Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Were 18thC Africans in Britain ‘Georgians’?


Elizabeth Dido Belle, George Bridgetower,  Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano, Joseph Emidy and  Bill Richmond are among the best known  Africans who came to Britain from the West Indies, the North American Colonies, and  other parts of Europe in the 18th Century. There were many others who were servants, seamen and  soldiers, like William Fifefield in Newcastle. In 2016 Black Cultural Archives put on the exhibition ‘Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar’  at  Black Cultural Archives, curated by S. I. (Steve) Martin, the black historian and creative writer. This led me to organise and  chair a roundtable discussion to examine aspects of our understanding of ‘Black Georgians’ in Britain, at the Annual Conference of the British Society for  18thC Studies at Oxford in January 2017.

What follows are key points made in the presentations by members of the panel Judith Bryan (Roehampton University), Brycchan Carey (Northumbria University), Kathleen Chater  (Independent historian), Ryan Hanley (New College, Oxford), and Arthur Torrington (The Equiano Society), based on their  introductory remarks and the discussion that followed.

What do we mean by Georgians?

 Brycchan started by discussing the term ‘Black Georgian’. The word ‘Georgian’ was not used at the time. It is the creation of Victorian historians. Nor has it been widely used by historians of the 18thC and the early modern period. Literary scholars term the period as Augustine and Romantic. The term is used mainly in relation to architecture, art and design, and includes ‘Regency’. It is specifically used in relation to Royal History.

The concept is complex  especially when applied to other parts of the Empire, like to the American colonists. It implies they were subjects of the King Georges. Slaves were not subjects but legally chattel, they were property with no rights or responsibilities. They were ‘legal prisoners of war’. If they were emancipated they became subjects of the King Georges.

Ignatius Sancho was a ‘Georgian’ who lived with aristocrats and had a room at Windsor Castle. Equiano served in the Royal Navy. How willingly did they identify with ‘Georgian’ Britain? Sancho was patriotic but also African. Describing Africans as ‘Georgians’ is therefore problematic. But is is a fruitful way to open discussion about allegiances and identities and about slavery.

There is a great emphasis on what Kath Chater described as  ‘the usual subjects’ i.e. Equiano and Sancho. It is easy to create an image that is not typical of the experience of most Africans in British in the ‘Georgian’ period. Her database has up to 5,000 Africans back to Tudor times. Most experienced life in Britain as did white people, living ordinary lives. The ‘Black Georgian experience is based on the writings of a few like Equiano and Sancho.  There are problems with the use of the word ‘black’ in the 18th and early 19thCs. as it was used to describe Africans, Indians and whites with dark complexions.

As  a novelist Judith Bryan  is  interested in the 18th and 19thCs, when there were an estimated 15,000 Africans in Britain, whose presence has been overlooked. Africans who wrote their histories have been constructed as heroes and protagonists. Bu they were fully human with ordinary but rich lives. Mary Prince asserts her rights over her own body, and resists her employer trying to take control of her body. In her Court evidence she clearly made sexual choices. Vincent Caretta suggests that Equiano came from South Carolina not Africa. By bringing the African experience from the margins to the centre in his Narrative Equiano manipulates his readers for his own purposes . Writings like his are a starting point for thinking about the lives of other Africans. Using historical fiction allows contemporary authors to explore experiences, attitudes and beliefs at the time .

Problems with ‘Black British History’

There was also discussion about ‘British Black History’. RH  spoke briefly about the development of black British history as an academic sub-discipline, beginning with the rise of labour history, the Sheffield School (migration studies), through the History Workshop movement, the 'New Imperial History’, and into more recent developments such as intersectional studies into the queer and non-binary black experience. He raised a number of questions as to the traditional association between black history and working-class history Is the history of black people in C18th Britain necessarily a working-class history? If so, then what about figures like Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho? As with gender history, scholars are increasingly incorporating black history and literature into broad-ranging, general courses.

I emphasised the need to account for a plurality of black experiences in the Georgian period. I supported Arthur’s point that much of the momentum and best quality research has come from outside academia, and that those of us working in universities need to catch up and work to develop partnerships.

 that it had been deeply influenced by the left and Marxists. It has its own special history month. It is a sub-division of ‘history from below’ movement (e.g. History Workshop).  A new imperial history emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.  Catherine Hall for example looked at information on the effect of the colonies on the metropolis. It is clear that the Black experience was migratory. The weakness of British Black History is that it collapses a broad range of very diverse every day experiences into something homogenous but actually diverse. There is a tendency to lump the celebrities into an artificial  category of ‘Black Intellectuals’. Is this a coherent category? Is there anything about them that goes beyond being ‘Black’? Marcus Redicker’s ideas re-race and class among the trans-Atlantic proletariat are relevant in this respect. Can we think about that linking slaves and textile workers in Manchester? There are new directions in Black British studies, including an emphasis on race and class identify and on sexuality. Should these be part of normal rather than special research? 

The work of the Equiano Society

Arthur Torrington discussed the importance of the work of the Equiano Society.   Sam King and he set up The Equiano Society (TES)  in 1996 as a community organisation that has publicised the life and times of Olaudah Equiano (or Gustavus Vassa, the African) because the latter was known to university lecturers, but not widely known to the public.  TES has since organised events in London to inform people in communities about Equiano, and the first at St Martins in the Field, Trafalgar Square (in March 1997) to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death. TES led the lobby for him to be included in the national curriculum and this materialised in 2008, but he was taken out by Michael Gove MP in 2010 when the Conservative Government was in power.  Major events included an exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2007 after TES and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery received £653,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund. A plaque (the first for a Black Briton) was unveiled for Equiano at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey on 9th February 2009, to mark the 250th anniversary year of his baptism in St Margaret’s.  Community events have been the major force in raising awareness of Black British history, and the past 20 years have seen a new interest in the subject.

Why do Africans seem to disappear in the 19thC?

This question is often asked at talks to local groups. The discussion focussed in the fact that there was Intermarriage between Africans and British white men and women.  Francis Barber is one example, of an African who married a white woman and had children.  Resident plantation owners often had children with slave women, and send their children to Britain. Nathaniel Wells inherited his white father’s estate and became a prominent figure . Many of the well-known Black figures in the 19th and early 20thCs were their sons, daughters and grand children. This is true of ‘ordinary’ families as well. The children and grandchildren became absorbed into the general population and as had been shown in David Olusoga’s BBC TV programme. How does mixed heritage relate to both white and black history.

Kathy Chater emphasised that they also disappear as of having African heritage because the records did not normally highlight ethnicity. While place of birth was always in the Census, ethnicity was not added until 1991. Sometime parish records up to the end of the 18th record where some Africans came from, or noted their colour, and used words ‘like ‘negro’. ‘Blackness’ was rarely recorded in the Settlement records kept to register who was eligible in receive poor law support in the parish they lived in. This makes it difficult to reconstruct the lives and ancestries of people.

Were the Sons of Africa a network?

There was a difference of opinion about the nature of the Sons of Africa, who included Equiano, and who wrote letters against the slave trade. It can be seen as a pressure group, a network, a lobby group, but not an organised or structured group. The Sons were well connected and therefore had some influence. It is clear that Africans met to socialise, to share information and to engage politically. There are 18thC press reports about Africans meeting at social events, and this was treated with a degree of fear. London was a typical in that because there were a larger number of Africans living or passing through it was possible to come together more easily. Less easy in the provinces where Africans were more thinly dispersed. Even in London it is not clear whether Equiano and Sancho met. Robert Wedderburn and William Davidson would have met but this would have been through the Spencean Philantropists.

It was hoped that the issues raised would be further explored by those present through their work on British Black studies, whether from a historical, genealogical, or literary perspective.  

An afterthought from Ryan Hanley

‘Something I wanted to say but didn’t get around to is to suggest that there is such a thing as specialist research skills for black history (especially when looking for lesser-known individuals) and it would be good to incorporate these into university syllabi, perhaps through the publication of a textbook aimed at undergraduate students and community historians.’

After thoughts from Sean Creighton

Arthur’s stress on the role of community based historians and activists in progressing Black History was an important reminder of the need for academics to pay more attention to what is happening and to forger partnerships. Brychann endorsed this and is one of those who is active in doing this. In another session Matthew Grenby recognised the need for those links. The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project is a good example of collaboration.

From my perspective this co-operation should include:

1.    Inviting alumni involved in history work to speak to undergraduates and postgraduates at the Universities they attended
2.    Linking with community historians in the area where a University exists so that a local/regional dimension is added in to course content

But it also requires academics in the same University or regional group to link together across different departments.   There is such a network in the North East  but as yet it does not seem to draw speakers from community historians.

The handout at the roundtable included the following thoughts from Judith Bryan.

‘An estimated 15,000 Africans lived and worked in Britain during the Georgian period, yet institutional, scholarly and popular representations frequently overlook or marginalise this presence, for example the recent British Library exhibition Georgians Revealed (dubbed by Miranda Kaufman, ‘Georgians Unrevealed’). Fictional representations play an important role in shaping popular knowledge because stories may be used to carry history. African writers in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth century self-consciously exploit the power of story-telling. In recounting their travels, adventures, relationships, successes and failures, Equiano and Seacole construct themselves as heroes in their narrative, authoring their lives whilst chronicling their times. Conversely, Wedderburn critiques the status quo by unapologetically presenting himself as an anti-hero. Sancho asserts himself as a sentimental man of letters, a family man, a gentleman. Prince takes ownership of her body and destiny, refuting the assumed passivity of enslaved Africans. The literary productions of these black Georgians bring the African experience from the margins to the centre, and in doing so offer a starting point and a template for contemporary writers. Events such as the arrival in Britain of African veterans of the American Revolution and their dependants; the Sierra Leone resettlement scheme; the Cato St conspiracy; and the sustained engagement of British-based Africans in abolitionist campaigns have parallels with current concerns, for example around migration, labour rights, state violence against African heritage people in the diaspora, the challenge of obtaining justice for poor or marginalised people, the effects of capitalism and globalisation on lives of ordinary people, and so on. Fiction, as a form of historical reconstruction, makes it possible to bring the long eighteenth century into new and thrilling focus, and to maintain its enduring relevance.’

Judith Bryan lectures in Creative Writing at University of Roehampton. Her novel Bernard and The Cloth Monkey (HarperCollins 1998) won the 1997 Saga Prize. Her most recent publications are short story ‘Randall & Sons’ in Closure, (Peepal Tree 2015); and a chapter in Challenging History in the Museum, (Ashgate 2014). At the time of the roundtable she was working on a novel God of Thunder, an historical fantasy, masquerading as non fiction about the catastrophic disruption of history occasioned by transatlantic slavery. Further details about Judith and her work can be seen at

Brycchan Carey is a Professor of English at Northumbria University whose publications include British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility (Palgrave, 2005) and From Peace to Freedom: Quaker Rhetoric and the Birth of American Antislavery (Yale, 2012). His book Unnatural Empire: Slavery, Abolition, and Colonial Natural History, 1650–1840, is being published by Yale in 2018.  He is working on an essay collection co-edited with Tom Krise and Nicole Aljoe on Early Caribbean Literary Histories, to be published by Palgrave, and an edition of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative in the Oxford University Press World’s Classics series. His content rich website is at

Kathleen Chater is an independent scholar.  She worked for the BBC until 1994, when she left and became a self-employed tutor in research techniques for the media and for family and local history.  She had also written books and articles on history and genealogy and researched several exhibitions on the black presence in Newham and one in Enfield.  Her doctoral thesis is published as Untold Histories: Black people in England and Wales during the British slave trade c. 1660-1807 (Manchester University Press, 2009). Her 2011 talk ‘Untold histories’ at The National Archives can be listened to as a podcast at

Ryan Hanley is is Salvesen Junior Fellow in History at New College, Oxford. In 2015 he was awarded the Royal Historical Society’s Alexander Prize for his article on James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, the first black author published in Britain. He is currently working on a monograph on black writing in Britain, 1770-1830. Further details about Ryan and his publications can be seen at

Arthur Torrington CBE is a community advocate, co-founder (with the late Sam B. King MBE) and Secretary of The Equiano Society, established in 1996 in London.   The organisation keeps alive Equiano’s story, and also publicises the heritage of other African and Caribbean people who settled in the UK over the centuries.  The Equiano Society website is at

Should a follow-up session be held at BSECS in January 2018?

I has been suggested that there should be a follow-up session on 18thC Black British History in the BSECS Annual Conference next January. If so should it focus around:
(1)    showing how the black population was all over the country
(2)    lesser known individuals especially outside London
(3)    the role of black soldiers and sailors
(4)    the contrasts of experience: Nathaniel Wells at the top of society and the black poor and the lives of black prostitutes

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