The story of how John Ystumlly arrived in North Wales is one of trauma and violence. John, who was otherwise known as “Jack Black” or “Jac Ddu” in Wales at the time, lived in Criccieth in the 1740s. John was not his real name as he was abducted from Africa at the age of eight.
It remains unknown which African country he was from, though per his biography, John shared how he “was on the banks of a stream amid woodland attempting to catch a moorhen, when white men arrived and caught him and took him away with them to the ship”. John said they took him away from his mother, who ran and screamed after them.
Ripped from his mother’s arms and placed on a ship, he was sent to the Ystumllyn estate in Criccieth, North Wales, as a “gift” to the aristocratic Wynn family, according to a report by North Wales Live. He was later Christened in a church at the Gwynedd town as “John Ystumllyn”, named after the Wynn family’s Ystumllyn estate.
History says that in the 18th century, when Britain was engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, some aristocratic families desired to have a Black servant, and it was amid this that John arrived in North Wales. Some historians say that it was a member of the Wynn family that kidnapped him and brought him home while others believe that he was brought as a present by the sister of Ellis Wynn, owner of the Ystumllyn estate, who lived in London.
In spite of his traumatic experience, John braved the odds. He went on to have a good education, learning Welsh and English, as well as horticulture in the gardens where he worked. He would become a respected gardener and the first Black person in the region whose life was well documented.
When he fell in love with a local White woman called Margaret Gruffydd, he left his job at Ystumllyn and eloped with her in Dolgellau. The couple had seven children, but two sadly died at a very young age. The remaining five went on to do great things. In fact, the couple’s eldest son became a huntsman at Glynllifon grounds, which was then a job of high status.
John himself was also well respected while alive. And this was not only for his horticultural knowledge but for his honesty. Slavery was still very much being practiced at the time, but John was not enslaved. According to historian Dr. Marian Gwyn, John was “very much a free man” who was accepted in his community and loved by his family.
“But there are evidence to suggest that his community did make him ill and very upset,” Gwyn told North Wales Live.
She said: “On two separate occasion, two local lads thought they were being funny and decided to ‘black’ themselves up. By this time, John was the gardener and could order people around. These two men who were trying to imitate him when to nearby stores and ordered things in his name. Apparently, this really upset John and his doctor denotes that it made him ill.
“Despite the fact that the word ‘racism’ didn’t exist that time, it doesn’t excuse the fact it was racism.”
And even though he ran away from his job on the estate to marry in 1768, John later returned to work for the Wynn family. The family later gave him and his wife a house and garden. John’s marriage to Margaret was one of the very first records of a mixed-race marriage in Wales, according to history. Indeed, before he was laid to rest in 1791 in the churchyard of Ynyscynhaearn near Criccieth, his love story with Margaret that broke racial and class barriers became well known in North Wales, passed down in folklore.
And more than 200 years after his death, John, whose family remain in Wales, has been honored with a rose named after him in celebration of his life.
“We’ve done it out of friendship, which is why the color is yellow, it stands for love, it stands for community,” Zehra Zaidi, founder of the group We Too Built Britain, told BBC last month.
“Anyone who knows John’s story knows those are the values he embodied.”
Zaidi, whose group raises awareness about the achievements of under-represented groups, grew up from a minority ethnic background in Carmarthen, South Wales. With John’s story so important to her, she said she approached Harkness Roses in Hertfordshire amid the Black Lives Matter protests recently and suggested the rose. Harkness Roses has bred roses named in honor of the Queen.
Campaigners believe John’s rose is the first to be named after an ethnic minority individual in the UK.