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Cumba: Havering’s first black resident remembered on the 350th anniversary of her arrival

12:00 05 January 2014

A modern Mandinka. Picture: GoWestCoast.org

A modern Mandinka. Picture: GoWestCoast.org

Archant

It was 350 years ago this year that a fabulously rich couple, John and Margaret Burch, arrived in Romford.

Gold Coast Negro throwing a curse in the path of his enemy. Picture: French SchoolGold Coast Negro throwing a curse in the path of his enemy. Picture: French School

They’d made their money in Barbados, exploiting slave labour to produce the bonanza crop: sugar.

In 1664, they retired to England, buying Romford’s biggest estate, Gidea Hall, then usually called Giddy Hall.

The mansion, demolished in 1930, stood just east of Raphael Park.

Madam Burch, as she was fawningly called, brought her personal maidservant from Barbados, the ultimate status symbol.

Gidea Hall - known as Giddy Hall -in 1639Gidea Hall - known as Giddy Hall -in 1639

Cumba was Havering’s first black resident.

A slave, a piece of property, Cumba survived the English climate just four years.

But when she died, in April 1668, somebody had the humanity to record her name in the register of Romford’s St Edward’s church. “Cumber, a ffemale Blackamore servant from Guyddy Hall, buried.”

Today, “blackamore” is an offensive term. But in 1668, when “black” was used to ­describe complexion, it was an attempt to identify Cumba with some dignity. The double “ff” ­indicated a capital letter.

Prof Ged MartinProf Ged Martin

In death, Cumba was briefly accorded the ­respect denied to her alive.

Her name offers a valuable clue. It tells us that she came from the Mandinka people, from Guinea and Gambia in west Africa.

Economy

Barbados became a large-scale slave economy after 1640, when settlers found they could make big bucks from sugar.

Don’t kid yourself that a Barbados sugar plantation was Downton Abbey with sunshine. Slave life was cruel and violent. Burch’s plantation, Hogsty, hardly sounds ­romantic.

Planters exploited tribal divisions among the slaves. The largest group of black people came from modern Ghana.

Calling themselves “Gold Coast Negroes”, in 1675 they tried to seize control of the island.

Many planters lived in the capital, Bridgetown, where they employed ­favoured slaves as household servants. Margaret Burch probably chose Cumba because the Mandinka homeland was 1,000 miles from Ghana.

Lacking close links to the feared Gold Coast Blacks. Cumba was a safe person to have around you.

We don’t know whether Cumba had been captured in Africa and had endured the horrors of a slave ship across the Atlantic. If she was around 20 when she came to Romford, she might have been born in Barbados.

In Mandinka custom, children are named when they are eight days old, usually in honour of a relative.

Even if she was Barbadian by birth, Cumba would have known something of her African heritage through the grandmother or aunt whose name she bore. Like thousands of other slaves, Cumba probably spoke English.

John Burch died soon after Cumba in 1668. In his arrogant and racist will, he left his wife “all my Servants, Negroes, Slaves, Cattle, &c” in Barbados, along with his Havering properties which included “the Inne called the Unicorne” – still a feature of Gidea Park, although in a later building.

History has its own priorities. 350 years later, we don’t care about the loads-a-money Burches.

But let us honour the memory of Cumba, the enslaved Mandinka woman who became Havering’s first black resident.

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