Black Personalities in Georgian England
Paul Edwards traces the leading black figures of the period.
Since many of the black people in Britain in the eighteenth century were employed in titled and wealthy households, a kind of education became necessary for them, and was often provided. But education was also available to servants working at humbler levels – thus of the two principal African writers of the period, one Ignatius Sancho became in his teens the protege of the Duke and Duchess of Montagu who provided him with books and educational opportunities as well as work in their household, while the other, Olaudah Equiano, slave to a British naval officer, gained much of his early education in schools aboard warships, and tuition given him by friendly fellow-seamen.
For men such as these there was an opportunity for social advancement, even more marked in the next generation, which must have worked against the formation of any long-lasting black community. Undoubtedly the nucleus of such a community could be found in the late eighteenth century, as long as the issue of abolition offered a rallying point, with Equiano as the leading black spokesman; but the trend was towards assimilation. Sancho had been born on a slave ship, was orphaned and sold to service in London by the age of three, but he ended up with a reasonably prosperous grocer's shop in Mayfair, and his son William became a librarian working for Sir Joseph Banks. Equiano, taken as a slave at the age of eleven, bought back his freedom while still a teenager by ingenious small-trading, and was able to leave in his will enough to provide his surviving daughter Johanna with a sound upbringing and, on her twenty-first birthday, the sum of nearly £1,000. Dr Johnson's servant, Francis Barber, married a white woman, (as did Equiano and many other black residents), and his son Samuel became a well-known Methodist preacher. And the life of John Ystumllyn might resemble that of many an African servant in eighteenth-century Britain.
John was kidnapped from his West African home by a Welshman around the year 1750. On his arrival in Wales, John was said to speak 'no proper language: he could only utter doglike howls and screams'. He was taught English and Welsh 'by the ladies', was employed as a gardener, and married one of the maidservants in 1768 at Dolgellau Church, his best man being 'Gruffydd Williams, Eisteddfa, the son of the Rev. R. Gruffydd, B.A., the Vicar of Cricciety and Ynys'. He was appointed Steward at a nearby mansion house, taking the surname of' Jones, and he and his wife Margaret brought up a large family. His elder daughter, Ann, married a Liverpool musician and seller of musical instruments, and one of his sons, Richard, was huntsman to Lord Newborough.'He was a tall, placid man, and used to wear a top hat, velvet jacket and a high white collar'. He died age ninety-two in 1862, and was buried at Llandwrog, where his descendants were said to be still living in the late nineteenth century, despite 'his great wish to be buried in his father's grave at Ynyscynhaiarn'.
Before the second half of the eighteenth century Africans in Britain tended to be at most anonymous figures in the portraits of the ladies and gentlemen they served. But in the latter half of the century, a number begin to emerge as distinct personalities, over a fairly wide social range. Ignatius Sancho wrote a letter to Sterne in 1766 on the subject of his response to the description of a black girl in Tristram Shandy . Sterne replied, the correspondence was published, and Sancho became a popular figure overnight. There were two sorts of changing circumstances at work here: there was Granville Sharp's series of cases against slave-owners in the 1760s, leading to the Mansfield Decision of 1772, which rallied liberal opinion and black self-help; but Sancho's letter also appealed powerfully to the sentimental literary spirit of the period. Nor was the favourite of the Duchess of Queensberry, Soubise, content to stay in the background. She gave him a training in the social graces – conversation, fencing, horsemanship, he was an expert in them all – and his display of them soon established him as a man to be envied. Though he was to be packed off to India in disgrace and die in a fall from a horse, causing scarcely a ripple, there was nothing anonymous about his life in London and the scandals and jests that accumulate about his name. The social position of many black people was noted by Dr Johnson's friend, Hester Thrale (Mrs Piozzi) in one of her letters:
Well! I am really haunted by black shadows . Men of colour in the rank of gentlemen: a black Lady, covered with finery, in the Pit at the Opera, and tawny children playing the Squares, – the gardens of the Squares I mean, – with their Nurses, afford ample proofs that Hannah More and Mr Wilberforce's success in breaking down the walls of separation . Oh! how it falls on every side! and spreads its tumbling ruins on the world! leaving all ranks, all custom, all colours, all religions, jumbled together .
Sancho made the same point in one of his letters rather more enthusiastically:
We will mix, my boy, with all countries, colours, faiths – see the countless multitudes of the first world – the myriads descended from the Ark – the Patriarchs – Sages – Prophets – and Heroes! My head turns round with the vast idea! – We will mingle with them and to [sic] untwist the vast chain of blessed Providince – which puzzles and baffles human understanding.
But it was a Christian mixture, often manifesting the best of European human values along with scholarly science and learning. One finds in this society numbers of black ladies and gentlemen presented as equal in natural virtue and in artistic or academic talent to the civilised men of Europe: Job ben Solomon, taken as a slave but discovered to be the son of a High Priest, and a scholar of Arabic; Phyllis Wheatley, servant to the Wheatley family of Boston, enslaved at the age of eight, who without more than informal instruction was said to have learned English to perfection in just over a year, and to have become fluent in French and competent in Latin, as well as writing English verse of considerable merit; John Baptist Philip, a native of Trindad, who graduated from Edinburgh University as Doctor of Medicine in 1815; or John Henry Naimbanna, the African Prince, who impressed all with his courtesy, gentleness and intelligence, and was only once known to become enraged, when someone spoke slightingly of his native country and its inhabitants. Such people as these were to be found in the most elevated company. Job ben Solomon was elected in 1734 to the scholarly Spalding Society whose membership had included Newton and Pope, was received at Court and presented by the Queen with a gold watch; and when Phyllis Wheatley travelled to Britain in 1773 as companion to a son of the Wheatley family, she was assisted by the Countess of Huntingdon 'in meeting many notable members of the English society of her day.... in this company, her ability as an exceptional conversationalist gained her both favour and presents', among them a fine folio edition of Paradise Lost presented by the Lord Mayor of London, and, from the Earl of Dartmouth, Smollett's translation of Don Quixote .
Many Africans in Britain learned to play musical instruments, for pleasure and as a means to earn a living, and numbers of them were employed throughout the country as bandsmen. One group formed a band which played at an all-black ball, tickets costing five shillings apiece, and no whites admitted. There was one quite exceptional black musician of the period, George Polgreen Bridgetower, a violinist for whom Beethoven composed the Kreutzer sonata. Bridgetower was born in 1779 in Poland, of an African father and Polish or German mother. His father, who appears to have been a great showman, brought him to London at the age of ten, and there he soon gained a name for his virtuoso performances. He played in several concerts in the company of Haydn, and the Prince of Wales became his leading patron. He stayed ten years in England, and it was in London that his reputation was initially made.
But there were black musicians gaining a reputation at less elevated levels, among them a violinist, or 'gut-scraper' as he preferred to be called, Black Billy Waters. He was one of the many black beggars on the streets of London. The black beggars were said to have all the best pitches, and to be so successful that white men were known to blacken themselves to improve their takings. Billy Waters had a pitch outside the Adelphi Theatre in the Strand, where with his well-known feathered hat and wooden leg he gained 'what he termed to be an honest living by the scraping of cat-gut, by which he amassed a considerable portion of browne (ie halfpennies)... He lost his leg in His Majesty's service, for which he received a pension. Every child in London knew him. A short time before he died (1823) he was elected King of the Beggars.' Billy appeared on stage at the Adelphi playing the part of himself in the highly successful musical play based on Pierce Egan's Life in London , and his likeness was made available in the form of Staffordshire china figures. His son probably went on to a less stable future than some of the descendants mentioned earlier, if he followed his father's advice in the broadsheet The Death, Funeral and Last Will of Black Billy :
Now, I do advise my little son,
If he should live to be a man,
To do just as his daddy's done,
And drink good gin whene'er he can.
Employed well below Billy's level in the entertainment business, a number of freaks were on display, notably Saartjie Bartmans, the Hottentot Venus; Amelia Lewsam or Newsham, called Harlequin, the White Negro Woman; and George Alexander Gratton, the Beautiful Spotted Negro Boy. The Hottentot Venus was brought from South Africa with promises that she would make a fortune by putting her body, with its prodigious buttocks, on display to the public. She was monstrously exploited, despite the efforts of abolitionists to have her released on a writ of habeas corpus in 1810 (three years after the parliamentary bill which banned. the slave-trade); she herself declared that 'she did not wish to go home as she liked this country, and was very kindly treated by her Keeper, who gave her money, and took her out riding in a coach on Sunday, which she liked very much'. But she died an alcoholic in 1815 in Paris, where her skeleton and a plaster cast of her body remain in the Musée de l'Homme. George Alexander Gratton was the property of John Richardson, an impresario famous for his freak-shows at Bartholomew Fair. He was first advertised at the age of ten months, as 'a display of the wonderful works of God, being beautifully covered over with a diversity of spots, of the most beautiful black and transparent brown and white, of commanding angel-like features'. He died aged slightly less than five, and was buried in Great Marlow Churchyard under a stone 'erected by his only Friend and Guardian, Mr John Richardson of London'. Richardson felt such affection for the child that in his will he asked to be buried in the same grave.
There were also several black boxers, two of whom – Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux – achieved a major reputation in their time. Both men came to Britain from America and are described in Pierce Egan's Boxiana , which gives a lively and sympathetic account of their careers and principal bouts. Richmond emerges as a particularly attractive figure. He became a publican in London, and was well-known too as a cricketer, running a gymnasium in the Haymarket attended by all who admired boxing skills. Egan is enthusiastic in his praise. 'In being a Man of Colour', he writes, 'from the taunts and insults which he has received upon that account, particularly in his capacity as a publican, when he kept the Horse and Dolphin, Richmond must be considered good-tempered and placid, even to a degree that could not be expected'. Once, while escorting a young white woman through the streets of York, Richmond was
accosted by one Frank Myers, with the epithets of 'black devil' etc. and who otherwise insulted the young woman for being in company with a man of colour . Bill, full of gallantry, and with a becoming spirit of indignation, requested him to desist for the present moment, but to meet him at the Groves on the next Monday morning, when they would settle this difference... Richmond soon taught him very properly to acknowledge, that it was wrong, and beneath the character of an Englishman, to abuse any individual for that he could not help – either on account of his Country or his colour . Myers, very properly, received a complete milling .
Molineaux is remembered particularly for the first of his two fights for the Championship of England against Tom Crib, on December 18th, 1810, which went to thirty-four bloody rounds before a fiercely partisan crowd. Egan comments: 'considering all the disadvantages under which Molineaux fought this battle, he performed wonders. It is not meant to be urged that Molineaux had not fair play throughout the fight in the ring – it is well known that he had – but the Black had to contend against a prejudiced multitude; the pugilistic honour of the country was at stake'. Still, some glimmer of sportsmanship shines through the Ballad of Crib and the Black :
Ye swells, ye flash, ye milling coves , who this hard fight see,
Let us drink to these heroes, come join along with me;
A bumper to brave Crib, boys – to the
Black a bumper too,
Tho' beat, he prov'd a man, my boys, what more could a man do.
The only body of opinion that could be called unambiguously racist was that of the planters in their pamphleteering war against the abolitionists. The attitudes of both black and white seem generally to have been perplexed and changeable, and though we have Sancho complaining to Soubise about the 'ill-bred and heart-racking abuse of the foolish vulgar', these complaints occur in a letter praising Soubise's patrons, 'thy almost divine benefactors'. Sir John Fielding, the magistrate, had his complaints too, about how well blacks pursued by the law were received and aided by 'the mob'. For a view from the eye of a perceptive and articulate African, the reader might turn to Olaudah Equiano's extraordinary autobiography, published in 1789, in which Equiano takes us through his childhood in Ibo, his capture and enslavement, and his adventures as a seaman in peace and war. But what is most important is how he reveals his own perplexity in coping with the contrary impulses he experiences towards his white 'masters' and friends.
The case of David Spens is also much to the point. He was a runaway from his West Indian owner who was on a visit to Scotland. He took work with a farmer in Fife and was baptised David Spens by the local minister, whose name was Harry Spens. Efforts were made to reclaim him, but the miners and salters of the district who were little more than slaves themselves collected funds to pay Edinburgh lawyers to defend him. To the lawyers' credit they refused a fee, David won his freedom, and settled down in the parish of Wemyss working for the farmer who had befriended him. Not all stories had such a happy ending, but this one illustrates a degree of popular sympathy to be found at all levels of society.
One final example, of a young black actress, demonstrates how we might hesitate to take literally what must appear at first sight evidence of race prejudice. In his History of the Scottish Theatre , the eighteenth-century theatrical manager John Jackson finds it comical that an agent should try to find employment for a young black actress, despite claims that 'she was not only excellent as to figure, and speaking, but remarkably so as to singing'. One of Jackson's friends counters with a burst of wit:
'Oh, no matter', replied the humorist; 'we will introduce the Roman fashion: the lady shall wear a MASK.'
Jackson goes on to say that he has seen the girl perform Polly in The Beggars' Opera :
I could not help observing to my friend in the pit, when Macheath addressed her with 'Pretty Polly, say', that it would have been more germain to the matter had he changed the phrase to 'Sooty Polly, say'.
Jackson also exercises his wit on the fact that the girl had recently played Juliet, 'when doubtless her Romeo most feelingly recited "Her beauty hangs upon the cheek of night,/Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear".' Yet before we put this down as an illustration of complacent prejudice, we might consider the story as evidence that, whatever Jackson may have thought, a young black girl could, in the 1770s play the parts of Polly and Juliet in a travelling company, irrespective of her colour, and simply on the grounds of her excellent appearance and singing voice.