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i n the spring of 1824 Lord Bathurst was surprised to receive a deputation from Demerara,an undistinguished colony on the northern edge of South America. Unannounced, a coach with six irongray horses drew up to the modest buildings that served as the office for the secretary of state for war and the colonies, and two liveried footmen jumped down to assist their sole passenger to step into the cool London air. In 1824 the secretary of state for the colonies was busy organizing the affairs of a sizable section of the world, yet this woman was neither awestruck nor trepidatious. She had no appointment to see the colonial secretary, but that was no matter. Dorothy Thomas knew how to make an entrance. Thomas was an enormous, old woman with an almost totally black complexion , and she wore a colorful turban adorned with ostrich feathers and diamonds, and a heavy necklace of gold Spanish doubloons, while her considerable girth was clothed in a dress made from five-pound notes issued by the Colonial Bank of the West Indies,“ingeniously sewn together.”¹ People from all corners of the empire regularly called at the Colonial Office, so the attachés who rushed to meet her were well used to greeting Indian princes, South Sea islanders, Chinese mandarins, and all manner of people. Perhaps they assumed this visitor was an African princess, come to pay her respects. When she confidently asked to speak with the colonial secretary,they found space for her in his schedule.Ushered into his office,the purpose of her visit, Thomas explained, was to lay before Lord Bathurst the unjust action of the Demeraran governor,who had levied a discriminatory tax of ten guilders on free women of color such as herself. The governor of Demerara was new to the job in 1824, and he was understandably anxious in the role, especially since his predecessor had been undone by a violent and costly slave rebellion the previous year that was The Queen of Demerara mrs. dorothy thomas chapter five 104 ~ chapter five only put down with immense brutality.² Worried about the economic damage the rebellion had wrought, the new governor had imposed this tax to raise additional revenue from those who were still prospering in the wake of the revolt.Even before the rebellion the colonial administration had tried to get additional taxes from the free colored cohort by imposing huckster licenses.³ The latest tax had been levied solely on women because free colored men (it was argued) were required to serve in the militia.It was grossly unfair, however, given that the majority of free colored people in Demerara were women, and many had personally lost slaves and other property in the slave rebellion. Dorothy Thomas was one woman who had lost substantial property. Emboldened, she demanded of the colonial secretary that he repeal this unreasonable tax—and he did. The story of Dorothy Thomas’s formidable entrance at the Colonial Of- fice, as later recounted by the U.S. consul to Demerara, is probably apocryphal . There is no record of such a meeting in the Colonial Office archives , and Thomas kept no records because she was illiterate. However, other commentators remembered the visit of Dorothy Thomas to the Colonial Office and remarked upon it. Sometimes these accounts had a slightly different date, or added some nuance to the story of the meeting, but the narrative thrust remained much the same. All the accounts concurred on one thing: Lord Bathurst was so impressed by Dorothy Thomas that he had the noxious law repealed. The most reliable evidence comes from the Demerara Gazette, which reported her triumphant return to the colony, where she was fêted and thanked publicly by a number of wealthy free colored women, including Mary Ostrehan Brett and Christian Blackman , who commissioned a silver plate and ewer “in lasting memorial to her efforts.”⁴ As this curious vignette suggests, Dorothy Thomas was a woman to be reckoned with: wealthy, imperious, and bold. By the 1830s she was reputed to be one of the richest, if not the richest, resident in the colony of Demerara .Visitors to the colony invariably recorded their encounter with “the celebrated Mrs.Thomas” with varying degrees of awe or amusement. She was handsomely compensated following the abolition of slavery in the colony in 1836, and when she died ten years later, aged nearly ninety, she left a considerable estate to be split among...


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