SMITH FAMILY

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This article explores another Lindfield Black History connection.

The story begins with of Francis Smith senior in Nevis, an island in the Eastern Caribbean, the two islands which today form the Federation of St Kitts and Nevis.  The islands were among the first in the Caribbean to be colonised by European settlers.  English settlers arrived in Nevis in the 1620s, decimating the native population.  By the 1640s cane sugar became their main crop.  Sugar and it’s by product rum were profitable exports.  The settlers at first worked with white indentured labourers from Britain but soon began to import enslaved Africans.  By the late 1780s the enslave population was 8420 while the whites numbered 1510.

Among the white inhabitants were brothers, Richard and Francis Smith.  Richard managed sugar estates owned to the planter, James Smith, the brothers may have been related to James, Francis Smith was a ship’s carpenter, building local craft and repairing vessels from England working the triangular slave trade route.

In 1879, Richard died and Francis became ill prompting him to make his Will; dying shortly afterwards.  His possessions included two black boys, bequeathing one each to Francis and Jenny, children of a free coloured woman, Amelia Brodbelt.  She was the daughter of an enslaved black woman, also named, Amelia Brodbelt who had been granted her freedom in 1765. The rest of his possessions were shared equally between her five children: Francis, Jenny, Amelia, Hetty and Christiana.  Given the bequests and that her children had the surname Smith, without doubt Francis Smith was their father. The Offspring of a black mother and white father were known as ‘molattoes’.  Although not married Amelia Brodbelt was regarded as his surviving ‘spouse’.

Through her wider family Amelia benefited from an inheritance that gave her a property on the edge of Charlestown. With business acumen she and her four daughters ran some sort of hospitality and accommodation business; initially perhaps less respectable a brothel.  The business increasingly prospered and eventually renting properties that were occupied by the island’s Court, Council and Assembly. They became respected members of island society.

Turning to Francis Smith born 1787, the surviving son of Amelia Brodelt and Francis Smith, the ship’s carpenter.  Little is known of the Francis’ early years in Nevis, but his working life may have started in London.  Some prosperous, well connected coloured people financed their son’s work experience abroad. Amelia Brodelt may well have wanted her son to become a ‘merchant of London’. However by 1817 it is known he had settled in Haiti, working as a trader or merchant.

During his time in Haiti, Francis Smith met Josephine Villeneuve who was to be his life partner and mother of his many children.  She was clearly of African descent.  Their first child being born in 1817, followed on 13 February 1819 by Francis Villeneuve Smith.  His birth registration records his mother as a resident of Port-an-Prince, Haiti and his father a foreign merchant.  From her signature she was an educated woman and perhaps from well-to-do family.

As business opportunities in Haiti reduced, Francis Smith moved his family to London, in 1821 they were living at Brunswick Place, Shoreditch.  After a couple of years the family moved to ‘a more wholesome environment, settling in Lindfield’.  Francis Smith purchased Townlands, opposite the parish church, and its farm from Captain Pilford R.N.  Pilford having been in position the purchase and alter Townlands following promotion as a result of success at the Battle of Trafalgar and in recognition renamed the house Nelson Hall.  He sold due to money problems.  The farmland today being the site of The Welkin development and part of Hickmans Lane Recreation Ground.

While Francis Smith turned to farming and now regarded as an ‘Esquire’, Josephine was busy with their growing family, with William and Rosa being born in Lindfield and baptised in Lindfield Parish Church.  At that time it was quite common for parish registers to record people’s skin colour or foreign origin; the Lindfield register makes no such note, suggesting Francis Smith’s complexion must have been so light and his features so European that he passed as white. 

Josephine now called herself Marie Josephine and as her skin colour portrayed her origin, she may not have been readily accepted into village society.

As an aside, Marie Josephine Villeneuve always claimed, but unproven, her father was Pierre Charles Jean Baptise Silvestre de Villeneuve, a French naval officer stationed in the Caribbean.  Villeneuve commanded the French fleet defeated by Nelson at Trafalgar.  How ironic of Villeneuve’s illegitimate daughter lived in a house with Trafalgar victory connections?  It would be ironic if his daughter was living in a house acquired as a result of victory. Perhaps a fanciful thought.

The Smith family lived at Townlands for only a few years, leaving Lindfield, for whatever reason, sailing in June 1828 to Australia.

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