John Springfield (1847 – 1891) From Zanzibar to Guildford

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (SHC ref 1714/1)

Portrait photograph of John Springfield, c. 1880s (SHC ref 1714/1)

John Springfield was born on 1 July 1847, the son of Jumbalowagee, a Zanzibar chief. At the age of nine, whilst picking fruit, he was kidnapped by Portuguese sailors and subjected to torments he would never forget. Realising John was a child and not a man, they left him for dead. He was found by a woman who healed his injuries with dressings improvised from leaves.

It seems that at this point John was befriended by Dr David Livingstone (1813-1873), the geographic explorer and missionary. Livingstone had been inspired by the abolitionist movement and on board his ship in Africa he provided shelter for African boys orphaned by the slave trade. John was wrongly told he was orphaned and that he could not return to his tribe because of his contact with people outside of it. Livingstone arranged for John to serve aboard the HMS Victoria as valet to its captain James G. Goodenough for three years. It was during this period that John Springfield received his western name, after the town of Springfield, Massachusetts, where the ship was based in 1863. The name by which he was known in Zanzibar remains unknown.

The records include his certificate of naval service, which tells us that at the age of 17 he was 5ft 1 inch tall, had black hair and dark eyes, a scar on each temple and in the opinion of the captain had a very good character.

Certificate of naval service (SHC ref 1714/3)

Certificate of naval service (SHC ref 1714/3)

Aged 20, at the end of his naval service in 1867, John went to America to preach the message of abolition against the appalling conditions of those subjected to slavery. Officially slavery in America ended with the Civil War in 1865 but it took time for laws to take affect so it is not implausible that he may have been campaigning for the rights of freed plantation workers and other enslaved people. He apparently found America unreceptive to his message and left for Britain. In England he met and married Eliza Andrews at Croydon in August 1870. The couple had one child, Miriam and moved to Guildford, where John earned his living as a bootmaker. He also taught cobbling at Robert Macdonald’s Guildford Mission Industrial School. Drawing upon his past experiences John also preached against slavery, which still existed in other countries. Being teetotal, he also warned against the ‘demon drink’ and preached in many local Methodist churches as a lay preacher.

John Springfield died on 21 February 1891 and is buried in Stoughton Road cemetery, Guildford. He was only 45 years old.

Surrey History Centre has carried out further research to trace John Springfield’s story in the wider context, including Dr Livingstone, HMS Victoria, and Captain Goodenough. Click here to read the full story of John Springfield (pdf pdf logo copy).

Use the links below to discover some of the sources we used for tracing John Springfield’s family history:

Find out more…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *