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i n june 1821 a young englishman stepped across the mudbank of the Demerara River and strode along the flimsy wharf toward the warehouse and offices of John and William Pattinson. John Castelfranc Cheverley was fresh from England and had come to work as a clerk for this merchant company.He had taken a second-class berth out of Liverpool on the merchant brig Sir John Cameron—little more than a “pigsty”— so it had not been an easy voyage.¹ He had shared the rigors of the journey with another clerk who was also going to Demerara to join the family firm. There were two other passengers on the grubby ship: Mr. Irish, a youthful , quarrelsome American man from the colony of Nova Scotia, who was prone to alcoholism and “very sensitive about nationality,” and Benjamin James Hopkinson, a refined and well-educated man, who was smartly attired and had a “very agreeable” manner. Hopkinson was a native of the colony, from an old Demerara family, and was the owner of two large cotton plantations. Cheverley was puzzled that a wealthy, well-educated man would travel on such a ship so patently not up to his standard.The passage had been booked by his agents, Hopkinson explained, and he had reluctantly resigned himself to the voyage, although he admitted to apprehension at the prospect of sharing a dilapidated cabin with the “ruffian” Mr. Irish.Cheverley thought Hopkinson might be of French extraction and was glad of his “intelligence and gentlemanly feeling” on such a long journey.² As they approached Demerara, Cheverley was astonished to see a young mulatto man jump on board “full of airs and impudence . . . to shew unmistakably he was not a slave” and proceed to take over the ship and guide it into port. Shouting instructions to the captain and contemptuous answers to questions from the anxious passengers, the young pilot took complete control, directing the sailors without any further reference to the captain, who meekly accepted the affront. Cheverley was “not a little surprised at this first specimen of free-coloured manners.”³ Many more such surprises were to come. Hopkinson surprised Cheverley just prior to stepping ashore,by appearing with a full head of tight curly black hair. Hopkinson confided that he conclusion 170 ~ conclusion had been wearing a wig on the ship,but in the extreme humidity of Georgetown he could no longer tolerate wearing it. Declining to come ashore with Cheverley, Hopkinson disembarked alone a little later. Cheverley’s next surprise was the discovery that his amiable shipboard companion was not white at all but was a free man of color. Cheverley was astonished when he realized that the elegant and highly educated Hopkinson had chosen to travel in such a low state on such a mean ship in order to avoid difficult altercations with white people. “I was not aware,” he naïvely wrote,“of the prejudices of the West India whites against the slightest taint of negro blood.”⁴ Strange as it was, Hopkinson meekly accepted his compromised position, which in Cheverley’s mind was quite out of keeping for a major planter, which Hopkinson undoubtedly was. Cheverley saw no reason not to remain friends with Hopkinson and continued to see him regularly, including on the militia days when they both had to turn out for monthly drill. Hopkinson lived with his mother, Joanna Hopkinson, in a large house in the center of town. She explained that she regretted “the difference that education had produced between her and her son.” She thought he should have been a carpenter, but his white father had taken the boy to England.“Ben must be a gentleman,” the senior Hopkinson had insisted, as she caustically lamented. Although Cheverley’s observations suggested that Joanna Hopkinson had been left well provided for by her deceased white husband,he had left the colony nearly thirty years before. Since that time she had become a self-made businesswoman with nearly forty slaves she employed as hucksters.⁵ He thought that despite her lack of learning she was “a very worthy and respectable woman of her class,” far more respectable than many people he visited in the course of his employment. Cheverley encountered numerous other free colored women in addition to Joanna Hopkinson, many of them quite wealthy and richly attired. On his first Sunday in Demerara he observed a bevy of free colored women on their way to church, each with a retinue of two...


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