Black Victorians: the hidden Britons who helped shape the 19th century
From world-famous composers and eminent physicians to unwavering voting rights campaigners, black Britons helped shape the 19th century. So why, ask Keshia N Abraham and John Woolf, are their stories not better known today?
In the spring of 1803, at a concert hall in Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven performed Violin Sonata No 9 alongside the young virtuoso George Bridgetower, to whom the piece was dedicated. The composer played the piano, and the so-called “African Prince”, whose father was possibly from Barbados, played the violin. Beethoven was so moved by the performance that, in the midst of the piece, he leapt from his seat and shouted: “Once more, my dear fellow!”
But by the time the sonata was published, the dedication had changed. Bridgetower was replaced by French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. The reasons why are hazy, but the result was erasure – and it marked a broader pattern.
In January 1826, a starry-eyed, 16-year-old medical student, Charles Darwin, engaged the formerly enslaved John Edmonstone to teach him the art of preserving birds at Edinburgh University. Every day for two months, for a fee of one guinea an hour and totalling more than 40 hours, Edmonstone relayed the latest techniques. Darwin went on to directly apply Edmonstone’s teachings during the voyage of HMS Beagle (1831–36), where he preserved a mockingbird collection from the Galapagos. This became the raw material that informed his theory of evolution. It owed a debt to Edmonstone – now largely forgotten.
In our book, Black Victorians: Hidden in History, we show that there were many people of African descent living, working and marrying in Victorian Britain. They were not just onlookers. They were active and embedded participants who moulded the Victorian landscape.
This is not a novel point. A litany of largely black historians – from the Victorian era to the present day – have discussed, documented and analysed the black British presence in the 19th century. But the statement that there were black Victorians helping to build Great Britain hasn’t properly landed in Victorian studies.
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This is a strange state of affairs. Since at least the first century AD, Britain’s population included people from north Africa. There were people of African descent in the courts and societies of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, as brilliantly documented by Onyeka Nubia and Miranda Kaufmann. As the English (and, later, British) colonised lands and enslaved fellow human beings, more people of African descent came to Britain.
Questions of ethnicity
By the 18th century, there were thousands of people of African descent living and working in Britain (as well as Asians and Native Americans). It has been estimated that, by the late 18th century, there were 10,000–20,000 black people living in England. They married and had children, who did the same, assimilating into British society.
But the first national census in 1801 was mute on questions of ethnicity (in fact, ethnicity wasn’t mentioned in the census until 1991). What’s more, in undertaking
genealogical research, you soon learn that the location in which someone was born doesn’t necessarily indicate ethnicity. There’s also the fact that women mostly altered their names upon marriage, the enslaved were cruelly given the names of their captors, and contemporary descriptions such as “dark” could be applied to white as well as black Victorians.
So, archival obfuscation might partly account for the relative historiographical oversight. Ignorance, disinterest, neglect and racism are other explanations as well. Black Victorian assimilation is another. Yet local studies have revealed that black people were relatively common in densely populated areas such as London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Kent, and in our book we explore individuals active across British society – everyone from William Cuffay, the Chartist leader who campaigned for political rights for the working classes, to Fanny Eaton, the domestic worker and Pre-Raphaelite muse.
We mined an array of archives to prove the point: in Haringey, London, there are photographs of the black footballer Walter Tull , who played for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, and the nurses Sister Freda – who worked at Tottenham Hospital – and Asarto Ward . At Waltham Forest, there are stories of Madagascan Christian refugees; at the Museum of Croydon, materials on the black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; at the Lambeth Palace Library, the letters of the black bishop Samuel Crowther. The Black Cultural Archives in London is also an invaluable resource.
They were not just onlookers. They were active participants who moulded the Victorian landscape
The digitisation of archives has helped resurrect silenced voices. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ made him world-famous in 1898, gave interviews to The Musical Times where he forcibly asserted: “It has been stated again and again that I was born in the West Indies. This is not the case. I was born in London.”
The National Archives have made accessible the state trial reports of William Cuffay who, when charged in 1848 with intending to “levy war against the queen”, defiantly addressed the Old Bailey: “I know my cause is good, and I have a self-approving conscience that will bear me up against anything, and that would bear me up even to the scaffold; therefore I think I can endure any punishment proudly. I feel no disgrace at being called a felon.” Cuffay, born and raised in Kent, was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania for life.
Racism for the masses
Scratch the surface of the era, then, and black Victorians become visible and perceptively active in areas ranging from politics to art, sports to entertainment, theology to law and the menial and skilled trades.
This was at a time when the notion of “race” was assuming even greater importance. In scientific circles, the advancing theory of polygenism stated that humanity was divided into separate groups with inherited, biological differences (and white was deemed superior to black). Meanwhile, an expanding empire brutally subjugated people across the globe, and despite the abolition of slavery within that empire, Britain still relied on the cotton picked by the enslaved. Back home, the entertainment industry was taking racism to the masses, notably in the form of “human zoos” and blackface minstrelsy. (It was partly due to this racist form of entertainment that the acclaimed black actor Ira Aldridge was vilified for “defiling” Shakespeare’s Othello in the 19th century.)
It was in this context that black Victorians both triumphed and struggled across the social scale. Social investigator Henry Mayhew recorded a number of black Victorians living on the margins. One such man, who was labelled a “Negro Beggar”, had travelled from America to Britain having heard that in Britain “whites did not look down on them [black people] and ill-treat them, as they do in New York”. Yet the “Negro Beggar” (Mayhew never gives us his name) struggled to find work and when he tried to get employment on English ships, “they won’t have me”, he told Mayhew.
Denied a lowly job on the ships, the “Negro Beggar” was also denied access to public establishments. (“At some places they don’t care to take a man of colour in,” he said). He was also subject to racist taunts: “The butchers call me Othello, and ask me why I killed my wife.”
Mayhew labelled another black Victorian, Edward Albert, “The negro crossing-sweeper, who had lost both his legs”. Albert told Mayhew: “I was a little boy when the slaves in Jamaica got their freedom.” Aged nine, Albert joined the Royal Navy as a cabin boy, before working his way up to head cook. It was on one voyage that he suffered frostbite to his legs: “After my limbs became affected, the master of the vessel, and mate, took me to the ship’s oven, in order… to cure me; my feet … were put into the oven; in consequence of the treatment, my feet burst through the intense swelling, and mortification ensued…”
Albert was subsequently abandoned by the vessel, but he was determined to seek justice, telling Mayhew: “I will never leave England or Scotland until I get my rights.” He wrote a memoir, Brief Sketch of the Life of Edward Albert or the Dead Man Come to Life Again, which outlined his brutal treatment and asserted his hitherto denied rights. What ultimately happened to Albert, we do not know.
Elsewhere, another black Victorian was telling his story from the social margins, deep inside a Victorian mental asylum. Joseph Peters (c1843–83), a seaman born in present-day Liberia, wrote to the medical superintendent: “I should like you to release me that I may go to my own people.” Peters passionately retold his biography, which included the death of his father when he was a child, the poverty he and his mother experienced, and his life as a seaman traversing the globe: “Hoping you will give me my liberty,” he concluded in his letter. Peters never did get his freedom: he died six years later and was buried in the asylum cemetery in 1883.
Pablo Fanque was born into a workhouse in Norwich but escaped by joining the circus. In 1841, after perfecting the art of acrobatics and equestrianism, he started his own group, winning praise for his respectable circus and posthumously finding immortalisation in the Beatles song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!’ (In which, inspired by an 1843 poster promoting one of Fanque’s circuses, John Lennon sings: “The Hendersons will all be there; Late of Pablo Fanque’s fair, what a scene.”)
Life on the margins
At the other end of the social scale, there were people like the Jamaican millionaire George Stiebel – whose father was probably Sigismund Stiebel, a German merchant living in London – and Nathaniel Wells, a black country gentleman who inherited a fortune from his slave-owning father and lived a life of respectability in Wales. He served as sheriff of Monmouthshire in 1818, and was also an investor, warden to his local church and a proficient artist.
Meanwhile, a host of west African elites trained, studied and traded in Britain while others, such as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, were connected to royalty. Born in what is now Nigeria, and orphaned at an early age, Bonetta became a renowned presence within the upper echelons of Victorian society having been introduced to Queen Victoria in 1850. The queen took an instant liking to Bonetta and agreed to support her. In 1862, Bonetta married James Pinson Labulo Davies , a Yoruba polymath from Sierra Leone. They had three children – one of whom, Victoria, became goddaughter to the queen.
A host of west African elites trained, studied and traded in Britain, while others were connected to royalty
There were, naturally, black Victorians among the burgeoning middle classes – like Dr George Rice , a renowned medical director, and Thomas Birch Freeman, who was born in Britain and moved to west Africa as a Methodist missionary. Africans and Asians came to Britain from the ever-growing empire as interracial couples cohabited, married and had children. Migration was always part of Britain’s story.
Indeed, throughout the Victorian era, a host of black Americans travelled to Britain to denounce slavery. Black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Ellen Craft and William Craft addressed thousands of people on the topics of slavery, temperance and suffrage, building and strengthening an African American tradition that sought to inflame popular opinion against American slavery. Douglass later recalled that on his visit to Britain in the 1840s, he felt a sense of freedom: “I breathe and lo! The chattel becomes a man.”
Another abolitionist speaker, Sarah Parker Remond, travelled to Britain in 1858 and denounced “American despotism” in a series of highly praised lectures. She also reminded her British audiences: “When I walk through the streets of Manchester, and meet load after load of cotton, I think of those 80,000 cotton plantations on which was grown the $125m worth of cotton which supply your market, and I remember that not 1 cent of that money has ever reached the hands of the labourers.”
Her rhetoric developed into a black feminist, anti-racist discourse, fuelled by the likes of Ida B Wells in Britain. Educator, editor, feminist and activist, Wells crossed the Atlantic in the 1890s, having been invited by the writers Isabelle Mayo and Catherine Impey (founder of the anti-racist journal Anti-Caste: Devoted to the Interests of Coloured Race). Wells denounced lynching and segregation in America, aiming to “give the world the black people’s side of the story”, as she stated in 1894.
By the century’s end, despite the hardening of racial attitudes, there were powerful countervailing forces. Pan-Africanism found notable expression in the First Pan-African Conference in London, 1900, which affirmed in its worldwide address: “Let the nations of the world respect the integrity and independence of the free Negro states of Abyssinia, Liberia, Haiti, and the rest, and let the inhabitants of these states, the independent tribes of Africa, the Negroes of the West Indies and America, and the black subjects of all nations… fight bravely, that they may prove… their incontestable right to be counted among the great brotherhood of mankind.”
Appreciating the presence of black Victorians today makes their incontestable right to be counted among the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind indelible to the Victorian world. They cannot be unseen.
Keshia N Abraham and John Woolf are historians and authors. Their new book, Black Victorians: Hidden in History, was published by Duckworth Books in September 2022
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine