The Variegated Damsel and The Beautiful Spotted Boy

On the 12th of October 1736, on a Jesuit plantation in Cartagena, Columbia a little girl names Mary Sabina was born to the two negro slaves Patrona and Martiniano.

José Gumilla was a priest in charge of the sick on the plantation, and when Mary Sabina was about six months old, he happened to see her when she was with her mother.  He discussed the child’s extraordinary appearance with Patrona.  Mary Sabina had piebaldism, resulting in the astonishing spotted effect visible in the two portraits of her in the gallery.  Patrona put it down to the fact that she had a pet dog of black and white colouring of which she had become fond whilst pregnant.  Gumilla recommended Patrona guard her baby very carefully lest some ignorant person cast the evil eye upon it.

Mary Sabina’s fame rapidly spread.  Piebaldism is a form of partial albinism, usually without the attendant eye problems and skin thickening, rendering piebald individuals both extraordinary to look at, and rather beautiful.  Particularly fascinating, and striking in black piebald individuals are the contrasting patches of black and white hair.  Mary Sabina was undoubtedly a very pretty little girl, as the two images show, but her ultimate fate is unknown.  During her life she became something of a local celebrity in Cartagena, and the owners of one of the ‘English factories’ there sent back her portrait to London, where it now hangs in the Royal College of Surgeons Hall.  She was used as an illustration for Victorian lectures on partial albinism where she was dubbed, ‘Our Little Variegated Damsel’.

It was only a matter of time before some enterprising individual provided London and its insatiable love of freakery with a piebald individual of its own.  In 1808, a little piebald boy was born on St Vincent in the Caribbean.  George Alexander Gratton was the child of two black islanders who shared the surname of Gratton (possibly two slaves on the plantation of a man named Gratton, or they may have been married and free).  As a baby he was apparently shown to spectators for a dollar per person, but at 15 months old he arrived in Bristol, where he ended up on the care of Marlow-born showman John Richardson, who had apparently paid a thousand guineas for George.  The details of this part of his story are hazy enough to be verging on the anecdotal, but there can be no doubt that George ended up in Richardson’s care, and that Richardson had George baptized at Newington Church in Surrey on the 22nd of July, 1810.

George was shown throughout London, and England for the next few years as ‘The Beautiful Spotted Boy’, or the ‘Spotted Negro of Renown’.  The piebald dog theory (no doubt drawn from Patrona’s own 80 years before) makes an appearance in the pictures of George, who looks to be a lovely baby.  The similarity in the markings on his body show it is the same boy.  He died in 1813, of ‘a gathering’ about the jaw, which perhaps was a facial tumour his condition predisposed him to.  Richardson had done well out of his purchase, and if his treatment of George in death mirrored his treatment of the boy in life, perhaps little George Alexander Gratton’s short existence was not so very bad:  Richardson had George buried in Richardson’s own plot at the All Saints Church on The Causeway in Marlow, and had an attractive and dignified headstone fashioned for him.  He was later buried with George, and his own headstone placed behind that of his ‘Beautiful Spotted Boy’, where they remain today.

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2 thoughts on “The Variegated Damsel and The Beautiful Spotted Boy

  1. Lucy Inglis

    Just a short story today, because of the dreaded ‘flu, but quite a sweet one. I wish someone would do some more work on Mary Sabina, but I don’t think Columbia records are up to it. The Caribbean ones are excellent though.

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