Bus Honours Young African Slave Who Died in Brighton

A Brighton & Hove bus has been named in honour of a young African boy who was rescued from a slave ship in the nineteenth century and later died in Brighton.

Eight-year-old Thomas Highflyer (real name unknown) was rescued from a slave ship, along with two other African boys, by the British anti-slave ship, the HMS Highflyer, in 1866 off the east coast of Zanzibar.

He was named after the boat and the man that rescued him, Captain Thomas MS Pasley.

 When the HMS Highflyer finally docked in Portsmouth in the Autumn of 1868 Tom was sent to Brighton to be educated. He was cared for by the family of a Royal Naval officer and later by the officer’s friend, a retired coastguard, and his wife.

 Tragically, Tom became ill and died of tuberculosis and oedema two years after his arrival in England.

The bus naming coincides with Brighton & Hove Black History Group’s restoration of Tom’s grave and a memorial service held for him today (Wednesday) at Brighton’s Woodvale Crematorium, where he is buried.  

Four children from Tom’s old school, St Mark’s Church of England Primary School in Brighton, travelled to the memorial ceremony on board the new Thomas Highflyer bus to pay their respects to him.

Co-founder of Brighton & Hove Black History Group, Bert Williams, said “Tom died thousands of miles from his birthplace with no record of his real name and a death certificate that said: ‘Son of an African: name unknown’.

He said it was a sad story but also a story of kindness and the abolition of the slave trade, a trade which Britain was complicit in for scores of years.

 “Tom might have lost his African family but he possibly found another one here in Brighton,” Bert said. “We were instrumental in the slave trade and instrumental in stopping it.”

The HMS Highflyer was part of the Royal Navy’s anti-slave West African Squadron following the abolition of slavery across the Empire in 1833 and was likely dispatched by Queen Victoria.

Bert, a member of the Windrush Generation, said it was an honour to have a bus named after Tom and exciting for local children to see it.

 “I think it’s important that we look at what we’ve achieved since 1945 and what we’ve contributed in Europe and England. Everything: music, fashion, language and food. We should celebrate and let the younger people know there were other people before them.”

Bert visited St Marks’ Primary School and spoke to students about Tom before the bus was named. “The kids were beautiful,” he said. “They were proud that he went there and he had a love of cricket. They wanted to know the bus number and they were so excited it was going to pick them up.”

 Bert was surprised when Tom’s grave was found at Woodvale Crematorium in 2015.

 “I was a bit shocked when I read the history and found this little slave boy buried in an English cemetery, especially when he was buried in such a prominent place. I was very touched by it.”

Unfortunately, there is no record of who paid for Tom’s gravestone.