The History of Blacks in Georgian & Regency England (Part 1)

With Brexit and the unfortunate Capitol Insurrection which occurred January 6, 2021, I wanted to write a two part series on the history of Blacks/Africans in England. I already did a three part series about how there were people of color in Europe before the 20th C, but really wanted to take a deeper look at the time of Jane Austen considering how many times I have queried Literary Agents who inform me that no one would believe that there were people of color in my Regency novels. I am hoping with the success of Bridgerton, that outlook will change.

Unknown Lady, circa late 18th C. Public Domain

In 1772, Lord Mansfield (William Murray), Chief Justice of England and Wales, made a decision that was truly a landmark case for the deconstruction of Slavery. That was the Somerset Case and he declared that the enslaved had rights on English soil. He also presided over the 1783 Gregson v. Gilbert case (regarding the Zong) where he again rule that the Captain and his crew were guilty in the deaths of the 132 enslaved Africans they threw overboard and drowned. This influenced the 1791 Parliament ruling which stated insurance companies no longer had to reimburse shippers (and their financial backers) for the loss of slaves (as they were seen as cargo and not people). William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, raised Dido Elizabeth Belle and no doubt this did influence his decisions in those to cases. While none of these decisions outright banned Slavery, they did push the narrative forward.

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William Murray, circa 1737. Portrait by Jean-Baptiste van Loo. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay & her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray by David Martin, circa 1778. Currently on display at Scone Palace, Scotland and considered Public Domain

When William Murray died in 1793, Dido was granted her “freedom” and was left enough money to be considered an heiress. In 1793, she would have still be seen as a slave, so granting her “freedom” allowed her to marry John Davinier and move about Society freely and openly. But she was not the highest ranking person of color during this Era.

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Queen Charlotte, circa 1760s, painted by Allan Ramsay. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust

When Megan Markle married Prince Henry, there was (and is) backlash over Megan being a woman of mixed race. However, it should note that the same hatred Megan still receives is very much on par with what Queen Charlotte received. The Allan Ramsay portraits are considered the most accurate as he never made her appear darker nor lighter, but painted her as she truly was. He was also the preferred painter of her portraits per King George III. Queen Charlotte was a patroness of the Art and her interest in Botany led to the expansion of Kew Gardens. She was a direct descendant of Margarita de Castro y Sousa, who is from the Black/Moor branch of the Portuguese Royal Family. She was often made to look ape like or even dog like in caricature and referred to as “Mulatto Face” in the press. Charlotte endured periods of madness from her husband, the many indiscretions of her sons (Regent was a bigamist and known to have may lovers). She had 15 children, 13 who survived into adulthood, and is grandmother of Queen Victoria. The South African flower Bird of Paradise is named after her as are two China patterns to her name (Royal Lily and Queen Charlotte). She funded orphanages and in 1809 sponsored a hospital for women to give birth in. It’s known today as Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital. Like her granddaughter, Queen Vicotria, she notoriously would keep her daughters close to her, which resulted in them marrying late in life or not at all and having no children of their own. Charlotte was a close and regular correspondent of Marie Antoinette (both were patrons of Music and Arts). She had rooms prepared to received the French Royals and was devastated when they were beheaded. Charlotte is the second longest serving consort in British History, having reigned 57 years and 70 days. Her husband was blind and deaf when she passed in 1818 and except for her jewels, her son (the Regent) had all of her belongings sold at auction (the jerk). The current Royal Family denies the possibility that Queen Charlotte was a person of color, but considering how many people during the Georgian Era made comments regarding her non-whiteness, then I believe it is safe to say she was not as white as the current Royals like to maintain.

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Google’s doodle celebrating the 272nd Birthday of Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equniano was born sometime in the 1740s (it’s given as 1745 in most biographies) and died in 1797. He was enslaved at age 11, renamed Gustavus Vasso, and eventually was sold to a merchant Captain who allowed him to purchase his freedom. He became an author, explorer, and merchant. Olaudah’s first hand narrative pushed the Abolitionist movement forward in both the UK & US. His autobiography went through 9 editions in his lifetime (which was really unheard of) and was a member of the Sons of Africa, a lobby group that was part of the Anti Slavery Society in England. Equniano’s story was key to passing the 1807 law abolishing the trade and capture of slaves (it still allowed the forced breeding, sell, and importation of slaves from one territory to another). He married Susannah Collins in 1792 and had two mixed race daughters. His youngest daughter married a minister in 1821. Some Scholars question if Olaudah was born in Africa[Nigeria specifically] as his baptismal records in England list him as being from the Carolinas. Yet his first owner (and people who knew him) stated that Olaudah spoke no English when he was purchased, making the case that slave traders were possibly lying (GASP) about the origins of the people they enslaved. Susannah died at age 34 and Olaudah died the following year at age 52. It’s sad he didn’t live to see the end to Slavery in England, but at least his daughter was alive to witness it (as it passed in 1833). Considering how popular his autobiography was in his lifetime, there is no chance that Austen would not have come across a copy or would not have heard of him.

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Ignatius Sancho, circa 1768, by Thomas Gainsborough. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada

[Charles] Ignatius Sancho had a very interesting life. He was born aboard a slave ship and orphaned at around age 2. He was given to three sisters living in Greenwich, England and was a slave to them for 18 years. He ran away to the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, who decided to educated him and encourage his interests in literature (other tales state the Duke visited these sisters and being impressed with Ignatius’ intellect, taught him to read and write). There is no record of the Montagus purchasing him, so it may have been they compensated the three women for after a few years, he left the Montagus (Igantius was listed as a servant, not a slave) and became a shopkeeper in Westminister, wrote and published various forms of literature (books, poetry, and essays). Igantius became the first Black person to have voted in 1774 and 1780 being a male property owner of both a house and shop (which entitled him to a vote under English law). Ignatius married Anne Osbourne, who was West Indian, and had 7 children. His letters were published two years after his death and is widely accepted as one of the earliest first hand accounts of slavery. While it doesn’t seem like much, the Duchess of Montague left him an annuity of 30 pounds a year in her will in 1752 (comes to about 2000 in today’s market). Sancho counted Thomas Gainsborough (who painted him twice), actor David Garrick and abolitionist Charles James Fox among his friends. Igantius corresponded with writers and encouraged them to stand up against slavery. He was a loud advocate for the end of Slavery and lectured frequently. Sancho is the first Black person to have an obituary in the newspapers of that era.

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Francis Williams, circa 1745. Artist unknown. Courtesy of the V&A Museum

Almost all we know about Francis Williams comes from the History of Jamaica (1774) by Edward Long. Long downplays Williams and his family’s contributions, so there isn’t much to go on. We do know that the painting was done by someone in Jamaica. The window appears to overlook a town (The V&A believe it to be Spanish Town) and the library setting is kind of typical Georgian background. Other Scholars think it’s a caricature, while I tend to lean towards a person who had not much training in doing portraits as the landscape shows artistic talent (not everyone can do portraits). Edward Long, while he hated Williams, was the owner of this portrait and it was one of his descendants who gifted it to the museum. Francis may or may not have been born into Slavery. He may have been born at anytime between 1692 and 1700. His father, John Williams, was not granted freedom until 1697-1699, so chances are Francis was born as a slave. He had 2 elder brother and one sister. His father, John, became a wealthy landowner who, unfortunately, had slaves. John Williams in 1708 was granted a trial by jury AND had a law passed that slaves could not testify against him, which was groundbreaking as free Black men did not have the same legal rights as his white counterparts. him. He passed in 1723 a very wealthy man. We do know that Francis live in England long enough to become a naturalized citizen. He was a member of Lincoln’s Inn (a club for Barristers in London), and moved back to Jamaica after his father’s death in 1723. Francis opened and ran a school for free blacks teaching Math, Reading, Writing, and Latin. His legacy is problematic because his wealth, and education, re a product of Slavery while he himself is most likely a former slave. Yet his very existence as a wealthy, highly educated, London Barrister who (apparently) wrote poetry in Latin must cause great distress to those who believe in Wyte Supremacy

The Hon John Spencer and his son, the 1st Earl Spencer and their slave, Caesar Shaw. Circa 1744 by George Knapton. Public Domain

Not much is known about Caesar Shaw. He was a slave owed by John SPncer. Casaer was baptzed in Northampton and we do know he was most likely taken from Africa. However, he was eventually freed and gave first hand testimony regaring the horros of slavery at Anti Slavery meetings and conventions. During the Georgian Era, it was seen as a ign of wealt to have black servants. Peter the Great was known to have black footmen, Valets, an eventually tradesmen and merchnts at his palaces. So while many of these servants are namless, knowing even a few of their names help establish that there were Black people in England (and Russia) during the 18th and 19th Century.

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Francis Barber, circa 1770s. Attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds or James Northcote. Courtesy of the Tate Collection & Public Domain

Francis Barber was born Quashey around 1740. We do know he was born in Jamaica on a sugarcane plantation owned by the Bathurst family. It was the father and son (both named Richard) who, when they traveled to London in 1752, gave Francis to Johnson after Johnson’s wife died to serve as a Valet. Johnson was a strong voice against Slavery both in the US and the UK and is known as the author of the Dictionary of English Language. Barber was technically granted his freedom when the elder Bathurst died in 1755, and was given an annuity of 12 pounds. However, Francis then worked at an apothecary, then joined the Royal Navy and eventually came back to work for Johnson in 1760. All the time he was away, he and Johnson were regular correspondents as Francis had been given some education by the Bathursts. Johnson then put Barber through school and Barber became his assistant, having worked on the Dictionary’s second revision, a well a other literary works by Johnson. Francis was also key in helping Boswell write a biography of Johnson after his death. Johnson, from all accounts, was very attached to Francis and left him 70 pounds (well over 2000 in today’s market) a year in his will which was widely covered in the press at the time. It was seen as scandalous to leave a black man more than what a nobleman would leave an assistant (50 pounds was considered a lot). Francis married Elizabeth Ball (white) and they had 2 children. Those children went onto marry white people as well, which some people at that time did not like. Francis Barber still has decedents living in Littchfield to this day.

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Lafayette & James Armistead, circa 1780s. Public Domain

The Revolutionary War brought about a lot of change not only for the British Empire, but for enslaved Africans in the Colonies. It is estimated that in 1775, more than a half a million Africans living in the 13 colonies were slaves. Ministers and Quakers such as George Keith and John Woolman were advocating against Slavery in the 1760s, thanks to the rising abolitionist movement in England. They were ignored. Abigail Adams, future First Lady, herself wrote many times on the irony of wanting to fight for freedom from tyranny while keeping slaves who lived in tyranny. In the first battle against the British, 10 out of 15 black soldiers were slaves. In 1777, the 13 states enacted laws enforcing quotas to push black slaves into fighting the British. In 1778, Rhode Island established a Black Battalion because they could not meet their quota for white soldiers to fight for the Continental Army. Many slave owners (particularly the Southern States) gave the Continental Army slaves instead of fighting themselves. Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s Royal Governor, in 1775 established a regiment of runaway slaves, promising them freedom is they fought for the British. It was not a well liked policy, but it established an interesting paradigm. In 1776, it seems some of the enslaved did not like that the Constitution not making all men equal, and rebelled. The British Army used this outrage t their advantage and promised freedom to slaves, and their families, if they joined the British Army. It is not known how many enslaved Africans switched sides or how may ran away for the chance at freedom. We do know that several thousand freed slaves moved to British held territories after the War and over a thousand moved to Dublin, Liverpool, and London in the aftermath. So, while the Founding Fathers advocated freedom, they refused to free those who were forced to fight the British, while the British freed those who were willing to fight, but not those they had already enslaved in their territories. It’s a weird and interesting time period in the Georgian Era as not many historians (both US and UK) like to discuss the role Slavery played in the fight for Independence. With over a half a millions slaves, that gave the Continental Army a clear advantage over the British. Yet it is Britain who passed a law outlawing Slavery in 1833, over 30 years before the US.

Resources

hisoryisfun.org (the Jamestown Musuem Revolutionary WAr website)

npg.org.uk

english-heritage.org.uk

janeaustensworld.wordpress.com

History Today (Sept 1981 issue; available on hisorytoday.com archive section)

Blackamoors in England: Black London, Life before Emancipation by Gretch Gerzina (https://www.dartmouth.edu/library/digital/publishing/books/gerzina1995/)

the V&A Musuem

The British Library

New York Pubic Library

The Smithsonian

Royal.uk (yes, the Royal Family’s official website. It’s a good resource for genealogy)

haringey.gov.uk

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination, and Elizabeth I by Emily C. Bartels (available on Rutgers website for free via Project Muse)

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