President Hetherington's Daughter

Last Sunday evening, I spoke at Capernwray Evangelical Church. I was a little early, with about 45 minutes to spare. I therefore enjoyed a pleasant drive around the Lune Valley, arriving at the little village of Tunstall. There down Church Lane is the local parish church. Sadly, it was locked up but the external fifteenth-century architecture could be enjoyed and the grounds in which it stands offered some points of interest. One was the grave of Elizabeth Robinson, whose gravestone records:

Wife of CHARLES ROBINSON Collector of his Majesty's Customs

Demerara, and Youngest Daughter of the


President of Tortola

died Feb 16, 1826.

What on earth was the Presidency of Tortola? Where is Tortola? Graveyards, like so many other places of interest, cruelly expose my ignorance of so many things. Tortola, I subsequently learned, is one of the British Virgin Islands, and Hetherington, as its Council’s President, was a naval officer charged with maintaining the rule of law. A fellow council member, Arthur Hodge, was accused of murdering Prosper, one his plantation slaves. Although whites thought Hodge an elegant man, he was a sadistic monster towards the workers of his land, and the trial heard that he had killed a number of others, including Tom Boiler, Cuffy, Else, Jupiter, Margaret, Welcome, Gift, Violet, Sampson and Simon Boiler. Having demonstrated a propensity on the defendant’s part of killing slaves, the prosecutor, our Captain Hetherington, successfully persuaded the jury that he was guilty of murdering Prosper, also. Amazingly, he was sentenced to death by hanging, the first time a British plantation owner had been convicted of killing a black person. In his summing up, Hetherington declared to the jurors:

...the law makes no distinction between master and servant. God created white and he created black creatures; and as God makes no distinction in administering justice, and to Him each is alike, you will not, nor can you alter your verdict, if murder has been proved – whether on white persons or on black persons, the crime is equally the same with God and the law.

Soon, these solid and godly principles would be applied to slavery itself, but back in 1811, when Hodge’s body was cut down from the gallows to be interred close-by poor Prosper’s, the intrinsic value of black lives was not generally recognised. Indeed, martial law had to be declared on the islands to ensure the hanging took place, such was the discomfort of Hodge’s fellow planters at being held accountable for the lives they ‘owned’.

So well might Elizabeth Robinson wish to be known as President Hetherington’s daughter, even in death. A nobler man was unlikely to be found among the sugarcane fields of the West Indies.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, loving favour rather than silver and gold. – Proverbs 22:1