John Ystumllyn, one of Britain's first black gardeners and the earliest well-recorded black person in North Wales, has recently been in the news. Thanks to the efforts of Zehra Zaidi, the founder of We Too Built Britain, a beautiful yellow rose has been named after him — the first rose to be named after a person of colour in the UK. The new rose was created by Chelsea Flower Show winner Harkness Roses and has recently been launched at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2022, as well as planted in the gardens of Buckingham Palace in the weeks leading up to the Queen's Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
We're delighted that John Ystumllyn's achievements are being acknowledged and honoured; his poignant gravestone can be seen in the churchyard of St Cynhaearn's, Ynyscynhaearn, in Gwynedd, North Wales. But who was John Ystumllyn and how did he come to be living in the village of Ynyscynhaearn?
As part of the Visit Wales Year of Discovery in 2019, we explored his story, revealing the connection between one of our churches and the African Slave Trade of the 18th century – ‘a business at which my heart now shudders’, as described by John Newton, who had once captained a Slave Ship.
Sometime about 1746 – the precise date is uncertain – an eight-year old boy, playing by a stream somewhere in West Africa, probably in what is now Sierra Leone, then a haunt of slavers, was abducted and brought to Ynyscynhaearn, in Gwynedd, North Wales. He was taken to Plas Ystumllyn, either by or for a member of the Wynne family, whose home it was, where he learnt or was taught to speak both Welsh and English. He appears to have been treated as a servant, and was baptized by the Wynne family, either at Ynyscynhaiarn or the mother church at Criccieth.
He was given the name ‘John Ystumllyn’, or, as he was sometimes called, 'Jack Du' or ‘Jack Black’. The child grew to manhood in the Wynne family home, became a proficient gardener, knowledgeable plantsman, and a skilled craftsman. In 1754, when he was about sixteen years of age, his portrait was painted by an unidentified artisan artist, inscribed and dated at bottom: ‘John Ystymllyn 11 May 1754.’
At Ystumllyn John fell in love with one of the maidservants, Margaret Gruffydd, who was subsequently employed at Criccieth. Here they courted in secret, until John absconded from Ystumllyn, and the two were married sometime about 1768. They were fortunate to find employment elsewhere, but subsequently returned to Ystumllyn, and were the parents of seven children, five of whom survived them. His employer, Ellis Wynne, provided them with a cottage and garden, close to the church, in recognition of long service with his family, and here, in July 1791, John died, aged it was said, about 46, it is thought of jaundice.
For an excellent and detailed local account of the tale of Jack Ystumllyn, listen to poet and musician Twm Morys in BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Essay'.
‘John Ystumllyn’ lies buried in the churchyard at Ynyscynhaearn, adjoining the church in which he, perhaps, had been baptized, and where he and his family had worshipped.
His headstone bears an inscription in Welsh, a rather bleak englyn, which reads:
Yn India gynna'm ganwyd a nghamrau / India was the land of my birth
Yng Nghymru'm bedyddiwyd / but I was Christened in Wales
Wele'r fan dan lechan lwyd / This spot, marked by a grey slate
Du oeraidd y'm daearwyd. / is my cold, dark resting place.
But there are two puzzles here. If John was about eight when he was abducted, then he would have been about 54 and not 46 when he died. It would seem that his age was calculated, therefore, from the date of his baptism and not that of his birth. And the reference to India? An alternative story to that of his abduction in West Africa is that he had been born and raised on a plantation in the West Indies, and brought from there to this corner of Wales as a child.
It is difficult to know the truth without more evidence — but we do know that John Ystumllyn was almost certainly the only black person living and working here, and probably one of the first — if not the first.
So when you visit this church with its glorious Georgian interior, at the end of a long and dramatic causeway, seek out his grave, and consider the life of the abducted child who lived out his life as a free man in the rural community of Ynyscynhaearn.
This essay is largely based on a memoir by Alltud Eifion of Tremadoc, composed in 1888, copies of which, as a pamphlet, are on sale in the church at Ynyscynhaearn.