Black London: Life Before Emancipation

I’ve started reading a fascinating book by Gretchen  Gerzina, “Black London: Life Before Emancipation” (Rutgers University Press, 1995).  I’m fascinated by the details the author has unearthed detailing the life and experiences of a whole host of blacks in the Georgian era.

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The slide show encapsulates many of the most common representations during the period: as conspicuous commodity of success à la Zoffany, as effaced and anonymous drapery in the Washington family portrait, as the exotic, Caribbean other, or the animalistic and barbaric animal-man. Yet in the Hogarth and Collet engravings, we see how ubiquitous and unremarkable the black presence really was, in the streets and below stairs.

I only found a few individual portraits of blacks: Reynolds’ “Study of a Black Man” from c.1770 and an engraving after Gainsborough’s portrait of Ignatius Sancho, a well known man of letters during the second half of the 18th century, are two of them. The images are ones of dignity and substance, in stark contrast to the often crude or anonymous portrayals in other art of the period.

The seems to be a willful colour blindness at work in many (most?) romance novels that depict this period. There were likely between 15,000-30,000 blacks, free and enslaved, living in London by the third quarter of the 18th century, out of a total population of 675,000 and likely the same number again throughout the rest of the country.

Yet when was the last time you read a Regency novel that featured any black character, in no matter how minor a role, let alone as a significant character.   In the past, I’ve observed the occasional page or servant, but I neglected to note the titles or the authors but I’ve certainly never come across a Regency novel where either the hero or the heroine are anything other than white.

While I’m not claiming to have read every Regency or 18th century novel ever published, one of the few well-known exceptions that comes to mind is Maria Edgeworth’s “Belinda“, where Mr. Vincent, the mixed race son of a West Indies gentleman, courts Belinda and a slave, Juba, who marries Lucy, a white servant, in the first and second editions (by the third, Juba is eliminated and the young woman marries the innocuously named James Jackson.)  And Edgeworth’s novel was published in 1801.

Perhaps that’s too harsh.  Perhaps I ought not feel it as an injustice because I can’t claim it to be my history.  But that doesn’t sit right with me.  It just doesn’t seem fair to gloss over a whole group of people who existed and contributed and lived so completely.

In writing this post, I’ve also just discovered another period book, “The Woman of Colour” which appears to have been published anonomously just after the abolition of slavery in Britain in 1807, in which a young African heiress is introduced to London society and the racism in it. I’ve put in a ILL request to my library and will let you know my experiences as I read it.

Here are some interesting links that explore these issues some more.  There’s no rhyme or reason to these particular links other than I thought their authors brought forth some interesting questions:

What do you think? Do historical romance authors need to include more people of colour in their fictional worlds or do readers not notice (or even prefer??) the uniformity and familiarity of the world of dukes and earls, unruffled by the unpleasant realities of slavery and race?  Is it fair to expect an author writing entertainment to tackle these tasks?  And if not them, who?

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