  Perhaps, if the poisoning was deliberate, she was targetting lower-decks crew, not officers.

Q. 7. So what else should we be asking about her?

A. All we can!

Pic shows sentimentalised version of a black male cook, with ayah and white girl on Victorian ship.

This story was drawn to my attention to John D Ellis. I thank him very much for his generosity in sharing it, and many other stories too. John is working on the history of black people in the armed services. Some of his work can be seen at

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