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PETER MONCRIEFFE (1811-76)

PETER MONCRIEFFE is, at first glance, a quiet figure in this history of Queens’, briefly mentioned in college records and domestic ledgers after his matriculation as a commoner in 1829, before his migration to Trinity in 1830.

However, Moncrieffe was born in Jamaica, the son of a wealthy planter and slaveholder. Like other West Indian students at Queens’ during this period, the fees paid for his education came directly from his father’s plantations, profiting especially from the Union and Bonham Spring estates, which trafficked and enslaved hundreds of people over decades. At the time of Peter’s matriculation at Queens’, his father held over 400 people in enslavement. Under the Slave Compensation Act of 1837, the elder Moncrieffe claimed around £14,900 for his plantations and assorted slaveholding ventures, and his son was categorised as a wealthy member of the ‘Northside gentry’ of the island. Yet unusually, Moncrieffe and his family were known to be free Jamaicans ‘of colour’, and very likely the descendants of enslaved Africans themselves.

In 1791, Peter Moncrieffe’s grandfather had petitioned the Jamaican Assembly for special privileges to permit his family the ‘same rights and privileges as English subjects, born of white parents’, giving them the opportunity to own slaves and accrue profit. Moncrieffe was not the only Black Jamaican to study at Cambridge during this period. Other wealthy biracial West Indians came to Oxbridge, seeking the prestige of an English education before returning across the Atlantic. Moncrieffe migrated swiftly to Trinity after just a year at Queens’, as Trinity was considered the more socially aspirational college at the time. Despite the ruthlessly enforced racial stratums of the island during this period, Moncrieffe’s father, Benjamin Scott Moncrieffe, was closely integrated with the white planter class, overseeing the plantations of white absentee landlords and building a church in Ocho Rios Bay. Peter Moncrieffe would continue this social ascent – after Cambridge, he moved to London, and was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple, one of the Four Inns of Court, and married Henrietta Cary in Islington in 1840. After his return to the West Indies, Moncrieffe served as a member of the Jamaican Assembly and the Legislative Council, and as a judge, working alongside the upper echelons of the island’s elite.

The Moncrieffes’ position might appear initially contradictory, but it reveals the complex negotiations of the Atlantic world. Peter Moncrieffe’s background is indelibly marked by both the experience of, and participation in, the institution of slavery, demonstrating the tangled bonds of race, opportunity, and ambition in a corrupted hierarchy.

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