Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Four Black Women in 1840s England

On 17 March leading history of Black Britain Jeff  Green talked about four black women in 1840s England at Black Cultural Archive with different origins: one born in slavery in America, another born ‘free’ in America, a third born in Jamaica and the fourth born in England. They are Zilpha Elaw, Agnes Foster, Elizabeth Magness and Harriet Ann Jacobs. 

This postings sets out the general points he made about them

‘Presenting information on people of African descent in Victorian Britain exposes several problems as well as our ignorance of black lives. British documentation is inconsistent in the use of ‘coloured’, ‘negro’, ‘black’ and so on –  and official documents are blind (there was no ‘racial’ notification in schools, street directories, cemeteries etc). Females are often obscured or ignored for the era was male-dominated.’

He hopes ‘that stereotypes about and ignorance of black Victorians will be weakened by this and similar researches.’
Having then sketched out the lives of each woman Jeff then teased out some general conclusions.
‘Zilpha Elaw’s life in Britain needs investigating but we can be sure that as a female evangelist she experienced critical comments. Her social circle would have been nonconformist Christians. We know far more about the African American evangelist Amanda Smith, active in Britain in the 1890s whose autobiography was published in London in 1894 and a biography in 1916 the year after she died.

Agnes Foster’s pioneering role in founding the Salvation Army in Jamaica is firm, but the lives of her children need investigating. Her life as a farmer’s wife in Yorkshire is outside any stereotype.

Elizabeth Magnes(s) is a very uncomfortable tale of one – perhaps two? – person’s experiences, exploited and driven to alcoholism. The terminology used in accounts of fairground and circus performers (such as ‘freaks’ and ‘human oddities’) is unpleasant but Joanne Martell’s study of Millie-Christine McKoy, subtitled Fearfully and Wonderfully Made published in North Carolina in 2000, reveals a triumphant life.

Harriet Jacobs has a firm place in the history of American feminism and in the documentation of the abolitionist era. Perhaps I am the only person who wonders how much of her narrative is true? There were several black speakers who toured Britain from the 1830s, obtaining funding and selling tracts and narratives. Jacobs could have moved into these circles without much trouble. Her brother relocated to England in the 1850s. The weekly Leisure Hour magazine of London published his ‘A True Tale of Slavery’ in four instalments in February 1861. We know about him because of his sister.

The presence of these four people in Britain – and our ignorance of their lives – shows we still have much to do to understand the black participation in British life. Each piece placed in the mosaic adds to our knowledge. The well-known Mary Seacole and Sarah Forbes Bonetta are not diminished by the stories of these four women.’
Jeff’s sketches of the lives of each of the four women can be seen on his website -
Zilpha Elaw page 149, Harriet Jacobs p. 151, Agnes Foster p. 156 and Elizabeth Magness p. 159.
Details of other black women in Victorian Britain are
Sarah Bonetta p. 20
Jane Rose Roberts p. 51
Ellen Smith p. 59
Coloured actresses p. 82
Black women p. 93
Black swans and black nightingales p. 120
Amanda Smith p. 130
Ida B. Wells p. 130
Hallie Quinn Brown p. 130
Ann Styles p 131  
Mattie Lawrence p. 153
Martha Ricks p. 158
Sarah Remond p. 152

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