A portrait of Thomas Highflyer by Ludovic Foster, 2018.

The East African slave trade: Examination of captured slaves in the British Consul-General’s court at Zanzibar. Published in ‘The London Illustrated News’, 17 December, 1881.  Part of the Michael Graham-Stewart slavery collection.

Zanzibar slave dhow

Who was Tom Malcolm Sabine Highflyer?

There are many unanswered questions about how a young African boy rescued from a slave ship came to be buried in a graveyard in Brighton in 1870.

Tom Highflyer along with two other boys were rescued from a slave Dhow in 1866 by Captain Thomas Malcolm Sabine Pasley of the Royal Navy’s East African Anti-Slave Trade Squadron. Tom was about 8 or 9 years old when rescued.

The London Standard – Tuesday 1st September 1868 reported the news that,

“Captain TMS Pasley of the HMS Highflyer captured slave dhow for which prize money is about to be distributed and three African boys all were found on board the dhow have been brought to England and will, we hear, be well cared for by some of the officers. They had become great favourite on board and had been named respectively Tom Highflyer, Sam Oldfield, and Bob Dhow.”

This newspaper clipping helps to give a better understanding of the circumstances in which Tom was brought to England. It tells us that Tom was named after Captain Thomas Malcolm Sabine Pasley (1829 to 1870).

The other boys that sailed to England with Tom were also given names connecting them to their rescuers. Sam Oldfield was possibly named after a naval officer aboard the HMS Highflyer, and Bob Dhow, receiving his name from the type of ship from which they were rescued from.

We do not yet know what became of Sam and Bob and very little is known about what happened to Tom after he arrived in England in 1868 after spending two years at sea. But we do have some information about his short life because Tom was documented in the Brighton parish registry.

When he died aged about 12 or 13 he was given quite an expensive and elaborate gravestone that would have been more usual for a person of a higher status. That he was given such a dignified burial and to be remembered in such a way tells something about the esteem that Tom was obviously held in by those who were caring for him. Someone had clearly loved Tom Highflyer.

There are many parallels between Tom’s story and that of Sarah Forbes Bonetta who was rescued by a Naval Captain and given as a gift to Queen Victoria.


Our educational specialist has created free resources for teachers to use in the classroom to explore the story of Thomas’s life from a historical perspective. They are designed to inspire and educate young minds ages 10/11 (Key Stage 2) and age 14 (Key Stage 3).



The project aims to honour the life of an African slave boy who lived and died in Brighton 148 years ago. Initiated by Brighton & Hove Black History in partnership with Brighton & Hove City Council and Woodvale Cemetery and funded by Heritage Lottery Fund.