Wednesday, 24 September 2014


 BLACK         SOCIAL         HISTORY                                                                                                           Black People in Britain: The Eighteenth Century

By James Walvin |  
James Walvin looks at attitudes to black people in the context of slavery
To be sold, a Negro boy age about fourteen years old, warranted free from any distemper, and has had those fatal to that colour; has been used two years to all kinds of household work, and to wait on table; his price is £25, and would not be sold but the person he belongs to is leaving off business. Apply at the bar of George Coffee House in Chancery Lane, over the Gate. [1756}
These and many other slave advertisements were commonly found in English newspapers from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. They provide a wealth of important evidence about the history of England's black society and, of course, about the individual blacks who were bought and sold like other items of trade. Blacks were sold and bartered, especially in the seaports of London, Bristol and Liverpool; they were bequeathed in wills. England's blacks were widely employed as domestic servants throughout the country, a fact confirmed by the abundance of illustrative material – portraits, cartoons and sketches – in which black servants appear with their employer's family.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was an enormous expansion of British slave interests. The 'triangular trade' involved the shipping of ever-more Africans from their homelands in order to satisfy the appetite for black labour in the tropical slave colonies of the Americas. As slavery in the New World became a major institution – transforming the demography of the region as surely as it revolutionised the local economies, those English ships trading with Africa and the slave colonies returned home filled with tropical produce – and with the occasional coffle of slaves. Returning sailors, military and government officials retiring to England and of course planters coming home, brought with them black slaves. In the colonies, whites had surrounded themselves with black domestics; in England the number of black servants offered some indication of an ex-colonial's position or wealth. Soon the habit became fashionable in English propertied circles and blacks were imported to satisfy fashionable taste. But in essence the black slaves sold into England were little more than the flotsam and jetsam of England's burgeoning Atlantic empire.
It had been the maritime explorations of West Africa from the fifteenth century onwards which gradually brought Europeans directly into contact with the goods, produce – and the inhabitants – of black Africa. In a significant way Africa had long attracted European intellectual debate and speculation and there was widespread European mythology about Africa. Thus when the first batches of Africans sailed back to Europe – initially to Spain and Portugal – they were the objects of curiosity and bemusement. By the time the emergent English maritime power was engaged in African trade in the sixteenth century, the situation had changed dramatically. The Iberians had already begun to use Africans as slaves in Europe and the American colonies. The English, though latecomers to the scene, soon put themselves at the forefront of the complex slavery system. Initial curiosity gave way to something quite different: a firm conviction, which was supported by law and economic practise, that the African was less than human. Thus Africans became the victims of a predatory slavery interest which removed them (over the centuries in their millions), casting them ashore in the Americas – and Europe.
As the triangular trade developed so too did the black community in England. It is, naturally, impossible to assess the numbers involved. It is likely, however that, throughout much of the seventeenth century, blacks were commented upon because they were exceptional. This undoubtedly changed in the eighteenth century. The success of the slave colonies ensured that more Africans and Afro-Americans would find their way to England. Until British emancipation in 1838 slavery was the major determinant in the lives of blacks in England. Even those born into freedom in England ran the risk, as long as colonial slavery survived, of being returned against their will to the abject status of a slave in the colonies.
In England, however, unlike for instance in Jamaica, freedom, not bondage, was the norm. Working and living side-by-side with free people it was natural that blacks should become unhappy with their lot. In the words of one contemporary writing in the mid-eighteenth century, they 'cease to consider themselves as slaves in this free country nor will they put up with an inequality of treatment'. Thus black slaves were continually running away. It is is significant that, by the late eighteenth century newspapers carried more advertisements for runaway slaves than for slave sales. In general they ran away into the poor warrens of the capital, forming their own black ghettoes, and like so many of the London poor they were obliged to live outside the law.
These people were in a dangerous position. They were at the risk of arbitrary seizure and ill-treatment. This began to change from the 1760s thanks to the efforts of Granville Sharp and, later because of the campaigns on their behalf launched by the Evangelicals. Throughout much of the eighteenth century however the problems facing England's blacks were compounded by legal confusion. Was slavery legal in England? In a series of legal cases judges had to wrestle with the complex problems posed by the importation of slaves into a society which, though priding itself on its freedoms, was nonetheless committed to slavery in its colonies. Legal judgments differed but the blacks found little comfort from English courts in their efforts to safeguard their freedom in England. Even the famous 1772 Somerset Case did not (contrary to popular opinion) secure freedom for blacks in England and there were numerous examples in later years of slaves being bought and sold in England.
After 1783 there was an influx of more slaves – those who had fought on the losing British side in the American War of Independence. They augmented the black population and raised further political and social arguments. Prompted by the planters' lobby, a series of denunciations of the black community began to reach the public. One political response to the growth of the black community was to 'repatriate' – to Sierre Leone – but the ensuing government scheme ended in disaster and merely confirmed the blacks' worst fears about their position in England. In fact it is difficult to say what, if any, was the major white response to the blacks for it ranged from the open hatred from the West India lobby through to acceptance and friendship. The letters of Ignatius Sancho, a black shopkeeper in Westminster, provide a helpful guide. While he had a string of fashionable and famous friends he also recorded incidents of public hostility. Returning home from a family visit to Vauxhall he wrote, 'We went by water – had a coach home – where gazed at etc. etc. – but not much abused'. On another occasion, he recorded, 'they stopped us in town, and most generally abused us'. In despair he once complained 'from Othello to Sancho the big – we are all foolish – or mulish – all – all without exception'. Similarly he remarked on 'the national antipathy and prejudice ... towards their woolly headed breathen'.
There can be no doubt that animosity was shown to the blacks. But there was also the friendship and help of a small band of Englishmen who, beginning with Sharp, devoted their lives to securing black freedom in England and, ultimately, throughout the slave colonies. Indeed people often overlook the fact that the campaign against the slave trade and slavery had its origins in the attempts to safeguard the rights of blacks in England.
One source of widespread complaint were relations between blacks and white women. Since the very great majority of eighteenth-century English blacks were men, it was only natural that they would turn to white women. Such relationships however were widely disliked, notably by the West India lobby (who conveniently ignored their own philandering with slave women in the colonies). Of course suspicion of black-white sexual relations was of long standing – as Othello eloquently showed.
The growth of the late eighteenth-century black community could have left few contemporaries, especially in London, in doubt about the human consequences of the slave system. It was however the massive campaign launched by the abolitionists which focused public attention on the wider problems of slavery. Public pressure – from all social classes – became an important factor in ending the slave trade in 1807. Yet it was the end of the slave trade which began to undermine the black community. Henceforth slaves were too valuable to export from the colonies and the English black population began to decline and to be absorbed into the wider host society. It did not disappear utterly, however. Throughout the nineteenth century blacks were a frequent sight in England, though rarely in such numbers as in the previous century. Visiting Africans and West Indians were common. So too were travelling American blacks, particularly those lecturing against United States slavery in the years before 1860. It was the development of new steamship lines to West Africa and the Caribbean which led to the settlement of newer black communities in the seaports of Cardiff, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle and elsewhere.
Black society in England became much more noticeable however in the course of the two twentieth century World Wars when Africans and West Indians were persuaded to join the armed forces, the merchant marine or to work in war industries. Furthermore the number of blacks was swelled in the Second World War by thousands of black American servicemen in Britain with the United States army. It was the experiences in Britain in that war, and the prospects of a materially-secure future which persuaded many West Indians to stay or to return to Britain with their families. Thus there began the newer phase of black immigration from the late 1940s onwards and the development of the modern black community.
While it would be untrue to say that the history of blacks in England is uniform and has an unbroken thread since the seventeenth century, it is indisputable that blacks have been a feature of English society and history for centuries. It is, in the main, an unhappy story, for throughout much of the period black-white relations were shaped by the experience of slavery and, later, by imperial domination. The political and social legacy of white dominion over black in England no less than in the colonies has been the survival of notions of superiority which, in their turn, have laid the basis for modern racist ideologies.