DECADES after slavery was supposedly abolished in the British Empire, the practice continued across the world.

East Africa was a particular hotspot. Thousands of Africans were removed from their homes and taken to India or the Arab world.

One of those was Tom Highflyer, a slave boy freed and named by sailors on the HMS Highflyer.

So how did he end up buried in a Brighton cemetery?

Sam Brooke spoke to Brighton and Hove Black History’s Bert Williams and Suchi Chatterjee about their mission to trace Tom’s history

IT ALL started in 2014 when someone noticed an overgrown grave on the slope of a hill in Woodvale Cemetery, Brighton, and sent a picture of it to historian Bert Williams.

Luckily, the writing was still readable.

The Argus: Tom Highflyer's grave in Woodvale Cemetery, now cleanedTom Highflyer's grave in Woodvale Cemetery, now cleaned

“In memory of Tom M S Highflyer,” it read.

“Rescued from a slave dhow August 24 1866. Baptised by his own request at Brighton March 30 1870. Died at Brighton June 20 1870.

“Supposed to be about 12 years old.”

“It told you his whole life story in just a few words,” said Bert, president of Brighton and Hove Black History. “There weren’t many slaves in Brighton but there were a lot of slave owners. When King George was here, it was the place to be.

“Your imagination just runs wild from there.”

Bert and fellow historian Suchi Chatterjee looked in the cemetery register and found Tom had lived with Henry and Eliza Thompson of 19 Great College Street, Brighton.

The discovery soon set Bert and Suchi on a paper trail to The Keep archive at Falmer where they found Tom’s death certificate. The document could not have been more clear: “Son of an African, name unknown.”

Tom’s given name was a mix of the ship which had freed him and the captain who kept him on as a cabin boy.

The Argus: Tom's death certificate, found in The KeepTom's death certificate, found in The Keep

“Slavery was abolished in 1807 but it was still going on in 1866,” Bert said.

“It was mostly happening on the east coast of Africa, where Africans were taken to India or the Middle East.”

“The HMS Highflyer was part of the East Africa Anti-Slave Trade Squadron,” said Suchi. “So when it came across the slave dhow in 1866 the 156 boys on board were rescued and the dhow was sunk.”

Most of the slaves were dropped off at the nearest port, many ending up re-enslaved. But Tom was kept on alongside two other boys from the dhow. He was named Thomas Malcolm Sabine Highflyer, after the ship and its captain Thomas Malcolm Sabine Pasley.

This was common practice at the time. Sara Forbes Bonetta, a freed slave girl who became Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, was named on the same principles “Tom was a great favourite on board and he learned to speak English,” Bert said.

“The HMS Highflyer had 274 ratings on board. 20 boys who would usually run errands. It was surprising the number of black boys working on the ship and being paid.

“There was even a teacher and a vicar on the ship.”

The Argus: The Woodvale Cemtery register of gravesThe Woodvale Cemtery register of graves

Tom served with Captain Pasley for two years. His tenure even included an international incident. Princess Salama bint Said of Zanzibar fled her sultan father aboard the Highflyer in August 1866 having fallen pregnant by a German merchant.

When the ship docked in Portsmouth in September 1868, the London Evening Standard reported: “Three African boys all were found on board the dhow [and] have been brought to England.

“They had become great favourites on board and had been named respectively Tom Highflyer, Sam Oldfield and Bob Dhow.”

Tom was set to be trained as a servant. But retired Coastguard Henry Thompson and his wife Eliza took a liking to him. They became his guardians and took him to their lodging house in Great College Street.

“From what we could tell he was really loved,” Bert said.

The Argus: Tom was christened in All Souls Church in Eastern RoadTom was christened in All Souls Church in Eastern Road

He was christened in All Souls Church in Eastern Road and went to St Mark’s School. He enjoyed playing cricket and could always be seen with a bat in hand. But at the tender age of 12 he died of tuberculosis and dropsy.

In 2018 Tom’s grave was cleaned and a service was held. St Mark’s pupils read poems.

“It was quite emotional,” Bert said.

“The children were asking really personal things, things we’d never thought of. One girl asked if Tom missed his parents. She was from Romania and said she knew how he must have felt.”

Naturally Bert, Suchi and others researching Tom became attached to him.

“I came to England as a 16-year-old from the mountains of Jamaica,” Bert said.

“I know what it’s like coming to the modern world all of a sudden. I could imagine him looking at the Royal Pavilion and being amazed just like I was.”

“But we’ve never known his birth name,” Suchi said.

“We never even knew where he was from,” adds Bert.

Bert and Suchi are holding an online talk on Friday about Tom’s life. To buy tickets, visit: