At the Hop

Sukhdev Sandhu

  • Black England: Life before Emancipation by Gretchen Gerzina
    Murray, 244 pp, £19.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 7195 5251 6
  • Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain 1780-1830 by Norma Myers
    Cass, 162 pp, £27.50, July 1996, ISBN 0 7146 4576 1

The ten thousand blacks in London in the 18th century had a visibility and presence completely out of proportion to their numbers. They featured in the prints of Hogarth, Cruikshank and Gillray; their heads were pictured on countless tradesmen’s cards; they appeared in advertisements (‘Ah Massa, if I am continued in your service, dat will be ample reward for Scipio bring good news to you of Packwood’s new invention that will move tings with a touch’) and they themselves were advertised: ‘To be SOLD. A Black Girl, the Property of John Bull, Eleven Years of Age, who is extremely handy, works at her Needle tolerably, and speaks English perfectly well. Enquire of Mrs Owen, at the Angel Inn, behind St Clement’s Church, the Strand.’ Huge, ornate images of negroes were displayed outside shops, taverns and coffeehouses, many of which bore names such as the Blackamoor’s Head. Thanks to its blacks London had an air of vibrant cosmopolitanism that attracted the young Wordsworth, for example, emerging from three years of blanched provincialism at Cambridge:

Now homeward through the thickening hubbub ...
The Hunter-Indian; Moors
Malays, Lascars, the Tartar, the Chinese
And Negro Ladies in white muslin Gowns.

By the 19th century, however, little mention was made of black people in the London press. Many had run away from their masters to lead anonymous, fugitive lives. Some died of poverty or went to sea; some were transported to America or, more commonly, Australia. Others had moved to different parts of Britain. The custom of giving Africans garish or geo-specific names like Mungo, Pompey or Black London gradually died out and hundreds remain undetected in parish registers. In any case, after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, blacks ceased to be either topical or fashionable and remained largely ignored until the docking of the Empire Windrush in 1948 and the beginnings of postwar immigration.

It was in the wake of increased immigration that academics started taking an interest in the history of blacks in Britain. In the Sixties, Paul Edwards, originally a specialist in Old Icelandic, produced editions of the two most important African-British writers of the 18th century, Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano. In the Seventies, the Black Power movement’s insistence on the need for black people to be aware of their own heritage, and the huge international success of Alex Haley’s Roots, intensified interest in the subject. Then came the Brixton Riots of 1981. The first International Conference on the History of Blacks in Britain was held in the same year, at the University of London. Studies by Peter Fryer, James Walvin and David Dabydeen appeared in the next few years. Fryer, whose Staying Power is still the most detailed – and most often consulted – account of the subject, gave more than two hundred talks and lectures at adult education centres, schools and public meetings around the country. Local councils began to fund oral history and ethnic workshops; universities set up courses structured around the books of black British writers and uncovering evidence that slavery existed here as well as in the colonies.

Despite the titles of Norma Myers’s and Gretchen Gerzina’s contributions to this new historiography, both deal mainly with metropolitan black history (Black London was the title of the American edition of Gerzina’s book). Neither writer refers to Gory, the black manservant of Lord Monboddo, whom Johnson and Boswell encountered on their 1773 tour of the Hebrides, or Pablo Fanque (a.k.a. William Darby), the acrobat and North of England circus proprietor. We still don’t know how successfully black people integrated with their local communities in towns like Leicester, Greenock and Newcastle.

Gerzina writes attractively and avoids the kind of jargon that mars much literary and historical research on this subject (it is possible to find slavery referred to as ‘an extra-discursive operation’). She also has a keen eye for detail, as is shown in her account of the night two Africans, one of them recently enslaved, attended Thomas Southerne’s dramatisation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko at Drury Lane: ‘The young men received a standing ovation as they entered, and during Oroonoko’s final speech, all eyes were on them as much as on the actors. The recent captives wept at the play’s conclusion, but the audience wept even more in watching them do so.’ The passage works against the tendency to excoriate 18th-century sentimentalism on the grounds that it was interested in distress merely as a conceit. We should not assume that sentimentalism stood in the way of genuine feeling or practical philanthropic action on behalf of those who were socially beleaguered.

In other respects, however, Gerzina’s book reads like the last gasp of what might be called the ‘heroic’ mode of black British historiography. It’s an approach characterised by didacticism, a tendency to condemn people who lived two hundred years ago on the grounds that they were insufficiently enlightened by today’s notions of racial tolerance and the avoidance of all facts which would sit uneasily with such judgments. Her aim is to ‘reconstruct London, and indeed the entire country, by altering our vision’, but she weakens her case by pointless exaggerations, claiming, for instance, that black people were as numerous in Elizabethan times as they were in the middle of the 18th century. There are also a number of factual errors: the first work of black British autobiography, that of Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, was published in 1772, 42 years before the date given by Gerzina; Ignatius Sancho could not have written to Sterne in 1776 as the latter had already been dead for eight years.

A good example of Gerzina’s unhelpful polemicism is her account of the 1786 scheme to resettle hundreds of London’s black poor in Sierra Leone. Following the War of Independence, many hundreds of black Americans who had been promised liberty in return for supporting the Loyalist cause fled to London. Lacking money and education, many starved or froze to death on the city’s streets. Their plight attracted widespread public sympathy and money for food and relief was contributed by all sections of society. The philanthropists and abolitionist Evangelicals who sat on the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor decided that the best long-term solution for their charges was to offer them assisted passage out of England. Influenced by the naturalist Henry Smeathman’s arguments that Sierra Leone offered warmth, a fertile climate and a fine harbour, the Committee arranged for the blacks to be sent there. Many of its members were keen for the black settlers to have an opportunity to run their own community. This, they believed, would be an effective rejoinder to the anti-abolitionists who claimed Africans were incapable of self-government. After months of delay and prevarication, 459 passengers finally set sail in April 1787. Unfortunately they arrived at the start of the rainy season; about a third died, and the rest quarrelled with their African neighbours, who burned down their settlement.

Clearly, there is much that could be criticised about the scheme: mediocre officials, inadequate provisions and a general tendency to underestimate the health implications of moving to such a fierce foreign climate. But Gerzina fails to supply evidence for her assertion that the Government was motivated by ‘racism and a certain amount of xenophobia’. As Stephen Braidwood has pointed out in Black Poor and White Philanthropists, it was a voluntary scheme. If London’s black poor were as canny and had community networks as well-established as Gerzina claims, why did they opt for the ‘deadly trap’ of Sierra Leone? Why, given the choice, did only 67 choose the more temperate climes of New Brunswick? So eager is Gerzina to find scapegoats that she endorses the sanctimonious Anna Maria Falconbridge’s claim that white prostitutes were plied with drink in order to accompany ‘probably unwilling slaves’ aboard the ships to Africa.

Perhaps most disappointing, however, is Gerzina’s limited interest in the lives of the black figures she writes about. A good example is her treatment of Ignatius Sancho, whose collected letters were posthumously published in 1782, attracting nearly 1200 subscribers and selling out its first edition in months. Sancho was born in 1729 on board a slave ship sailing to the Spanish West Indies. His mother soon fell sick and died; his father committed suicide. At the age of two he was brought to Greenwich and looked after by three sisters, who gave him the surname ‘Sancho’, thinking he looked like Cervantes’s comic anti-hero. Sancho was fortunate to find a patron in John, second Duke of Montagu, who lived nearby in Blackheath, and had been known to rescue from penury complete strangers he found wandering in St James’s Park. Against the wishes of the sisters, the Duke insisted on helping Sancho learn about music and literature, and to this end presented the young African with gifts of books. Yet this was the same man who planned a seaport and depot near his family home in Beaulieu Creek in order to profit from the slave trade. When the Duke died, Sancho received £70 plus a £30 annunity. He immediately headed for the capital, where he lived the life of a libertine and gambled excessively, on one occasion losing all his clothes in a game of cribbage. Inevitably, he soon went back to being a servant in the Montagu household.

Sancho first came to public attention in 1766, in the wake of a letter he wrote to Laurence Sterne asking him to incorporate an anti-slavery scene into Tristram Shandy. He dined with Garrick, had his portrait painted by Gainsborough and published his own musical compositions. Two centuries before the arrival of the Patels, Bharats and Norats, he became the first cornershop proprietor in this country of African or Asian origin when he moved into 20 Charles Street, Westminster (now the site of the Commonwealth and Foreign Office).

His letters are, by turns, funny, sententious, moralistic. They contain perspicacious literary criticism, topical verse, funny descriptions of being stuck in stagecoaches with fat, farting and loud-mouthed white couples, as well as unique vignettes of black family life in the 18th century, and a very vivid account of the Gordon Riots. Strongly influenced by Sterne, Sancho eschewed normal grammar in favour of a battery of neologisms, dashes and ubiquitous stops. He was proud of being a literary man and wanted to be recognised as such. By referring ironically to his ‘leters’ and their lack of ‘intelegibility’, the eloquent and erudite Sancho ridiculed contemporary racialist theory which asserted that negroes were incapable of rational thought and therefore could not enjoy the same rights as Europeans. None of these achievements (nor the fact that his son, Billy, went on to become the first black British publisher) is mentioned by Gerzina. Also omitted are aspects of Sancho’s life which might make him less sympathetic to some modern readers – his fervent Royalism, his Toryism, his casual anti-semitism, his saucy double entendres, the irony of Sancho the shopkeeper profiting from the sale of sugar and tobacco, two products whose manufacture involved the enslavement of fellow Africans.

Similarly, Gerzina’s discussion of Olaudah Equiano, the author of the first full-length black autobiography, published in 1789, fails to mention that he came from a slave-owning family in what is now south-eastern Nigeria and that, after buying his own freedom, he went on to purchase a number of slaves before setting them to work on a plantation near the Central American coast. In effect, the personalities of Sancho and Equiano are sterilised. Neither their achievements as writers (at a time when Thomas Jefferson was arguing that blacks were incapable of creative thought), nor their complexities, contradictions and shortcomings are explored. Depriving them of context and individuality, ignoring the comedy in their work and parading them in almost abstract terms as negroes who stood tall and virtuous in the face of brutality and racism, Gerzina succeeds only in reproducing an updated version of one of the hoariest of 18th-century literary tropes – that of the noble savage.

Norma Myers does not deal with celebrities like Sancho and Equiano: instead, she raids parish registers, criminal records and the papers of individual slave-traders to shed light on the family structures, forms of employment and survival techniques of London’s black poor. She focuses on ten of the poorest parishes around Deptford and Limehouse in the East End of London. Myers has little time for those who suggest that black people were so numerous in the 18th century that they percolated through to every nook and cranny of the island. On the contrary, she argues that most estimates of London’s black population are exaggerated, and that in the parishes in which they were found, their jobs and ‘lifestyles’ were extremely restricted. Until a thorough survey of all London parish records is undertaken, Myers’s book will stand as the most reliable account of the quotidian lives of the majority of London’s black community in the 18th century.

Two central themes emerge. First, that the black and white poor lived together in areas like Ratcliff, Shadwell and Limehouse, in overcrowded, unhygienic houses, located in dark, stinking alleys among brothels, lodging houses and dens for thieves and sailors: the shared experience of poverty and indigence was a much more important factor than skin colour. Solidarity between the two groups was sufficiently strong for Sir John Fielding, magistrate and brother of the novelist Henry, to complain that when black domestic servants ran away from their masters they found ‘the Mob on their Side’, which made it ‘not only difficult but dangerous to the Proprietor of these Slaves to recover the Possession of them’. Black and white worked together as domestic servants and at sea. They were also partners in crime. Myers quotes from an Old Bailey trial in which Elizabeth Mandeville, who was black, was prosecuted for working ‘as one of a pair with Ann Grace (a white woman) to steal three half guineas and six shillings from John Pidduck. Grace extracted the money while Mandeville pinned the victims down.’ She also points out that two black servants, Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover, helped free the inmates of Newgate prison during the Gordon Riots.

Sex is Myers’s other major theme. Black British history began in a blizzard of miscegenation. The black population was small and the areas they inhabited chiefly peopled by the white poor. They sang and danced together at mixed-race hops; they lived and, inevitably, slept together. Women comprised only 20 per cent of the black population, making intermarriage unavoidable. Virtually all of the most famous blacks of the 18th century, from Equiano to Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s beloved servant and residuary legatee, had white wives. Indeed, two hundred years on, Barber’s descendants still live in the Lichfield area, where he moved after Johnson died. They are all white now, and the name will die out with this generation: the last male descendant’s children are all daughters. Of course, not everybody in the 18th century was happy about the rising levels of exogamy. In 1778, the notoriously cantankerous Philip Thicknesse grumbled that in ‘every town, nay every village, are to be seen a little race of mulattoes, mischievious as monkeys, and infinitely more dangerous.’

Myers’s work serves to refute Gerzina’s romantic and unsubstantiated claim that there existed a ‘thriving and structured black community’ in London during the 18th century. Of course, black people often got together in order to carouse, swap stories and exchange information. But Gerzina’s wording implies that black people led lives which were in some way sealed off from those of white Londoners. This was impossible: mutual racial dependence in London was a necessity. Long before the abstract discourse of ‘heterology’ became fashionable, these people encountered, grappled with and thrived on ‘otherness’ in the most taxing of social settings.