…and his cottage

A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted.
The Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8


We know the names of few of the island’s enslaved, and mostly because they got into trouble. Toby is an exception.

Location Map tobyscottage

Napoleon & Toby, Desenne, 1827
Napoleon & Toby, Desenne, 1827{a}

Below: Who was he?Why do we know his name?After NapoleonWas Toby’s enslavement here legal?‍Toby’s Cottage‍

Much of the information presented on this page was supplied by The ‘Toby’s Briars cultural and Historical Centre’ project, being run by the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust.

Who was he?

When William Balcombe took over The Briars in 1811 he installed twenty-one enslaved people: ten women (four under the age of thirteen) and eleven men (four of them under the age of sixteen) to do all the manual labour. One of these was Toby.

Toby’s ancestry is uncertain. He is described in some documents just as a Negro, but where his origins are specified it is usually as a Malay, i.e. originating in what is today Malaysia. One document quotes Betsy Balcombe as saying he has a daughter my age in the Malay States.

According to sources he arrived on the island in c.1803, brought by Capt. Frazer and was sold or given to Mr. Wrangham. He would at that time have been aged around fifty. He was originally named ‘Tovey’ but his name was changed because there was already another ‘Tovey’ working on the plantation. Whether he came to St Helena legally was actually a matter of some dispute (as described below).

Why do we know his name?

As mentioned above, the enslaved usually only appear in the Records where they fell foul of the law, but Toby was an exception. Working in the gardens of The Briars, then about sixty years old, he came to the attention of Napoleon. Napoleon wanted a royal crown cut into the turf just outside the doors of The Briars Pavilion and Toby, having achieved the status of ‘head gardener’, was allocated the job. Napoleon himself chose not to treat Toby with the distain usually shown to the enslaved, possibly encouraged by his friend Betsy Balcombe, who herself treated Toby with uncommon civility. According to one account Toby was a perfect despot in his own domain, he never allowed his authority to be disputed and the family stood almost as much in awe of him, as they did of the master of the Briars himself. Betsy apparently told Napoleon I have asked Father to buy his freedom. He has a daughter my age in the Malay States.

So it seems Napoleon and Toby struck up a friendship. There are illustrations from contemporary artists of Napoleon and Toby in dialogue (below). Did they just discuss plants and planting, or did their vastly different experiences of the world lead to deep discourse on the state of society in 1816? Sadly nothing is recorded, so we will never know… Similarly, we know that, during his captivity on St Helena, Napoleon developed a liking for gardening. Whether this was inspired by seeing Toby at work and his subsequent dialogue with him we also cannot know.

Encouraged by Betsy Balcombe, Napoleon even offered to buy Toby’s freedom, but was informed, after the request had been transmitted to Governor Mark Wilks that the Government would not accede to it. Napoleon tried again after Governor Lowe took charge, but again the request was refused. No definitive reason was given and it not clear whether the request was rejected because there was some objection to Toby being freed or just because it was Napoleon requesting it.

When Napoleon left the Briars Pavilion in December 1815, after only two months of residence, he apparently presented to Toby ‘20 Napoleons’ (worth around £15), presumably for Toby to buy his own freedom. We do not know whether he did so, but the enslaved were not allowed to own property, so if Toby did not use the money to buy his freedom the money would have automatically become the property of his owner, William Balcombe.

Perhaps because it was an unusual story, many artists depicted Napoleon and Toby talking. Some are shown below{a}:

After Napoleon

Even after Napoleon moved to Longwood House on 10th December 1815 Toby continued to send him fruit and flowers from Mr Balcombe’s garden (presumably with the latter’s support), but apart from that Toby fell back into obscurity. However, because of his earlier fame we do know some of what became of him.

In 1818, when Governor Lowe declared that William Balcombe had become persona non grata on the island, Balcombe sold Toby to John Charles Dunn, a surgeon in the 53rd Regiment and son of the previous owner of the Briars estate.

Toby did not use Napoleon’s generous gift to buy his freedom. He locked the money under his bed. On 31st August 1822 the inevitable happened: the chest was ransacked and the money stolen. Although the thief, a fellow enslaved known as Sam, was caught, tried and executed, none of the money was ever recovered.

Toby died on 31st March 1827, at the age of seventy-two, still a slave, the property of Surgeon Dunn’s estate.

Thirteen years later in 1840, on the occasion of the repatriation of Napoleon’s body to France, Las Cases’s son returned to the Briars and visited the tiny little garden in which the Emperor had gone walking so many times. The vineyard, which shaded him, the shabby wooden seat on which he sat, was still there. Poor Tobie[sic], the Indian[sic] gardener of whom my father speaks, had died a long time ago.

Was Toby’s enslavement here legal?

In 1792 a new set of ‘slave laws’ were introduced to the island. Although the 42 Articles mostly concerned the correct treatment of the enslaved by their owners, Article 39 is of some interest: it stated that no new enslaved persons could be imported to St Helena after that date. Anyone breaching this law would be fined £50 and also bear the cost of returning the enslaved to his or her place of origin.

According to the accounts, Toby was brought to St Helena by Capt. Frazer in or around 1803 and sold or given to Mr. Wrangham. Had he therefore been imported into enslavement on the island, in clear contradiction to the 1792 law?

Napoleon brought Toby’s situation to the attention of Admiral Sir George Cockburn{1}. This triggered a wider investigation and in January 1816 the Lieutenant Governor and acting magistrate, John Skelton began an inquiry into the allegation, not just in relation to Toby but also for around sixty other enslaved making similar claims.

Many tales of woe were uncovered by the investigation, including women bought in the Far East to be enslaved domestic servants or child-minders being dropped off at St Helena on their owner’s passage back to England - an embarrassment to be disposed of before returning home. As Colin Fox puts it in his book ‘A Bitter Draught: St Helena and the Abolition of Slavery’: They could just as well been bales of cotton or boxes of tea.

The results of the inquiry were fairly predictable. The enslaved mostly had no concrete evidence proving when they had arrived on St Helena{2}, so many were simply declared to have been imported before 1792 and hence were legally enslaved, and had to remain so until slavery was abolished here in the 1830s. Only three were given their freedom, not including Toby{3}.

For more about the inquiry see Colin Fox’s 2017 book ‘A Bitter Draught: St Helena and the Abolition of Slavery’, page 34ff.

So officially, Toby was declared to be legally enslaved here.

‍Toby’s Cottage‍


As mentioned above, in 1815 The Briars Estate had 21 enslaved people working on it. They were housed in a rudimentary two-roomed hut (presumably, one room for the males and one for the females) on the edge of the estate, well away from the grand house.

Interestingly, the grand house has long since been demolished (doubtless a victim of the White Ants) but the hut remains, albeit in a dilapidated condition. In 2020 a project began to restore ‘Toby’s Cottage’{4} and turn it into a memorial to the victims of slavery on St Helena. The total project cost would be in the region of £80,000, of which just over £60,000 would be for the restoration.

The ‘Toby’s Briars cultural and Historical Centre’ project, being run by the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust documentation describes the status of the building as:

The roof and several of the walls at Toby’s Cottage have been lost. The northern wall in particular has lost a majority of its standing fabric. The lintels above the window and door on the southern wall are near collapse, and the interior door lintel is also near collapse. The loss of the fabric has also resulted in the degradation of the exterior limewash that acts as a bonding agent for the dry-laid stone walls. The standing walls on the kitchen extension have also fallen where only one-to-two feet of standing wall remains. Due to the wall collapse and loss of the roof system, large amounts of bio-growth are now present throughout the complex.

The images below show the building in its current condition, except the last one which shows it still in use as a store area in 1974{a}:

Apparently, after the enslaved were freed the cottage continued in use as workman’s accommodation.

{a} All are sourced from The ‘Toby’s Briars cultural and Historical Centre’ project, being run by the British Napoleonic Bicentenary Trust

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{1} Who brought Napoleon to St Helena aboard HMS Northumberland and stayed to supervise guarding the prisoner.{2} Their owners, of course, would have known, but considering the penalty for owning an illegally imported slave, they were not likely to volunteer the information and the inquiry, it seems, did not press them. It was not an independent inquiry…{3} 1) Clara, who had arrived on the island in 1811; her owner, Mr Balcombe, was ordered to pay her passage home. 2) George, a servant of Captain Barnes, who arrived after 1792, has never been sold or registered as a Slave nor has he appeared in the register of Free Blacks. On the decease of the late Major Seale, his former master, he was not sold as part of the estate and is acknowledged to be free by his present master Captain Barnes. 3) William was judged to have been in the same situation as George and was also freed.{4} An interesting choice of name. It could hardly be described as a ‘Cottage’, and Toby shared it with 20 other people so it wasn’t really Toby’s either. Presumably it was felt that the title ‘Toby’s Cottage’ would be more appealing to potential donors than ‘the squalid overcrowded hovel in which the estate’s enslaved, including Toby, were allowed to sleep’.

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