Edward Turner, First Professor of Chemistry at UCL

A historian colleague of mine recently asked if I knew anything about the genealogy of UCL’s first Professor of Chemistry, Edward Turner (1796-1837). This colleague said he had heard a report that Turner was mixed race, the son of a Creole mother. Being a careful and critical historian, my friend wanted to know about evidence. We both understood this would be an exciting piece of information. UCL’s “radical” tradition is much discussed along today’s Gower Street, and a fact such as this, if confirmed, would add richly to on-going conversations about decolonization within the academy. What might we make of this biographer’s claim?

“…UCL started with a Jamaican as their first Professor of Chemistry and Lecturer in Geology.”

(Lancashire 2014: 14)

The truth is, Edward Turner was not mixed race. However, he was born in the British Colony of Jamaica from families who had lived for several generations on that island. He was described as a “Creole” by England-born Englishmen. His identity, opportunities, and impediments were defined by the Atlantic slave trade. His skin colour was white.

Child of plantation culture

Turner was born at Teak Pen, Clarendon, Jamaica, on 24 June 1796, son of a Scottish sugar planter, Dutton Smith Turner and his Creole wife, Mary Gale née Redwar.” He was sent at an early age to Bath, England. He was schooled in Bath, served an apprenticeship, and studied chemistry at University of Edinburgh. He did not return to Jamaica. (Wiki)

Edward Turner’s mother, Mary Gale Turner née Redwar (1776-1822), was described as a “creole” by Brock (2004 ODNB). She was the daughter of Elizabeth Gibbons (1754-1825) and Henry Redwar, a plantation owner in Dunbarton, Jamaica (genealogy 1 and genealogy 2). She was born in St Catherine, Jamaica 03 October 1776 and baptised in Church of England, St Catherine Parish. Other family relationships are described online.

Mary Gale Redwar married Dutton Smith Turner (1755-1826) in 1795. They had nine known children: Edward (born in Jamaica in 1796), William Dutton (born Jamaica 1798), James Wright (Jamaica 1799), Robert (Wiltshire 1801), Eliza Jane (Wiltshire 1803), Mary Anne (Jamaica c. 1806), Caroline Cydippa (Jamaica 1808), Wilton George (Jamaica 1810), Sarah White (Jamaica 1813). All except Robert were involved in the slave compensation process, meaning they said they owned slaves directly or indirectly.
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/1680011290

Edward Turner’s grandmother, Elizabeth Gibbons, was born in Jamaica in 1754 and died in Bath in 1825 (genealogy). 

What’s “Creole” about this story? 

Today, the word “Creole” typically implies a person of “mixed race” parentage. For example, in Louisiana, US, “creole” is a term used to describe a person with some combination of African, European, and Native American genealogies. Creole culture is celebrated as a unique synthesis of many traditions.

When I first read that Edward Turner had a “Creole” mother, I imagined an explanation along the following lines: his mother was the product of liaison between a plantation associated white man and an enslaved African woman. It would take a huge effort to convince me such a relationship could be consensual. This was the first time I had investigated the lives of a specific genealogical tree based in colonial Jamaica. As an anecdote about slavery, sugar, and legacy, it felt powerful.

But the “fact” in this case was wrong. More precisely, my interpretation of that fact was wrong, and my imagination had run far ahead of the facts. I had forgotten a second definition of the word, “creole”.

A second definition comes from slang for compatriots whose families were born in and permanently residing in colonial spaces. In Turner’s social universe, “creoles” were whites whose family trees had roots in the British Isles, transatlantic trunks, and long branches in colonies across the West Indies and Americas. Three of Edward Turner’s grandparents were born in Jamaica; one, Barbados. They were part of permanent colonies.

“Creole” was a term of abuse, hurled by England-resident English people at co-sanguineous colonials. Prolonged residency was thought to cause acclimation, i.e., physiological adaptation to a new environment, embedded permanently in the blood. Acclimation to the West Indies was said to be detrimental and degenerative. “Creole” was an alarm call for other England-resident English people about who to avoid and who certainly should not be considered for marriage. (The historian Michael Osborne explored this type of thinking by French acclimationists in two books: The Emergence of Tropical Medicine in France (2014) and Nature, the Exotic, and the Science of French Colonialism (1994).

This is a case of identity politics. Science (by way of acclimation theory) was drafted in to help one side over another. One of Turner’s biographers insisted he had “pure English blood”. The biographer insisted this because he wanted to counteract a supposed taint of Turner being “born in Jamaica”.

Today, we assume a Creole person is the result of genetic exchange. In the early 19thC, “creolization” could also suggest a family tree long associated with a colonised space. 

English Creoles were products of Atlantic slave and sugar trades

Turner’s family was deeply embedded in the Atlantic slave and sugar trades. His close and extended families invested in these trades, they profited from these investments. Some actively ran businesses using enslaved labour; however, Edward Turner seems to have kept distant from those associations once he acquired his independence. Members of the family moved between Jamaica and the English West Country during the course of their lives. Some returned to the West Indies. Others stayed in England. A few members of the extended family moved away from dependency on these trades. Edward Turner appears to be one of those people. (See “sources” below for biographical materials.)

In abolition, Turner’s extended family received over £21,000 in compensation (roughly between £23-57m today) for enslavements. Edward Turner received no money from these claims across his family. He was, however, party to a compensation claim in 1836 for the emancipation of five enslaved persons. That claim paid £100 13S 8D. Turner was not listed as an “awardee” in this claim, most likely because he died (1837) before the case was concluded.

Turner died in 38 Upper Gower Street (now 117 Gower Street). Nearly 300 former students attended his funeral in Kensal Green Cemetery. He was unmarried, and he fathered no children.

Investigate further

The truth of Turner’s “Creole” label doesn’t end anything. It offers one more beginning to the ever-growing investigation into legacies of British slave-ownership, its connections to scientists of the early 19thC, and its connections to UCL. If you’ve read this far, let me encourage you to investigate further and help to elaborate this and other stories.

Sources

Brock, William. 2004. Turner, Edward (1796–1837)” Oxford Dictional of National Biography. <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/27848>.

LBS. 2019. “Edward Turner. Profile & Legacies Summary. 1796-12th Feb 1837.” Legacies of British Slave-ownership database.<https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/329948485>.

Lancashire, 2014. “Edward Turner, chemist’, Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery Magazine, Issue 72, January 2014, pp. 14-20.

Joe Cain (2019)