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.

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