F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Week 7] Paradoxes of Belonging: Black Britons from Elizabeth to Victoria

The imbrication of a black population in Britain has long been imbricated in paradox.  As Gretchen Gerzina notes, the popularity of black entertainers in the court of Elizabeth I made it “clearly difficult for her to take a stand against the employment of Blacks when monarchs and their court favorites had themselves seen fit to find a niche for them in the court” (Walvin qtd. in Gerzina 4), which alongside Elizabeth’s “propagation of the English slave trade led invariably to the increase of the Afro-British population (4).  Over the next three hundred years, “[t]his growing presence challenged the English sensibilities about race and fairness and xenophobia at a time when interest in” the works of Thomas Paine “jostled with the financial and material rewards of slavery” (Gerzina 6).  This tension brought forth contradictory discourses surrounding the rights and humanities of blacks as “[p]ro-slavers portrayed black people as vicious, stupid and improved by slavery” while “abolitionists erred on the side of sentiment to portray them as docile and innocent (Gerzina 6-7).  The fact that “the black population was steadily increasing and an active black community was forming” contributed to “the developing fear of the black presence in Britain” and anxieties surrounding threat of contamination to the British cultural imaginary (Gerzina 24).  (Gerzina also specifically notes that cases like Ignatius Sancho’s, of economic uplift and social acceptability, are rather exceptional, as “[t]he voices we have are primarily those of people who were not only literate but who had the leisure to record their lives and responses” (28).)

This ambivalent belonging continued into the Victorian era but took on decidedly different forms depending on the providence of the blacks in question.  As Jeffrey Green establishes in his comprehensive account of African-Americans in Victorian England and Ireland, the British welcomed these immigrants, for “they posed no threat to the laboring man or the purity of the national bloodstream” and thus “they received that heartiest of welcomes that comes from a love of virtue combined with an absence of apprehension” (Quarles qtd. in Green vii).  Such individuals “made their homes in Britain and married British people to an extent” historians have not fully considered (Green vii), including freedom to work, tour with their stories, study, and travel.  At the same time, Green comments that such immigrants “were unlikely to express their true opinions of Britain, the British and British society, for where else could they run to” (x), noting that thousands such immigrants engaged in a “secondary black migration […] to the Antipodes” (xi).  Part of their welcome stemmed from the fact that post-abolition Britain “wanted to hear about the slave experience” in the United States, which continued even after slavery’s abolishment there as well (Green 94).  This narratives of horror that buttressed the British sense of moral superiority also contributed to other British ideology-formation, however, as Green argues that such narratives of putative helplessness dovetailed with presentations of “black Africa […] as needing guidance,” contributing to “European colonialism of tropical Africa, with blacks defined as in need of assistance’ (94).

As a digital project, a simple timeline delineating the causes of and reception to the proliferation of the black population in Britain would do much to challenge current assumptions of history as well as narratives of putative progress.

Works Cited

Gerzina, Gretchen. Black London: Life before Emancipation. Rutgers UP, 1995.
Green, Jeffrey. Black Americans in Victorian Britain. Pen & Sword Books, 2018.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Abolitionists. Oxford UP, 1969.
Walvin, James. Black and White: The Negro and English Society, 1555-1945. Penguin, 1973

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