This token illustrates how the lives of ordinary women, men and children in Georgian England were deeply entwined with the history of the British Empire. The origins of colonial expansion were be found in the age of Elizabeth I, but it was during the eighteenth century that Britain was primed to wage war and engage in territorial conquest on a truly global scale. This was made possible through the rise of the Royal Navy, which became the ‘senior service’ among the armed forces, securing Britain as the supreme European imperial power by the end of the eighteenth century.
This Foundling Hospital token for James, ‘son of James Concannon, Gent’ conjures up the image of a seafaring father. The father’s actual whereabouts was unknown at the time that the mother of his child gave up her baby to the care of the Foundling Hospital, but he was ‘late or now’ of Jamaica.
An English colony since the time of Oliver Cromwell, by the mid-eighteenth century Jamaica was at the heart of British colonial interests in the slave trade and sugar production. Plantation owners, British shareholders and merchants grew rich on the profits of African enslaved labour, a lucrative trade jealously safeguarded by the Royal Navy and plied by British merchant vessels.
Was James Concannon a sailor or soldier, or even an officer (which might explain why the token referred to the baby’s father as a ‘Gent’)? An artilleryman of the same name was in service at that time, but this may be a coincidence. A note left with the token gives details of the child’s baptism, which connects him with a couple named James and Elizabeth Concannon.
In 1757, the same year that James Concannon’s infant son was admitted to the Foundling Hospital, a vast army and naval forces had not long been mustered to fight what became the first truly inter-continental war of global significance. What became known in Britain as the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) engaged major European powers in complex and shifting battles and alliances. It was through this war that the foundations were laid for conquest by settlement and by brute force of an empire under British rule which stretched from North America and Canada to the west coast of Africa, and to India and the Far East. In the midst of this monumental global struggle was a young woman, made pregnant by a soldier, sailor or merchant and left without the means to support her child.
Was the mother of pearl token a precious fragment of a love-gift given by the father of her infant, brought from the warm shores of the South Indian Ocean on one of his voyages? Or a luminous shell treasured by the mother, a shiny fragment she lovingly inscribed and gave away with her baby? Maybe the mother-of-pearl had another significance. Did she make buttons for a living, crafting them by hand from this precious and rare material? What was her story? As was the case for so many families in a merciless age of imperial ambition, by accident, force or design, a father could simply board ship and disappear.