Black Britannia

In his survey of British history through ceramics, Henry Willett included pieces showing the changing roles of black people in Britain. This exhibition marked those changes and saluted some Black celebrities in many fields.

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Black People in Britain

There are records of black visitors to these shores from the time of the Roman occupation. The continuous history of black people in Britain dates from the mid-16th century and the beginning of the slave trade. Queen Elizabeth I tried to prevent wealthy traders and landowners from having black servants while she kept several at court.

The numbers of black people steadily increased during the 17th and 18th centuries. Young slaves were in demand as household servants. They were popular with officers from slave ships and with West Indian planters who wished to continue the privileged way of life they had enjoyed in the colonies. Little black pageboys in fancy clothes were fashionable status symbols for upper-class families. They became less desirable when they grew up and were often ill-treated and abandoned.

Hogarth - A Harlots Progress (detail)
Hogarth – A Harlots Progress (detail)
Hogarth - Southwark Fair (detail)
Hogarth – Southwark Fair (detail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few black people arrived in England as members of the armed forces. Some had joined ships as sailors while others served in the American War of Independence. After the Peace of 1783, many came to London, were unable to find work and joined the distressed poor. Black beggars were known as St Giles blackbirds.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta; as a child given as a gift by the King of Dahomey to Captain Frederick Forbes RN.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta; as a child given as a gift by the King of Dahomey to Captain Frederick Forbes RN.

 

The legal position of black people who had been brought to Britain as slaves remained uncertain until slavery was abolished in 1833. The Church played an important role in the fight against slavery since it was popularly believed that baptism set a slave free. But several court cases failed to resolve the question of whether a West Indian slave became free in England. The Somersett Case of 1772 ruled that a slave could not be deported to the West Indies against his or her will and was widely regarded as the abolition of slavery in Britain. The solution for many black people, however, was self-emancipation or running away.

Slavery and Abolition

Britain along with other European countries, was the lynchpin of the triangular trade. African people were torn from their homelands and committed to forced labour in British sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean. Ships began their journey in London, Bristol or Liverpool loaded with guns, beads, textiles and artillery. In West Africa these goods were exchanged for a human cargo of Africans who had been kidnapped or captured in war.

Diagram showing the packing of slaves in the Liverpool ship Brookes
Diagram showing the packing of slaves
in the Liverpool ship Brookes

 

They then embarked on the notorious Middle Passage to the West Indies. Conditions on board were cruel and inhumane. Branded and shackled, men and women were packed together on deck and in the holds. So small was the space allowed to each, they had not so much room as a man in a coffin. Between twelve and twenty million Africans were transported in this way, as many as a million died in transit. On arriving in the colonies, the surviving captives were sold as slaves at public auctions. The ships then returned to Britain with cargoes of sugar, spices, rum and tobacco.

 

 

During the 18th century the slave trade dominated the British economy. It supplied fashionable society with sugar, chocolate, coffee and tea to consume, American cotton clothing to wear and tobacco to smoke. It created fortunes for individual absentee plantation owners and encouraged the expansion of trade and industry in the Midlands and Northwest England, the heartland of the Industrial Revolution.

The right to buy and sell human beings went largely unchallenged in Britain until the late 18th century. Its moral justification depended on a refusal to recognise black people as human beings. From about 1783 abolitionists investigated and publicised the inhumanity of slavery using mass-produced objects, such as printed pottery to advertise the cause. The testimony of former slaves horrified the public. Britains working classes had also begun to find a political voice and used it in defence of their black brothers and sisters, sending over 100 petitions to parliament in 1788 alone. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slaves in British colonies were granted emancipation from 1834. Slavery continued in the United States for another 30 years.

Abolition was achieved not only by means of the white conscience but also through the resistance of Africans. On the slave ships men, women and children tried to throw themselves overboard and refused to eat or exercise. On plantations many deliberately worked slowly, feigned illness, broke tools and ran away. Between 1638 and 1837 there were at least seventy-eight slave uprisings in the British West Indies. Plantation owners realised that it made sound economic sense to hire labour when needed, rather than support a large captive work force.

Black Celebrities

Those black people who found employment in 18th Century London became domestic servants, soldiers and sailors, classical and street musicians, actresses, street salesmen and, if all else failed, prostitutes, beggars, thieves and highwaymen. Some achieved fame in these fields and a few won recognition for their achievements on an equal footing with their white compatriots.

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In his will, Dr. Johnson left £70 to his black servant, Francis Barber (who was born in Jamaica in 1735) who became a schoolmaster. Ignatius Sancho, who was born on a slave ship in 1729, wrote poetry and plays while employed as butler to the Duke of Montagu and was a friend of Dr Johnson, David Garrick and Laurence Sterne. Olaudah Equiano was born in Nigeria around 1745, was kidnapped and sold as a slave and eventually became a black political leader and an early champion of civil rights. The musical prodigy George Bridgtower (born around 1779), performed for many years as principal violinist in the Prince of Wales band at the Royal Pavilion. Beethoven originally dedicated the Kreutzer sonata to him before they quarrelled.

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Billy Waters had served as a sailor and lost his leg before becoming a street musician, playing his fiddle for visitors to the Drury Lane Theatre. He was elected King of the Beggars shortly before his death in 1823. He was one of several black personalities featured by Pierce Egan in Life in London (pub.1821), illustrated by George Cruikshank. Others included African Sal, her baby Mungo and Massa Piebald, another ex-sailor turned beggar whose real name was Charles MGee.

 

Black sportsmen excelled at prize-fighting. Bill Richmond was born in New York in 1763 and came to Britain as a servant in 1777. He became a successful boxer, married well and retired to run The Horse and Dolphin, a fashionable tavern near Leicester Square. He trained several champions, including the American Thomas Molineaux. Other famous pugilists included Massa Kendrick and James Wharton. Prize-fighting and its promotion offered one of the few opportunities for black people to acquire wealth and social status.

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