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A Disaster in Bolama by Joanne Major & Sarah Murden

Bolama mapHenry Hew Dalrymple (1750-1795) has been forgotten by history, but in his lifetime he enjoyed a brief period of renown. During 1788 and 1789 he travelled to the Caribbean island of Grenada where he owned a plantation, but appalled at the treatment of the slaves, he took the decision to free all those on his own land.

Back in London, the MP William Wilberforce, an ardent slavery abolitionist, stood before the House to deliver a speech on the subject, his first major speech and the first step towards bringing in a bill to abolish the repugnant trade. His home in Westminster became a hotbed of activity for the abolitionist campaigners. People with first-hand experience who were sympathetic to their cause were asked to speak to the House.

Dalrymple, now back from Grenada, was one of those who wholeheartedly involved himself. How much he was part of the ‘Clapham Sect’, the name by which the inner circle of Wilberforce and his friends are remembered, is debateable. Certainly he dined with Wilberforce, was known to members of the sect and shared their views on abolition; although never listed as one of the main players, he was of their circle.

In 1791 he was appointed by the Sierra Leone Company as governor of the settlement they proposed to create there for free blacks and former slaves, a philanthropic scheme. However, Dalrymple fell out with the directors of the company and was, at the last minute dismissed from his position. Several of his friends, notably Lieutenant Philip Beaver, had planned to travel to Sierra Leone before their design was abruptly terminated by Dalrymple’s dismissal. Beaver was without a ship and eager for adventure; Dalrymple recalled hearing about a fertile and uninhabited island Bulam(a) (now Bolama), ripe for colonization and located at the mouth of the Rio Grande, not far from Sierra Leone.

On 2 November 1791 at Old Slaughter’s Coffee House in St Martins Lane, Dalrymple, Beaver and four other men formed a committee, ‘The Bulam Association’, with the intention of copying the aims of the Sierra Leone Company and colonizing their own island before settling freed slaves there. More well-intentioned than well-informed, that they rushed hastily into this is irrefutable but Dalrymple was a man who acted first and thought later.

Old Slaughter’s Coffee HouseWhile the Sierra Leone Company was eventually successful, the Bulam Association’s scheme was paved with good intentions but ultimately descended into chaos with the loss of many lives, most of them ‘ordinary’ people who were caught up in the drama, men whose subscription to the project entitled them to a plot of land on the island but also labourers hired to grow crops and build the infrastructure, plus several wives and children. Their tragic stories have been all but forgotten; it is important to us to record a few of them here.

On the 4th April 1792 the expedition embarked in two ships, The Calypso and The Hankey, plus a supply vessel and almost immediately hit problems. Mrs Hannah Riches, a labourer’s wife, had taken her infant daughter (also named Hannah) aboard, knowing the child had smallpox.  Mrs Riches was heavily pregnant and faced a heart-breaking decision; should she abandon her sick child to sail with her husband or stay behind and risk penury as a single mother? Understandably – but recklessly – she did neither, instead concealing her child (who recovered) she embarked with her family but her deceit came to light when another labourer’s child succumbed to the disease. Whilst anchored off the Isle of Wight waiting for a fair wind, Mrs Riches gave birth to a second daughter. On the same day the infant son of Hugh Meares, an old soldier turned labourer, died of smallpox.

Upon reaching Bolama proceedings took a dramatic turn for the worse. Rather than wait for The Calypso, those on board The Hankey went ashore. Their intention had been to purchase the island from the people of the neighbouring island of Canhabaque, who used it for hunting, but the money was on The Calypso. A war party from Canhabaque approached Bolama, unnoticed by The Hankey, and attacked.

Five of the British settlers – Aaron Baker, Stephen Molineux, Edward Williamson, William Howard and Constantine Long – were killed (hacked to pieces, claimed one survivor). Mr Humphrey Bland Gardiner, Richard Pool, Dolphin Price and Godfrey Norman were wounded, Gardiner and Pool so severely they later died and five women were taken prisoner. They were Elizabeth Molineux, Mrs Gardiner, Mrs Harley, Catherine Barnwell, Elizabeth Thompson and the three children, two surnamed Baker and Mrs Harley’s five-year-old daughter. Mrs Gardiner was killed by her captors as she proved too much of a burden.

The bodies of the dead were left on the beach, to be buried later, and The Hankey reunited with The Calypso only for fever to break out on both vessels. The captives were returned unharmed apart from the unfortunate Mrs Harley and her daughter who were found almost a month later in a dreadful state. They both died soon afterwards, their bodies consigned to the deep.

Some of the colonists returned to Bolama but the small graveyard there was quickly overflowing with British bones, almost every death due to fever, and eventually those left alive abandoned the project and set sail for England. Among those who never left the island were Hugh Meares and his wife and Joseph Riches and his two daughters. Mrs Hannah Riches was the sole surviving woman on Bolama; she set sail for England leaving her entire family behind, buried on that remote African island.

Henry Hew Dalrymple did return to England but died soon after, a broken man with both his dreams and ambition in tatters.



African Memorandum – A British settlement on the Island of Bulama

Sarah Left, Joanne Right
Sarah Left, Joanne Right

Joanne Major & Sarah Murden

Co-authors of An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott and the soon to be released A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History, both published by Pen and Sword Books for whom they are currently working on a third book. Henry Hew Dalrymple was Grace’s elder brother and the reader can find out more about him as well as his notorious sister in An Infamous Mistress. Jo and Sarah are also co-hosts of the blog All Things Georgian; they spend their lives playing history detectives, researching and writing about all aspects of the era but with a certain fondness for the more obscure details.


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