by Karen Williams

The question from the Pakistani government minister was not unfamiliar to me: “And what are you, are you a Zulu?” It was my early days in Islamabad and the official’s gentle ribbing was a common question. Yet this time, I was speechless.

Floundering, I grasped at half-sentences, well aware that people around were starting to stare. I mumbled something about being from a mix of different communities. It was a non-answer, but equally baffling was the immediate, deep sense of shame I had about myself. My body-response to the question of who I was ethnically and historically was an enduring, free floating shame, buoyed by the constant references littered throughout my life that, historically, I was neither black nor white, I was a “nothing”. (This, even as I identified as black since childhood.)

Most of my life since childhood had been spent hiding in and finding identity in politics: It was a place of certainty when others spoke about their community identities and customs. It also provided the necessary fulcrum on which I could quickly change the conversation. I was well-versed in deflecting with broad sweeps of accepted leftist histories and resistances. It gave me access to a glorious national history: but this time I had no words. I had no history, really, no personal history, just grand national narratives that I clung to like a life raft.

The question would continue ringing inside me throughout the Pakistan years and when I would move elsewhere: back to south-east Asia, finishing up my life in Kabul and a short spell in the pervasive, visible context of continued enslavement that marks social structures of Khartoum. The Indian Ocean Slavery articles started in that moment that a mirror was held up to me, but it was not the only catalyst. In truth, I might never know the internal and external pushes that that led me back to South Africa, away from my life and work, and spending a year reading and writing. For the first time I did not care that I was not out there, in the middle of history unfolding.

I often describe the past eighteen months of reading, writing and then publishing on slavery as having fallen down a rabbit hole: not only writing a history, but more importantly, finding that there was actually a history to write.

The effects have not only been finding a history on Indian Ocean slavery that has been buried in academia, with the cornerstones of abuse and subjugation explained away. But in accessing my wider, global history, I’ve ironically finally reconciled with a very personal, intimate own-story. Having fled home as a child, my non-history extended into never acknowledging that I raised myself from the start. I also never said the name of the man who is genetically my father: Mervyn Emrich Cornelissen, and who has had nothing to do with me since birth. An intellectual, he writes dissertations and is brilliant, a man I so desperately wanted to be imprinted upon because I have lived everywhere, everywhere, and there’s nobody else like me. I have said my father’s name more in the past year than I have for all of my life. Having run from my family as a child, I had lived as an absence, a “nothing” for a lifetime. Until I started writing the Indian Ocean Slavery series, there was no knowing in how many concentric circles of being I had been denied.

But in that denial and not-knowing about my history, there were the people ready to be discovered, when I, inside, was ready: Thisgingnio, the only Chinese woman prisoner recorded at the Cape; Hendrik Uithaalder, problematic and emblematic as the last man hanged for sodomy in Australia; the surprise in finding the political prisoner William Cuffay, sent on a boat to Hobart; and Billy Blue, one of many African-American men who made their mark in Sydney.

This is the last article in this series, although I will keep engaging with readers in my Twitter forum. But one of the people whose story that I wanted to tell before the series ended was a black/coloured South African woman, Martha Solomons, whose story survives in the history books, even as the grand male biographers constantly refer to her as a “simple woman” (while they are making their reputations and money only because they are associated with the life story of this “simple woman”). The history of enslavement across the Indian Ocean has had resonance for me, because it is the history of individual figures, and not grand historical tropes. The history has been given an internal power because I have been clear that the people I am writing about insist on being seen as human with individual complexities. There was Liminionko, who freed his enslaved wife and children as a final act of defiance against the Dutch before they imprisoned him in chains for life and on the other side of the world was Zheng He, the Chinese Muslim eunuch who grew up to be the greatest sea explorer in history.

Fast forward to 1892, the British press are up in arms: the “Hottentots”, “mulattoes” and “slaves” have gained seats in the House of Lords and white British people might physically have to sit next to them.

The story concerned not the protagonist, the eighth Earl of Stamford, Harry Grey, but his black wife and biracial children. The story of Martha Solomons, though, starts not in the House of Lords, but in the enslavement at the Cape, and how those two paths crossed each other.

Harry Grey
Harry Grey, 8th Earl of Stamford

Harry Grey, was the scion of an aristocratic family who had been ordained as an Anglican priest after Oxford. But he had also disgraced his family with his hard-drinking. Harry was sent to South Africa as a ‘remittance man’, meaning he was given a regular stipend with the understanding that he would never return to England from his banishment. Harry married a white woman in South Africa, but she died not long after their marriage.

During his stay in South Africa, Harry Grey continued his hard-drinking life. He drifted from town to town, doing menial work where he could find it on farms. It was during this period that he met Martha and they became friends. He would drift in and out of her family’s life, until they met again when she gave him shelter when he was drunk, cold and destitute in the farming town of Wellington. He stayed at Martha and her mother’s house for a while.

Rebecca, Martha Solomons mother
Rebecca, Martha Solomons mother

Martha was born in 1838, the year South African slaves were finally freed after serving a four-year “apprenticeship” after being emancipated in 1834. Her mother, Rebecca, was enslaved and Rebecca bought her own freedom, as well as that of her mother. Biographer Richard van der Ross writes that, “Rebecca had known the mental, spiritual and bodily suffering of slavery and concubinage, and was determined to escape these conditions”.[1] Rebecca had been sold from slave owner to slave owner throughout her life. She was also bought by a British priest, sent to South Africa by the Royal Astronomical Society to start the first astronomical observatory in South Africa.[2] Against the law, he bought Rebecca and her baby, but not her three other underage children who should have been part of the purchase. Biographers speculate that Rebecca was promised her freedom in the future in exchange for signing documents that allowed the priest to separate her from her young children. She was never freed; until she did it herself and freed her mother as well.

After ending her enslavement, Rebecca worked around Cape Town and for a while she also owned a tavern. I have found newspaper cartoons of Rebecca published in the 1800s, all talking about her “eccentric” behaviour and the fact that she called herself “Queen Rebecca”, claiming descent from the British Royal House. Rebecca used her money to send Martha to a school that served the children of the recently-emancipated slaves. Rebecca also bought a small house for her family in Wellington, where Harry Grey would later recuperate.

Martha Solomons
Martha Solomons, 8th Countess of Stamford

After his wife’s death Harry Grey started a relationship with Martha and they had two children. Eventually under pressure from a local priest, they got married. By a twist of fate in the late 1800s, Harry’s cousin, the seventh Earl of Stamford, died without leaving a son. Harry’s father was also dead, and so as the eldest surviving male relative, Harry became the eighth Earl of Stamford and ninth Baron of Groby. Besides the titles, he also inherited a sum of money. Martha, pregnant at this time with their third child, became the Countess of Stamford.[3]

The House of Lords and the British press went into a racist uproar, outraged that a black woman had a title, but also that her son might sit in the House of Lords. Cracroft’s Peerage still refers to Mary as “a lady of native Hottentot extraction”.[4]

Articles in the Chicago Tribune of 1907 and 1910 refer to Martha as “coal black” and a “black Hottentot”. The Aspen Daily Times of 1895 wrote that “The coal black Hottentot widow of the late earl of Stamford is still living.”

Under Dutch law in South Africa, Martha and Harry’s son (born before they were married) was recognised as an heir, but in England litigation followed and their son John was eventually prevented by the British courts from taking up the title, although his heirs continued to receive their financial inheritance. Their daughter, Mary, however became Lady Mary.

Even after coming into all of their wealth, the family continued living in the poorer part of the suburb, amongst the formerly enslaved and former Free Blacks. Harry also never returned to England. When he died in 1890, Martha’s inheritance made her a wealthy woman. The two children she had with Harry (their third child, the youngest, died while young), eventually left South Africa, driven out by racial antagonism from white South African society, particularly since they were moneyed and titled.

After freeing herself, Martha’s mother Rebecca had used her earnings to ensure that Martha received a basic education. And it had been Rebecca’s wish that her family help educate the children of the former slaves. Martha heeded that call, and as part of her legacy she gave her local church a plot of land and money to build a school, thereby continuing her mother’s dream for freedom.

When Martha died in 1916, she was buried in Cape Town alongside her husband Harry and their daughter Frances. The school that would be opened on Martha’s plot of land would be named Battswood. By the time she died, Martha had no way of knowing what future awaited her country.

It would be a future that was integral to my mother – and father’s – life.

The story of my mother’s generation is of black South Africans who grew up after World War Two. This is a particular history: up to then legislated racial segregation had been entrenched in South Africa, but in 1948 the extreme forms of white minority nationalism known as apartheid was made law. Modern South Africa was essentially a post-Nazi state, and apartheid started in 1948 by people who were not only white supremacists, but many of whom had been interned as Nazi sympathizers and supporters during World War Two. South Africa post-1948 would institute policies of eugenics, racial classification and the development of townships, which lent significant parts of their design and intent to the Nazi ghetto system. Theories and belief in the “master race” was a guiding philosophical component of government policy.

My mother had wanted to be a clothes designer, and throughout her life, her creativity would not be limited to clothes design, but include pottery, metal work, painting and glasswork.

The year she started designing school twinned with the early government attempts to get all black South Africans to only receive the most minimum levels of education. This would be accompanied by a policy called “job reservation”, whereby it was designated what jobs would be done by specific race groups, and also how far up the career ladder different races could be appointed by law. If anybody managed to beat the system (and often it was singular people, not groups) by, for example, being able to go to a white university, the response would be overwhelming punitive government force.

My mother made it through the cull of black people in her first year at design school. During her second year (with one year to go) she was finally weeded out when her bursary was cut, as were bursaries to any other black people who still made it through. She was forced into the legislated pipeline of jobs reserved for African and coloured people and she was forced to go to teacher’s training college and become a school teacher. This was among the highest ranks that you could reach by law. (My father was also forced to become a teacher, but at the height of apartheid, he earned a university degree – then almost unheard of in our community.) In the silences in the life of my family, my mother being forced to abandon being a clothes designer and then forced to take a job as a school teacher, was but one moment in an early life that sought to break her – and then break her again at the parts that hurt. My grandmother and grandfather fought for whatever money they earned to fund my mother’s studies. Yet, eventually, too, my mother had to take her “place” in our society, by enrolling at Battswood Teachers’ Training College. The college provided the lifeblood and an intellectual home for so many of the community who elsewhere would have been recognised for their talents and brilliance.

When I started reading on slavery in South Africa and the Indian Ocean, it still resonated as a metaphorical frame on which to hang my contemporary life. But then I read the story of Martha Solomons, the Dowager Countess of Stamford. She lived not far from where my family lived before they were forcibly removed into a ghetto by the government. Martha lived a hundred years ago, and established Battswood School (and subsequently Battswood Teachers College) as her legacy to her family who were slaves. A hundred years after being born, Martha unknowingly opened a door for so many descendants of her own community when the children of the enslavers came for us again. My mother found a lifeline when she went to Martha’s teachers’ college, Battswood. And, at that point where they thought they broke my mother, there was Martha Solomons, daughter of a slave woman, ready to catch her.


Up From Slavery: Richard van der Ross, Ampersand Press, 2005, Cape Town

Winnie Mandela excerpt from Out of Africa 

Seven women of note. Aspen Daily Times, May 29, 1895

Chicago Tribune May 29, 1910

Chicago Tribune Sept. 5, 1907

[1] Van der Ross p.145

[2]  Fallons, Fearon

[3] Van der Ross p.146

[4] Earl of Stamford

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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

Indian Ocean SlaveryZanj rebellion 2 is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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9 thoughts on “Martha Solomons: The slave’s daughter and Countess of Stamford who made my life possible

  1. “Under Dutch law in South Africa, Martha and Harry’s son (born before they were married) was recognised as an heir, but in England litigation followed and their son John was eventually prevented by the British courts from taking up the title, although his heirs continued to receive their financial inheritance. Their daughter, Mary, however became Lady Mary.”
    There was no racial element involved here. Under English law children cannot be retrospectively legitimised by their parents’ marriage and so John was not a legitimate heir. There’ve been similar cases where Scottish law – which also permits retrospective legitimation and has other complications as to the validity of a marriage – did not apply to the heirs of English entails. John inherited Harry’s own money under Dutch law, but any entailed estates would go with the title. Equally, Lady Mary was legitimate under English law and so held her title.


    1. Yes Valin, she had children about whom I do not know anything before she met Harry Grey. I think that they lived in Wellington but I don’t know.


    2. Yes, but not sure who the father was or where they lived – maybe Wellington? Prof van der Ross told me that he thought that my grandfather who she adopted, inherited more than any of her birth children – possibly because John Grey was his father. But there is no proof of that at this stage.


  2. Thank you for the very interesting essay, beautifully written.

    I am trying to discover who fathered my grandfather, Charles Peter Graham, who was adopted by Martha Petersen circa 1899/1900 I think. Prof van der Ross thought it might be John Grey, but I queried if that was genetically verifiable which made him label me racist….not true, hurtful, and very unfair as my maternal grandmother was also of Colored descent and met my grandfather at Battswood School. It was simply an objective question in the hope that John’s family could be contacted to see if this relationship could be verified by DNA testing. It would be nice to know.

    Any light you may be able to throw on this family mystery would be much appreciated.


    1. Hi you may not know me Roderick Benjamin! Who is the great great grandchild of the countess Martha & I only spoke 2 my sister 2day about our history! I always thought that my mother is telling lies or crazy! But everything that she told us was true! Even the house in Wonder that she grew up in of which the old regime kicked them out is still there ! So we as the dependents of The Black Countess Lady Gray are now in the presses of finding out about our heritage


      1. Dear Roderick, I would love to chat to you but am leaving for Europe for a month from today. Are you saying that you are a great great grandchild of Martha Petersen? She was Martha, Lady Stamford till she married Mr Peterse, btw. She did an awful lot of good in her lifetime too.
        (grand-daughter of her adopted son).


  3. Wonderful essay. Absolutely triumphant. I will go back and read the preceding installments of Mz Williams’ research. Every truth we uncover fills in what I call, ‘the holes in our souls’,… making us more solid expressions of the exquisite WHOLENESS ;~) which we truly are.
    For me, it means I can leap over the snares, and entanglements of anger and resentment, debate and defense….and just fly like an eagle into unlimited skies of my true Beingness.
    Keeping my focus only on Being All that I AM, ignoring the distractions born of humanities’ past ignorant and ugly actions, I AM into the unlimited creative possibilities of this moment. Living each moment to discover, How can I BE all the joy and excellence of Life that I AM, NOW.


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