Black England: Life Before Emancipation

Black-EnglandGeorgian England had a large and distinctive Black community. Yet all of them, prosperous citizens or newly freed slaves, ran the risk of kidnap and sale to the plantations. Their dramatic, often moving story is told in this absorbing book.

The idea that Britain became a mixed-race country only after 1945 is a common mistake. Even in Shakespeare’s England Black people were numerous enough for Queen Elizabeth to demand they all leave. She was, perhaps, the first to fear that whites would lose their jobs, yet her edict was ignored without ill effect.

By the eighteenth century the work of all kinds of artists—Hogarth, Reynolds, Gillray, Rowlandson—as well as work by poets, playwrights and novelists, reveals to sharp eyes that not everyone in that elegant, vigorous, earthy world was white. In fact there were Black pubs and clubs, balls for Blacks only, Black churches, and organizations for helping Blacks out of work or in trouble. Many Blacks were prosperous and respected: George Bridgtower was a concert violinist who knew Beethoven; Ignatius Sancho corresponded with Laurence Sterne; Francis Williams studied at Cambridge. Others, like Jack Beef, were successful stewards or men of business. But many more were servants or beggars, some turning to prostitution or theft.

Alongside the free Black world was slavery, from which many of these people escaped. In particular, it was the business of kidnapping blacks for export to the West Indies that made Granville Sharp an abolitionist and brought the celebrated Somerset case before Lord Justice Mansfield. Those men are now heroes of human rights, yet Sharp probably did not believe in racial equality; and Mansfield, whose own much-loved great-niece was Black, was so worried about property rights that he did all he could to avoid a judgment that would set Blacks free.

The ties and conflicts of Black and white in England, often cruel, often moving, were also complex and surprising. This book presents a fascinating chapter of history and one long in need of exploration.

 

 

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