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2002-08-02 13:26:05

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History | Great Britain or United Kingdom

Contributed By: Leyla Keough

PART I: An island nation off the northwestern coast of Europe where blacks have had a presence for centuries.

Although it is commonly believed that blacks first entered Great Britain after World War II, a black presence there can be traced back to 200 C.E. As a result of British participation in the slave trade during the 16th century, a black community developed that by the 18th century numbered 15,000 in London alone. An irony that marked the African-British relationship is that although the British took pride in the freedom of their own land, they institutionalized slavery and colonialism abroad. Even after abolition, decolonization, and the influx of a large number of blacks after World War II, another contradiction remains: despite the fact that people of African descent have lived in Great Britain for centuries, many white British have refused to accept that their black neighbors, too, are British. But this is slowly changing, as blacks increasingly become involved in local and national politics and gain recognition for their contributions to British culture.

THE EARLY AFRICAN PRESENCE Several accounts indicate that Africans served in Britain as soldiers in the Roman legions of Septimius Severus as early as 200 c.e. Some scholars claim that in 862, Africans captured in Viking raids on Spain and North Africa were brought to Ireland, where they were called "blue men." A small number of blacks were pages and entertainers in the courts of both King James IV of Scotland (r. 1488-1513) and Queen Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603). In general, British contact with the people they called "Ethiopes" or "blackamoors" was mediated by Mediterranean Europe until 1554. That year, five West Africans sailed to England with the English captain John Lok for training as interpreters, to facilitate the emerging trade between Africa and England.

As Great Britain's involvement in the slave trade increased, its black population grew. Says historian Gretchen Gerzina, "the African became part of the everyday language of Englishmen. Even in the 16th century, when Shakespeare wrote Othello he was not, as past critics have argued, particularly 'confused' about racial identities . . . He too would have seen black people on the streets of London for most of his adult life and so would his audience." During the Elizabethan era, blacks began to appear as characters in literature, plays, and other entertainment. Although Shakespeare presented the Moor Othello as a sympathetic character, at this time blacks were more often depicted in art and literature as representations of filth, evil, sin, ugliness, and even the devil. Whiteness, meanwhile, began to be equated with purity, virtue, beneficence, beauty, and God. This literary development was accompanied by scientific speculation on race that perpetuated negative ideas about blacks as well as theories of black inferiority.

THE SLAVE TRADE The discovery of a sea route around Africa's southern coast in 1488 by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and the subsequent development of a Portuguese seaborne empire helped open a new world for Europe, as did exploration of the Americas. In 1497, when John Cabot led the first royally sponsored transatlantic expedition, Great Britain began to participate in the "Age of Discovery;" within a century, Great Britain rivalled Spain and France for dominance in the West Indies. Between 1609 and 1632 the English gained control of Saint Kitts, Nevis, Barbados, Antigua, Belize, Montserrat, and the Bermudas. But it was not until Jamaica was wrested from the Spanish in 1655 that sugar ? and thus slaves ? became a commodity for exchange.

In 1562 Queen Elizabeth I sent naval pioneer John Hawkins to the Atlantic coast of Africa to compete with Spain in the transatlantic slave trade. This involvement laid the foundations of a British overseas empire that depended upon a monopoly on sugar production and the transport of slaves. This mercantilist system was implemented through restrictive trade practices, such as a series of Navigation Acts, passed by the government in the 17th and 18th centuries, which stipulated that only English ships could transport products to English ports.

English slaving expanded under James I (r. 1603-1625), but it was not until the 1660s that the transport of blacks from the British-controlled African ports of the Gambia and the Gold Coast to the Caribbean became a matter of English policy. In 1663 England chartered the Company of Royal Adventurers ? renamed the Royal African Company in 1672 ? which officially designated blacks commodities, or chattel, to be exchanged across the Middle Passage in the slave trade. This company held a monopoly on slaving, annually transporting some 70,000 slaves until 1698, when all Englishmen were granted the right to trade in slaves. During the 1730s a preference for traffic in gold dust and ivory drew profits away from slaving. But in the 1740s British, French, and Spanish competition in the Caribbean resumed, and in 1750 a new company, Merchants Trading to Africa, dealt in slaves through ports in London, Liverpool, and Bristol. Such European conflicts in the West Indies continued until the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which established Great Britain as the wealthiest colonial power, second in size only to Spain.

THE EMERGENCE OF A BLACK POPULATION IN GREAT BRITAIN One result of John Hawkins's slave expedition and subsequent forays was an increase of the black population in England so significant that in 1596 Queen Elizabeth proclaimed "blackamoores . . . of which kinde of people there are allready hear too manie. . . should be sent forth of the land." The queen hired a merchant to take blacks from Great Britain to Spain and Portugal, and an official of the Privy Council directed all civil authorities to "aide and assist him to take up suche blackamoores as he shall finde within this realme" and "to be served by their owne countrymen [rather] than with those kinde of people." The growth of poverty during the Elizabethan era ? combined with the fact that blacks could be paid less than the white working class ? exacerbated xenophobia. But whites of all classes opposed a black presence, and their agreement on this issue facilitated the emerging image of English identity as distinctly white.

Little changed as a result of Elizabethan policy. By the 1670s, blacks outnumbered whites in the West Indies, and many blacks continued to arrive in England. Some Africans were sent to England to be educated in Christianity for missionary service; some African princes, as well as the mixed race children of West Indian planters, also arrived for secular training in the English language or other trade skills.

In 1791 Prince John Naimbanna of Sierra Leone was sent to England for schooling; upon his return to Africa, he fell ill and died. Tragic tales of royal lives struck a chord in the British upper classes, and the histories of these African princes were widely read. White Englishwoman Aphra Behn's novel Oroonoko (1688), a sympathetic story of an enslaved African prince, was adapted for the stage and gained wide popularity. Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, born an African prince, tells of his betrayal by a merchant who sold him into American slavery in A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as Related by Himself (1814). A similar story is told of William Ansah Sessarakoo in The Royal African; Or, A Memoir of the Young Prince of Annamaboe. Sessarakoo's life inspired poems and plays and roused British sympathy.

A 1731 law that prohibited blacks from learning trades made it difficult for them to live independently in Great Britain, and in fact most blacks at the time worked as household servants. A few were held as "pets" by bourgeois women who dressed them elaborately and treated them lavishly, such as the "favored African youth" of the Duchess of Queensbury, Julius Soubise, who was educated in the social graces and equestrianism. Some were seen as a vital part of the household and treated with respect. Jack Beef was aide to magistrate John Baker; Francis Barber was treated as a son by writer Samuel Johnson, who schooled Barber and left him a generous inheritance. Ignatius Sancho lived an independent life after serving the Duke of Montague until he made enough money to open his own grocery business. Poor blacks who did not find work as servants were often forced to beg, and black beggars became familiar sights on the sidewalks of London.

Yet some blacks in Great Britain in the 18th century won success and influence. A small number figured prominently in the arts and in sports ? black entertainers such as concert violinist George Bridgetower won fame in England, as did boxers Tom Molineaux and, later, Bill Richmond. Others were politically active. Ottobah Cugoano (John Stuart) was a radical abolitionist, as was Olaudah Equiano, who served in many literary and official capacities and acted as an administrator of the Sierra Leone Settlement. These Africans, among others, frequented pubs, corresponded, and gathered together. By the 18th century, London and other ports such as Liverpool and Bristol had acquired active, self-sufficient, and even prosperous black communities, the members of which soon organized for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.

SLAVERY AND BRITISH LAW The population of approximately 15,000 people of African origin or descent in 18th-century London posed a dilemma for the white English. As the scholar Edward Fiddes wrote in 1934, England "had landed herself in a hopeless illogical position. She justly prided herself on the personal liberty which Englishmen enjoyed under the Common Law," but "she sanctioned and even promoted a severe system of slavery in her colonies." As there was no parliamentary legislation on slavery in England, courts wavered in their decisions regarding slaves. In part because certain courts decided that Africans could be held as property because they were considered "heathens," it was popularly believed that baptism could confer freedom.

Some judges upheld Lord Chief Justice John Holt's 1706 comment in court that "as soon as a Negro comes into England, he becomes free: one may be a villain [serf] in England, but not a slave." Adherents to this opinion, which became known as the Holt Decision, asserted that a slave brought to England could not be forcibly returned to slavery in the West Indies. This precept had been upheld in the 17th century in the cases of Katherine Auker and Dinah Black, slaves brought by their masters from the West Indies to England, who sued and won their freedom. But these cases, Gerzina claims, "did little more than keep the two women employed and off the streets while the English judicial system wavered over problems of property versus humanity."

Caribbean slaveholders continued to bring their slaves to England and other parts of Great Britain on travel for months or even years, and insisted that their slaves ? whether or not free in England ? return to the West Indies as their property. The Holt Decision was contradicted in 1729 by the Yorke and Talbot Opinion, in which Attorney General Philip Yorke and Solicitor General Charles Talbot supported West Indian slaveholders with the proclamation "that a slave, by coming from the West Indies, either with or without his master, to Great Britain or Ireland, does not become free; and that his master's property or right in him is not thereby determined or varied." They also asserted that "baptism did not confer freedom."

Although the Yorke and Talbot Opinion permitted slaveholders to maintain their slaves' subject status while traveling, freedom was sometimes granted on a case-by-case basis to those slaves who were able to go to court. In the Tom and Mary Hylas Case of 1768, Mary, a slave who had been promised her freedom upon her marriage to Tom Hylas, was kidnapped by her master and forced to return to the West Indies. With the legal advice of the white abolitionist Granville Sharp, Mary's husband sued successfully for damages and her return.

A highly religious Englishman, Granville Sharp had joined the abolitionist cause after his involvement in the Jonathan Strong Case of 1767. In this case Jonathan Strong, a black slave, was freed from his former master's attempt to sell him back into slavery. Throughout the trial, Sharp expressed outrage that British courts permitted the morally and legally reprehensible system of slavery to continue on English soil. It was not until the James Somerset Case of 1772 that Sharp was able to convince an influential judge ? Lord Chief Justice William Murray Mansfield ? that Yorke and Talbot were wrong. Mansfield declared that "there was no right in the master forcibly to take the slave and carry him abroad" from England.

But kidnappings and the forcible repatriation of slaves from England to the West Indies continued. In the 1822 Grace Allen Case, tried in the West Indies, it was concluded that a "slave's residence in England merely suspended the state of slavery which revived on return to the New World colonies." This case, among others, revealed that the Somerset Case was largely ineffective in prohibiting forced repatriation. Nor did the case outlaw slavery in England, as the Joseph Knight Case had outlawed it in Scotland in 1778. Nevertheless, it brought the horrors of slavery to the forefront of public discussion and helped instigate a public outcry for abolition.

THE BLACK POOR AND THE SIERRA LEONE SETTLEMENT The Somerset Case gained a reputation, mostly because of false reports in the British and foreign press, of being a guarantee of freedom to all slaves in Great Britain. For American slaves, this reputation lent weight to the British promise that freedom would be their reward for supporting the British during the American Revolution. After the British were defeated in 1783, a number of African American soldiers went to Great Britain seeking freedom as well as the payment promised them for military service. Instead, they found a country that not only was unable to accommodate them economically, but forbade them to learn trades.

Forced to work as servants or beg, these blacks settled in major urban areas and seaports, while the white English debated solutions to the growing number of black poor. The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was founded in 1786 by white abolitionists Jonas Hanway, William Wilberforce, and Granville Sharp, among others. The committee helped ease the burden of poor blacks by providing money and accommodations, but it soon became overextended. As they had been during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, blacks in Great Britain were again blamed for unrest and unemployment, and a plan was made to resettle them elsewhere. Henry Smeathman, a white businessman who had recently returned from Africa, proposed to settle the black poor in Sierra Leone at a cost of ?14 per person. Within one year, he claimed, they could create a self-sustaining community and even send profits home to Great Britain. The Sierra Leone Settlement Plan was supported by the government, the committee, and by several prominent abolitionists, including Olaudah Equiano, who at one point administered the project.

But the plan was a fiasco from the beginning. Though Smeathman had claimed that there was "an anxious desire of getting on board the Ship [that was] appointed to carry them to the coast of Africa," fewer than 500 blacks enlisted for the 1787 voyage. Furthermore, Smeathman had misrepresented the hospitality of Sierra Leone's climate and political condition for settlement, and many of the blacks who sailed there died from starvation or disease; those who survived lived in constant fear of enslavement.

ABOLITION AND EMANCIPATION The English public had little knowledge of the extent of the Sierra Leone debacle. In fact, the settlement scheme was presented to the public as a positive part of a wider government move toward abolition. Public sympathy for abolition had taken hold by the end of the 18th century. A particularly horrifying tragedy occurred in 1781, when, as a result of shortage of supplies to feed and aid slaves, and in order to collect insurance money, the captain of the English ship Zong threw 133 captive Africans overboard. As the event became known, public outrage over the horrors of slavery grew, and abolitionist arguments became more accepted.

In 1787, the same year that poor blacks sailed for Sierra Leone, members of the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor joined with a pietistic religious group called the Clapham Sect to form the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, or the Abolition Committee. These abolitionists, along with white Quakers such as Samuel Hoare and Thomas Knowles, dedicated their time and energy to letter-writing and speaking campaigns against slavery. A similar effort was undertaken by Equiano, Cugoano, and other black abolitionists, who formed an abolitionist organization called The Sons of Africa.

Black radicals also contributed to the cause by supporting abolitionism in conjunction with broader working-class movements. William Cuffay sought radical political reform through the working-class Chartist movement for parliamentary reform, which protested social injustice in industrial Great Britain. William Davidson was part of a revolutionary plot to assassinate English cabinet members and overthrow the English government on charges that it was racially and economically unjust. Robert Wedderburn, as a follower of the underground movement of the radical millenarian Thomas Spence, demanded the equality of blacks and all the underclass within the context of a struggle for land reform.

White Englishmen and women joined the abolitionist cause by boycotting goods produced by the slave trade and wearing badges of the Wedgwood Plaque, which portrayed a kneeling black man in shackles crying, "Am I not a man and a brother?" Meanwhile, however, in his parliamentary battle against the slave trade and slavery, the abolitionist and parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who was supported by Prime Minister William Pitt, sought to allay white fears that the abolition of slavery would result in England becoming crowded with West Indians. Caribbean slaveholders, afraid of losing their livelihoods, exploited these fears with accounts of violent slave uprisings and speculation about the miscegenation and black poverty that abolition would bring to England. But abolitionist arguments were bolstered by a glut in the sugar market, which prompted free trade supporters to propose limiting the slave supply in an effort to control sugar output. In addition, the English were tired of compensating Caribbean plantation owners for their losses, and with industrialization, a new trade strategy was developing that favored greater open market competition. The English were also increasingly looking to India and China for trade, and less to the West.

Thus, economic interests supported political and moral arguments, and the British slave trade with their colonies was outlawed by the 1807 Abolition Act. Because most abolitionists supported a gradualist plan for the end of slavery and the emancipation of slaves, however, Caribbean slavery was not abolished by the British Parliament until 1833, when a system of apprenticeship was put in place, and all slaves were not freed until 1838.

BLACKS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY GREAT BRITAIN After abolition, black students, freed slaves, domestic servants, and sailors from the West Indies trickled into Great Britain, but for several reasons the black population was less visible during the 19th century than might have been expected. One factor was the increased dispersion of blacks throughout Great Britain. The explosion of trade and the development of steamships and new ports, as well as new railways to Manchester and other industrial towns, made it easier to travel throughout the nation. Black sailors, who had been readily accepted at English ports since the 17th century, continued to arrive, especially after their position was legitimized by an 1823 Act of Parliament that stated they were "as much British seamen as a white man would be." (Newer settlers of color, however, such as Indians, were not accorded this status.) But these sailors now landed not only in London or Cardiff, Wales, but in Liverpool, Bristol, and other seaports. In addition, the Customs Act of 1832, which sought to prevent participation in the slave trade by fining ship captains who brought Africans to England, may have limited the entrance of free Africans.

Many blacks were absorbed into the white lower class through interracial marriage. In particular, the high ratio of black men to black women encouraged the intermarriage of black men and white women. Olaudah Equiano and Francis Barber both married white women, and intermarriage became common within the working class, where blacks were often accepted as equals. The English objected more to marriage across class lines than marriage across racial barriers. For instance, a number of whites objected to the marriage of the royal-born Ukawsaw Gronniosaw to a white Dutch servant on the grounds of class, not race.

Local blacks continued to contribute to the cultural life of Great Britain. The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor attended the Royal College of Music and later composed Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, which gained wide popularity in Europe. The actor Ira Aldridge played Othello on the English stage. Individual blacks from various places also passed through Great Britain in the 19th century. African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Paul Cuffe, Nathaniel Paul, and Charles Lenox Remond went to England to lecture on slavery, temperance, and racial prejudice; during the 1890s, Ida B. Wells-Barnett took her antilynching campaign to England and Scotland, exposing American racial atrocities to an international audience. African nationalist Edward W. Blyden served as the Liberian ambassador to England and in various official capacities for the British government in Sierra Leone. Mary Seacole, a former American slave, risked her life to nurse soldiers in the Crimean War and became a revered figure in England. These and many other blacks comprised a growing and recognized, if transient, population that contributed to the artistic, intellectual, and political life of 19th-century Great Britain.


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