The first Black person to be knighted in Britain more than a century ago was born in Barbados

Emmanuel Kwarteng October 05, 2022
Queen Victoria. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

William Conrad Reeves, a Barbados native, received a knighthood from Queen Victoria on January 28, 1889. Reeves was the first Black person to be knighted in Britain, as far as it’s known. Reeves once worked as a journalist for a newspaper.

According to the Knights of The Realm & Commonwealth Index, which keeps track of the list of knights, Reeves was born in Barbados in 1821. Many birth dates, some as late as 1838, are provided by other sources. His age of 31, as reported in the 1861 census, is the basis for the 1829 or 1830 birth year assertion. 

Thomas Phillipps Reeves, a white doctor, a bachelor and a prominent member of Bridgetown’s plantation society—the nation’s capital and the center of Barbados’ sugarcane industry—was Reeves’ father.

His mother was Peggy Phillis, who was referred to as a “free mulatto” or a “free person of color” in various sources. The connection between Thomas and Peggy, who were not married, appears to have been brief. 

Nevertheless, William adopted his father’s last name, as was frequently the case in the Caribbean during the colonial era with the illegitimate children of white fathers. The fact that his father’s single sister had an interest in his upbringing and schooling made paternity obvious.

Reeves began his career in journalism after graduating from high school by working for small island journals. He was later given a scholarship to study law in England. He was enrolled at Middle Temple, one of London’s four Inns of Court.

Reeves’ career as a lawyer flourished, and he went on to take leadership posts in St. Vincent and subsequently in his native Barbados, where he served as Attorney-General in 1882 and Chief Justice in 1886. In 1889, Queen Victoria knighted him while he was still the Chief Justice of Barbados.

The honors system in Britain comes with The Most Noble Order of the Garter, which is appointed directly by the queen, at the top, followed by the Most Excellent Orders of the British Empire, which are further divided into the GBE, KBE, CBE, OBE, and MBE, and the Order of the Companion of Honour (both appointed by the government). The Knights Bachelor, conferred for public service, follows.

First black chief justice

Reeves made a name for himself when speaking for Saint Joseph in the Barbados House of Assembly in Bridgetown. In order to finance his time in the United Kingdom, when he entered Middle Temple and left as a lawyer in 1863, he received assistance from monies raised by the colored community. He became St. Vincent’s attorney general upon his return to the West Indies, and in 1875 he was named Barbados’ solicitor general before serving as the island nation of Barbados’ attorney general from 1882 to 1886. In 1883, he was admitted to the Queen’s Counsel. From 1886 until his death, he served as the island’s first Black chief justice, a significant accomplishment in the West Indies’ judicial system at the time.

Reeves and journalism

Reeves had a passion for writing as a child, and his headmaster—who was also the editor of the NEW TIMES—had greatly supported him in this area. Up to eight newspapers were prospering at the time. 

Reeves had already produced a number of articles and letters before turning twenty-one for the NEW TIMES, the LIBERAL, and the GLOBE, whose publisher Andrew Drinan is reported to “have given him many marks of favor.” He was later given a spot on the staff of the LIBERAL.

Reeves died on January 5, 1902.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: October 6, 2022


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