Kidnapped as a child and sent to North Wales as an aristocrat’s ‘gift’ – remembering John Ystumllyn
More than 200 years after his death the story of John Ystumllyn arrival and contribution to life in North Wales still resonates and has the power to shock.
According to legend he was one of the “first” black men to live here – but whether that is true or not may never be known as people of colour have rarely been recognised in the official records.
But John’s story, or at least part of it, did make the history books.
He was laid to rest in 1791 in the isolated churchyard of Ynyscynhaearn near Criccieth, where he spent most of his life.
But the story of how he arrived in the peaceful Gwynedd countryside is one of violence, separation, slavery and trauma.
His life remains half-remembered in the collective memory.
John, as any local schoolchild will tell you spoke Welsh fluently in a largely monoglot community.
Above all else however, he became one of the most highly-respected member of his community.
No mean feat at a time when slavery was still very much a “trade”.
To mark Black History Month, North Wales Live takes a look back at a remarkable life.
John Ystumllyn, who was controversially known as “Jack Black” or “Jac Ddu” in Welsh at the time, lived in Criccieth between 1742 to 1786.
However, John was not his real name, as he was taken away from Africa when he was eight years old.
Although little is known which African country he was from, it is said that John remembers playing next to a river in a forest when a group of white men came to kidnap him and took him away from his mother who ran and screamed after them.
But she never saw him again and the young boy was placed on a ship and sent to the Ystumllyn estate in Criccieth as a “gift” to the aristocratic Wynn family.
He was later Christened in a church at the Gwynedd town as simply ‘John Ystumllyn’.
Some historians say that it was a member of the Wynn family that kidnapped him and brought him home, while others have mentioned that he was brought back as a present by Ellis Wynn’s sister who lived in London.
Despite the traumatic start to his life, John overcame many challenges, such as learning Welsh and English, and eventually becoming a well respected member of his community.
He was allocated a job in the gardens, where he learnt quickly how to become a gardener. He fell in love with a maid from the manor house, Margaret Gruffydd from Trawsfynydd, left his job at Ystumllyn and eloped with her in Dolgellau.
The family eventually gave back his job and home. The couple had seven children, two of which unfortunately died at a very young age.
100 years after his death, the Welsh poet Alltud Eifion wrote about his history and the lasting legacy he had left on the community who remembered him.
The story of John and Margaret Ystumllyn survived and grew in North Wales, passed down in folklore, as a testament to resilience and enduring love against racial and class barriers. It was one of the very first, if not the first, record of a mixed race marriage in Wales.
Dr Marian Gwyn – an Honorary Research Associate of the School of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences at Bangor University, has looked at how the slave trade and the British Empire helped shape the North Wales we know today, such as Penrhyn Castle in Bangor and the Gladstone Library in Hawarden.
According to the historian, John Ystumllyn’s story has two sides to it.
“On the whole, it worked out well for him – he was accepted in his community, loved by his family and married a white woman,” she told North Wales Live.
“But there are evidence to suggest that his community did make him ill and very upset. No matter how well he settled in the village, there are three various stories about how he got here – all of which are deeply traumatic and were probably stressful for him as a child and perhaps later on in life.
“On two separate occasion, two local lads thought they were being funny and decided to ‘black’ themselves up. By this time, John was the gardener and could order people around. These two men who were trying to imitate him when to nearby stores and ordered things in his name. Apparently, this really upset John and his doctor denotes that it made him ill.
“Despite the fact that the word ‘racism’ didn’t exist that time, it doesn’t excuse the fact it was racism.
“He was loved and respected however, and more importantly protected by his family. His children went on to do great things, for example, his eldest son became a huntsman at Glynllifon grounds, which at the time, was considered a job of high status.
“Who knows – his descendants might still live in the area but have no idea that their ancestor is this remarkable man.”