Christopher MacEvoy of St Croix, Copenhagen and London - A family of planters, merchants and slave-traders, Part One
The MacEvoy family of West India planter-merchants caught my eye recently because of their close ties to Copenhagen and the island of St Croix in the former Danish West Indies, and because of their often repeated but unsubstantiated origins in Scotland.
That the family originated in Scotland was stated by C.F. Bricka in his entry on Christopher MacEvoy Jr (c. 1760-1838) published in the 1897 edition of the Dansk Biografisk Lexikon (the Danish dictionary of national biography). Author and historian Kay Larsen restated it in his notes on MacEvoy compiled before 1928.
One source refers to Christopher MacEvoy Sr (c.1719-1792) as ‘a newcomer from Scotland’, ‘a Catholic refuge, complete with Coat-of-Arms’, who arrived ‘on St. Croix in 1751’.
Another source even pinpoints MacEvoy’s origins in Fife, Scotland.
None of these publications is referenced, however, and the sources regarding MacEvoy’s Scottish heritage which the publications may have relied on, remain unknown.
Notwithstanding the insubstantial research on MacEvoy published during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the few mentions the family have had since, the primary archival sources of the former Danish West Indies held in the Danish national archives are littered with the name MacEvoy. It is clear that the family owned significant property in both St Croix and Denmark and that they were well-connected members of the business community in both places.
More recently, research by Dr Orla Power has placed the MacEvoys among the Irish diaspora in the Danish West Indies alongside major players like the Farrell, Tuite and Skerrett families. In fact, research by Jørgen Bach Christensen has argued that the MacEvoys and the Heyligers were the top two property owners in St Croix, each owning more acres of land than any of the other families.
Dr Power states that many of these Irish-Caribbean families had come to St Croix from the British Leeward Islands – she writes: “By 1747, a group of Irish merchants and planters with family connections in Ireland, Montserrat and London, had begun to purchase land at Saint Croix”. This date chimes with the reported arrival in 1751 of Christopher MacEvoy Sr in St Croix.
Burkes’ ‘A genealogical and heraldic history…’ suggests a link between the MacEvoys and a MacEvoy family in Co Longford, but some of the detail is possibly confused. This is odd as Sir Bernard Burke himself married into the MacEvoy family and should have been well versed in the family history of his wife Barbara Frances MacEvoy.
I am thankful to James Kennedy in Kinlochard for pointing me in the direction of Irish sources that may help to clarify this potential Co. Longford connection.
So, it seems I can forget about the alleged Scottish link and focus on the MacEvoys as key components of the island’s Irish diasporic planter-merchant community.
Although existing histories of the MacEvoys puts Christopher MacEvoy Sr in St Croix by 1751 his name appears more frequently in the digitised documentary sources from around 1756 onwards. By the beginning of 1773 he owned, or co-owned, at least five plantations in the island including:
Estate Granard in Company’s Quarter, managed by Christopher Nugent. On this estate MacEvoy kept 162 slaves – this number was made up of 109 ‘Able negroes’, 8 ‘Manquerons’ (infirm, elderly or unable to work), 7 ‘Half-growns’ (between the ages of 12 and 16) and 38 children under the age of 12.
Estate Longford in Company’s Quarter, owned jointly with his business partner Selby, with 175 slaves, including 36 children.
Estate Belview in Company’s Quarter, which was managed by Peter Neale and where MacEvoy lived with his wife Maria and three children. Here he kept 104 slaves.
Estate Spring Garden in Northside Quarter where he kept 72 slaves.
Estate Cane Garden in Queen’s Quarter, managed by William Usher, where he kept 53 slaves.
In that year alone, MacEvoy was responsible for an enslaved workforce of at least 577, including the 11 slaves he kept in his town house in Queen’s Cross Street, Christiansted – one of six properties owned by him in St Croix’s main town at that time.
The St Croix slave lists and other inventories provide the facts and figures of how the island’s plantations were ‘staffed’. We know the names of the plantation owners, the managers and the overseers. We know what the enslaved workers were called – the men were given names like Limerick, Cudjoe, Johannes, Cato, Christmas and Mulatto John, while the women were given names like Phillis, Moll, Mimba, Frankey, Prudence and, in one case, Monasyllable. We sometimes know what their owner had paid for them and what they were deemed to be worth when taxes were due.
The brutality, the exploitation, the forced separation of children from their mothers, the rape, the systemic violence and the methodical punishments, that we know was part of chattel slavery is not recorded in these lists. They simply give us a conservative estimate of the number of enslaved Africans, in a given year, for whom this was life.
By early 1774 MacEvoy had added estate Orange Grove in Company’s Quarter to his portfolio. Here he kept 112 slaves, while at Cane Garden he increased his number of slaves from 53 to 87, suggesting perhaps he was in the process of developing the plantation or intensifying production.
In addition to his plantations MacEvoy operated as a merchant in Christiansted in partnerships with Roger Ferrall and Marcus Skerrett. Newspaper adverts of the time provide some insight into the nature of these businesses: they involved both slave trading and import of essential provisions for the island’s planters.
By at least 1770, if not much earlier, MacEvoy was trading in slaves - a newspaper advert for two runaway slaves refer to one as having been bought from MacEvoy & Ferrall. An advert in January 1771 by MacEvoy & Ferrall advertised the upcoming sale of 290 slaves from the Windward Coast [West Africa]. They had been imported on board the snow ‘Etty’ by Richard Willding (this could possibly be the well-known Liverpool based slaver of the same name) and were to be sold at MacEvoy’s house in Bassend (Christiansted) a few days later. The ship, however, was diverted to Jamaica and we may assume that its cargo of slaves was sold there.
In May 1775 MacEvoy & Skerrett advertised the sale of 54 ‘Choice Gold Coast Slaves’, part of a cargo of around 216 slaves imported on board the ship ‘Traffick’.
With Marcus Skerrett MacEvoy also traded in foods and provisions for the St Croix planters from their store in Water Street, Christiansted, as well as sending ships return to Copenhagen, presumably laden with sugar or other colonial goods.
In 1776, aged approximately 57, Christopher MacEvoy placed an advert in the paper announcing his intention to relocate to Copenhagen in April of that year. He wound up his business partnership with Marcus Skerrett, applied for Danish naturalisation and left his plantations in St Croix to be managed by attornies and family members.
In Copenhagen he entered the former co-partnership of Chippendale, Selby and Co which, from 1777, traded as MacEvoy, Selby, Dungan and Thompson. As a co-partner in this company MacEvoy continued to pursue his colonial interests as an absentee plantation owner and West India merchant and commissioned the building of at least one merchant vessel destined for the West India trade. The company also had interests in at least one sugar house as well as acting as Copenhagen agents to several other St Croix planters.
In the same year MacEvoy purchased Count Reventlow’s town house in Copenhagen, complete with hereditary Reventlow furniture and silverware, as well as the country estate of Christiansholm. MacEvoy’s trajectory at this point in time thus fits neatly into to a wider pattern of English-speaking, planter-merchants, many of whom were Catholic, and who all went down similar paths (i.e. St Croix planter-merchants who move to Copenhagen, become naturalised Danish subjects or marry into Danish merchant families, buy properties in the City and estates in the country, are extremely well-connected in Royal, political and commercial circles and who continue to own plantations in St Croix while trading in West Indian produce from Copenhagen, particularly sugar). These include:
MacEvoy’s business partner Charles Selby (1755-1823), who arrived in Cophagen in 1773 and entered the merchant house of William Chippendale (trading in Copenhagen from c. 1760).
MacEvoy’s business partner John Dungan, a Copenhagen-based sugar merchant from Granard, Co Longford.
Theobald Bourke (1724-83) (naturalised 1779) and Edmund Bourke (1761-1821), Irish planter-merchants in St Croix, who arrived in Copenhagen c. 1782.
Philip Ryan (1766-1807), St Croix-born Irish ship’s captain and planter-merchant who arrived in Copenhagen c. 1780.
Around the time of his relocation to Copenhagen MacEvoy had acquired estate Barren Spot in King’s Quarter where he kept 89 slaves, plus two named Scipio and Simon who had run away, increasing his slave holdings, at that point in time, to an estimated 814 slaves. Barren Spot had belonged to MacEvoy’s wife’s mother, Elizabeth Markoe (nee Cunninghame), who left it in her will to her children. It appears to have been the subject of a legal dispute between MacEvoy and the Markoe heirs the date of which ties in with the time MacEvoy became the proprietor of the estate.) The probate documents are held in the Rigsarkivet and record what appears to be a long and drawn out settlement of Elizabeth’s estate, which began one week after her death. Parish records indicate that MacEvoy’s wife (Elizabeth’s daughter) Maria Markoe had died in Copenhagen in December 1776, and it is possible that her share in Barren Spot, which her mother had assigned to her in her will, had passed to Maria’s husband. Whatever the case, the clue to MacEvoy’s acquisitions of Barren Spot is likely to be contained Elizabeth’s probate.
Having remarried in 1778 Christopher MacEvoy seems to have spent his time between Copenhagen, St Croix and London until around 1791 when his health began to fail him. Christiansholm was sold in 1783 to Count H.E. Schimmelmann, Denmark’s Finance Secretary, director of the country’s ‘Guinea trade’ (=slave trade) and one of the largest plantation owners in St Croix. In St Croix, MacEvoy’s sons Michael and Christopher Jr began to sort out their fathers business affairs and advertised long-term leases on his town houses in Christiansted. Christopher MacEvoy died in London in the summer of 1792 and was buried at St Pancras Old Churchyard in Camden.
The epitaph on his headstone was recorded by F.T. Cansick in 1869, it reads:
'Here lie the remains of
Christopher McEvoy, Esq.
Late of the Island of St Croix, who
Departed this Life the Eleventh day of July, 1792,
In the 73 year of His age,
Firmly hoping through the Mercy of God and
of Christ to obtain eternal Peace. So be it. Amen.
He was a tender, kind Husband and affectionate Father,
An indulgent Master, and strictly honourable in his
He died sincerely regretted by his Friends and universally lamented. R.I.P.'
C.F. Bricka: Dansk Biografisk Lexikon, Vol. XI, 1897
Burke, Sir B. 1879. A genealogical and heraldic history of the landed gentry of Great Britain & Ireland, Vol. 2.
F. T. Cansick 1869: A Collection of Curious and Interesting Epitaphs: Copied from the Monuments of Distinguished and Noted Characters in the Ancient Church and Burial Grounds of Saint Pancras, Middlesex, Volume 1, p. 68
Msgr. M. Kosak: 175th Anniversary Commemorative History of St. Anne´s Church, Estate Barronspot, 1975 – follow up to
K. Larsen: Dansk-vestindiske og -guineiske Personalia og Data. Ny kgl. Samling 3240, 4°
Orla Power 2007: Beyond Kinship: A Study of the Eighteenth-century Irish Community at Saint Croix, Danish West Indies. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Vol. 5, n°3 (November 2007)
Orla Power 2011: Irish planters, Atlantic merchants: the development of St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1750-1766
Rigsarkivet: Arkivalier Online - https://www.sa.dk/brug-arkivet/arkivalieronline
http://www.stcroixlandmarks.com – contains excerpts from "Preserving the Legacy" by Priscilla G. Watkins on behalf of St. Croix Landmarks Society (1998)
Katinka Dalglish, museum curator, Strathard Community Trust member, Scandi immigrant, beginner blogger.
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