© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London | Licence: CC BY-NC-ND
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London | Licence: CC BY-NC-ND

Hermes Barry

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From the Collection


Profile of Hermes Barry with inscription: ‘Hermes Barry, a little Bush boy brought from the Cape of Good Hope by Sir Jahleel Brenton, remarkable for his docility, good humour, gratitude, a love of learning and great progress in knowledge of the Scriptures. About 14 years of age. Dec. 1826.’Hermes Barry was named after Dr James Barry (1775-1865), a British army medical officer serving at the Cape between 1816 and 1828. Details of Hermes Barry’s life are contained in the memoirs of Vice-Admiral Sir Jahleel Brenton (1770-1844), who was appointed commissioner of the Dockland at the Cape in 1813. Dr Barry, who attended Mrs Brenton during her final illness, ‘had rescued this boy, when a mere child, from the tyranny of a Dutch woman, his mistress, who abusing the power which the law gave her over a slave, was about to commit him to prison on account of some trifling theft, which he had been guilty of. Dr Barry, touched with the compassion of the boy’s appearance, ransomed him from slavery, and then glad to consign his purchase to the care of his benevolent patron. The boy thus admitted into Sir Jahleel’s family, gave remarkable evidences of intelligence and quickness’. Hermes accompanied Brenton when he returned home in 1821. ‘With Sir Jahleel this boy came to England, where the peculiarity of his appearance (for of all the sections of the human race, the Bushman most nearly resembles the monkey) attracted general observation; and in his family he remained discharging with correctness the several duties of a domestic servant; subject to no other interruption than that which his vivacity and quickness of temper contrived to draw from the common occurrences of the day.’ ‘After having remained in England, after having acquired and adopted all the usages of civilized life, and apparently overcome his earlier propensities; the irritability of his temper rendered it inconvenient to retain him in the family; and as his health was suffering from the climate of England, it was thought expedient to send him back to the Cape, and to place him in such a situation there, as might maintain the influence of his new habits, and prepare him for future usefulness in the country'. It was rumoured that, upon his return, Hermes ‘had disappeared from the Colony [and] plunged again into the bush’. But Henry Raikes (1782-1854), the editor of Brenton’s memoirs, reported that Hermes was settled ‘in a respectable position’.

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© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

From the Watercolour World


Cape of Good Hope, South Africa