‘Darkest Africa’

In August 1884, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society held what was to be the last of the great anti-slavery meetings that had punctuated British history since the 1780s. The gathering, held at the Guildhall in the City of London, was billed as an ‘Anti-slavery Jubilee’ and was timed to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of British slavery.1 Reporting on the celebrations, The Times proudly declared: ‘There is no nobler chapter in the history of English freedom than that which ended fifty years ago in the emancipation of every slave within the Imperial dominions of the British Crown.’ The memory of the great abolitionist struggles of half a century earlier that had so divided the late Georgian British was, by the 1880s, a largely uncontentious source of national unity and pride. Abolition was a parable held aloft as proof of Britain’s moral leadership and exceptionalism. The collective pride over abolition, ‘stir[s] us all, without distinction of party, sect, or creed to continued perseverance in the same noble work’ asserted The Times. After all, ‘fifty years are an interval all too short to permit Englishmen to forget one of the greatest deeds of mercy and justice ever accomplished by the nation’.2 Among the speakers at the Guildhall in 1884 was the Prince of Wales, who, to constant cheering, declared himself to be ‘sure that in time all countries will follow in the footsteps of England. The best chance of a complete abolition of slavery will lie in civilization, in opening up those great countries, Asia and Africa, many parts of which are now known to but few Europeans’.3

Three months later, at another gathering in another European capital, politicians and diplomats from what were then called the Great Powers assembled to plan how this ‘opening up’ of the African continent might be realized. British anti-slavery activists may have commemorated 1884 as an anniversary of emancipation but history would better remember it as the year of the Berlin Conference, the meeting that marked the formal beginning of what people both at the time and ever since have called the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The delegates who convened in the old Reich’s Chancellery on Wilhelmstraße included representatives of all the imperial powers of Europe as well as diplomats from the Ottoman Empire and the United States. No representatives, diplomats or leaders from any African state or people were invited. It is often said that it was at the Berlin Conference that the continent of Africa was carved up by Europeans. In reality, the conference was where the European powers agreed the rules of engagement by which they would bring the continent under their legal control, resulting in a period that would become known as ‘New Imperialism’.

Europeans had been in contact with sub-Saharan Africa since Henry the Navigator had commanded his Portuguese caravels to explore the West African coast in search of gold during the Age of Discovery four centuries earlier. Yet right until the last quarter of the nineteenth century the continent remained largely unexplored, ‘known to but few Europeans’, as the Prince of Wales put it in 1884. While the coastline of West Africa was familiar to European traders, and the Cape and other bridgeheads had been colonized, the rest was poorly understood. Africa was famously the ‘dark continent’. It existed only in silhouette and European ignorance of what lay in its great interior – the peoples, raw materials, rivers and mountains – felt to some, at that time of vast and rapid progress, a challenge to be conquered.

For Britain, the Scramble meant that the era of informal anti-slavery imperialism on the coast of Africa was over, and the phase of annexation and control of the interior began. In the minds of a number of statesmen and colonial theorists, Africa’s new role was to act as a safety valve for Europe. It was to be an outlet for Europe’s energies, ambitions and manufactured goods and an arena in which Europe’s internal rivalries could also be played out at a safe distance. In effect, the freedoms of one continent and its people were to be forgone in the economic and security interests of another. To protect peace in Europe, Africa was to be divided and colonized. She was to provide new markets and raw materials. Where her climate was appropriate she was to offer up her soil to white settlers. In Africa, those new colonists would find what German theorists were, in the late nineteenth century, already beginning to call ‘Lebensraum’ – living space. In those regions that were habitable to Europeans the local Africans were to be divested of their ancestral lands and forcibly converted into a class of landless labourers. The exploration, conquest and colonization of Africa – the last continent to hold out against Europeans – was the great project of the age.

The sheer speed of the Scramble for Africa was breathtaking. In 1870, 10 per cent of Africa was under European control and 90 per cent of the continent was ruled by Africans. By 1900 that situation had been reversed. Ultimately only Ethiopia and Liberia resisted the European onslaught. Within three decades, nine million square miles of territory were added to the empires of Europe, one-fifth of the land area of the globe. Britain had, by some criteria, won the Scramble. One in three Africans became British colonial subjects; forty-five million people, more than the entire population of the UK at the time.

This great transition was largely made possible by new technologies. Africa, unlike the Americas, had never been unknown to Europeans. The British, as we have seen, traded with sub-Saharan Africans from the middle of the sixteenth century but the conquest of equatorial Africa remained impossible until the final quarter of the nineteenth century when the barriers that had kept the Europeans out for centuries were overcome one by one. Shallow-draughted, steam-powered riverboats were, not long after their invention, adapted to become gunboats, and rivers became highways for European military power, direct to Africa’s heart. Medical advances allowed Europeans not just to conquer Africa but to occupy it. The prophylactic use of quinine enabled Victorian soldiers and explorers to survive in regions of tropical Africa that their predecessors had known as ‘white men’s graveyards’. Many zones were still not safe enough to be colonized by British settlers but quinine at least made it possible for administrators and soldiers to be posted to enforce British control and aid the flow of trade and commerce. The final piece of the jigsaw was the Maxim machine gun, a piece of military technology that enabled tiny numbers of European soldiers to overwhelm enormous armies of Africans, although fast, accurate breech-loading rifles were often just as important in many of the ‘small wars’ that regularly punctuated the Scramble. These new industrial weapons, produced in factories rather than by blacksmiths in workshops, were of a different order to older firearms. The West African armies’ ancient muskets, many of which had been sold to them by European slave-traders in earlier centuries, were now disastrously defunct and ineffective.

Colonial theorists promised that Africa would supply Europe with new markets and materials, yet the colonies carved out of the continent in the late Victorian age were, in truth, of little economic significance. Until the First World War few ran at a profit, the cost of administration and infrastructural development usually outweighing the benefits of trade or mineral exploitation. In some places charter companies led the way and took the financial risks, in others strategic concerns encouraged the state to invest directly, which it often did only reluctantly, and there were always some politicians who, from time to time, asked if the whole thing was worth the candle. In 1910 Britain’s only significant trading partner on the continent was South Africa, where the bulk of her white settlers lived. The real impact of the Scramble upon Britain was not economic but cultural. While the Scramble transformed the lives of millions of Africans there were others who lived through this great transition unaware that any of it had taken place, little affected by having become subjects of Britain. They toiled their fields never hearing of the distant island that claimed sovereignty over so much of their continent and never encountering a British soldier or administrator. The British public, however, tended to be far more aware of the great change that had taken place and many were deeply intrigued by the new peoples drawn into the empire.

Recent historical debates about the extent to which British people knew or cared about the empire to some extent miss the point. The public might not have regarded Africa as the key to national wealth and security, or as a project that affected their day-to-day lives in material or measurable ways, but they were often fascinated by its sheer drama and exoticism. It was the people of Africa rather than the land, rivers or mountains that gripped the imagination most tightly in the late nineteenth century. Millions of Victorians were just as fascinated by the mysterious people of the African interior as their Elizabethan forebears had been when they read Richard Hakluyt’s accounts of the Age of Discovery. Renewed interest in the continent began earlier in the century thanks in large part to a generation of explorers whose exploits, adventures and privations captivated millions across Europe. African exploration caught the popular imagination before the process of colonization got under way, and was one of the great success stories of the booming newspaper industry of the 1860s and 1870s. A number of the explorers were themselves savvy self-publicists. Henry Morton Stanley, the author of the bestselling In Darkest Africa, and the man who ‘found Livingstone’, was a journalist as much as an explorer.

The Victorians were enthralled by military victory and there were great emotional surges of righteous outrage when British blood was spilt or the forward progress of British power temporarily halted by some insignificant tribe who had dared to stand in the way, or attempted to cling on to their own modes of life or their territory. The late Victorian age was regularly scandalized by imperial outrages, such as the Zulu victory over a British force at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, the death of Charles George Gordon at the hands of the Mahdi in Khartoum six years later and the ‘Benin Massacre’ of 1896 that led to the punitive destruction, by a British force, of the Oba’s palace in Benin, which the English explorer John Lok had visited in the 1550s. Soldiers, explorers, hunters, missionaries or men who were dynamic combinations of all of the above became national ‘heroes’. There was even room in the scramble for Africa for female heroes. The explorer and ethnographer Mary Kingsley undertook two expeditions to Africa and wrote the bestselling Travels in West Africa. In the last quarter of the century, the British press were very happy to report every triumph or setback. The daily newspapers, most of them conservative in outlook and targeted at the middle classes, specialized in breathless reports from the African bush or veldt. The age of the New Imperialism coincided with the age of the New Journalism; a tabloid revolution of campaigning, nationalistic, popular press that was always in need of a cause.

The expansion of the British Empire into Africa might have failed to deliver on the promise of wealth and new markets but it succeeded in offering spectacle. In doing so it contributed to a change in how people in Britain viewed the outside world, in particular the new peoples and races brought under British rule; hundreds of tribes each different and distinct were an enormous attraction and one of the great novelties of the age. All manner of stereotypes and judgements were blithely made about the various peoples of Africa in such texts. The Ndebele people were said to be savage warriors; the Yoruba were greedy and money-minded; the Zulu had a history of ‘superstitious madness and blood-stained grandeur’, in the view of the Victorian novelist Henry Rider Haggard.4

These observations were tainted by rapidly evolving forms of racism that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. Older ideas from the eighteenth century had held that the various races could be placed on a ‘scale of humanity’ or ‘chain of being’ with the white race at the top and the darker races at the bottom. Darwin’s ideas and discoveries in the 1860s were understood by many as scientific explanation for this scale. It was, said the Social Darwinists, a consequence of ancient struggles for survival in which the strongest and most worthy races had risen to the top, and rightly so. From around the middle of the century craniometry – the study and measurement of human skulls – became another frontier of racial science. The discovery that there were tiny variations between the ‘races’ in the size of their skulls and the prominence of various features was presented as physical evidence for the alleged inferiority of the darker races. These dubious calibrations and the conclusions drawn from them went almost unchallenged during the last decades of the nineteenth century and were the foundations for many of the most dangerous racial theories of the twentieth. Another theory which gained ground in the second half of Victoria’s reign was the idea that black children were lively and bright when young but after puberty lapsed into a lethargy, making no further intellectual progress. The view that Africans were, in effect, overgrown infants with the same predilections, weaknesses and irrationality had first emerged during the eighteenth century in slave owners’ propaganda but it was given a second wind during the Scramble for Africa. It was perhaps best expressed by Lord Lugard, a colonial soldier who rose to become Governor-General of Nigeria, and described ‘the typical African’:

a happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking in self-control, discipline and foresight, naturally courageous, and naturally courteous and polite, full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity, fond of music and loving weapons as an oriental loves jewelry. His thoughts are concentrated on the events and feelings of the moment, and he suffers little from apprehension for the future, or grief for the past. His mind is far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animal’s placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the state he has reached . . . in brief, the virtues and defects of this race-type are those of attractive children . . . 5

Imperial conquest put the builders of the British Empire in a position to make such judgements, and Social Darwinism enabled these influencers to regard the act of conquest itself as proof that they were superior to the ‘dark races’. That the Africans had been conquered meant that they were inferior, so the argument went, and as inferiors their inevitable fate was to be ruled over by a wiser and stronger race. The belief that the British were such a people became more deeply ingrained and widespread in the later nineteenth century, as the humanitarianism of the abolitionist and anti-slavery eras – hypocritical and paternalistic though it was – evaporated. In its place came this harder, more biological view of race. A growing sense of white superiority and British exceptionalism spread, and came to influence even how many poorer Britons viewed Africans and other racial outsiders, even though the poor lived beyond the reach of the middle-class newspapers and the expensively produced memoirs of the explorers. They imbibed the new racism and racial hierarchies through the visual culture of their age and, after 1870, through elementary education that was made compulsory up to the age of thirteen. The late Victorian generation were the first to be presented with the famous map of the British Empire, blocked out in colonial British red, reduced to a less than masculine pink by cartographers to make the cities and rivers of the colonies and dominions more easy to read. Such racial views were by no means universal, and there were always Britons of all classes who, even in the most jingoistic and racist periods, rejected or distrusted the racial assumptions and were happy to welcome black people into their communities. But a widespread disdain for foreigners and sense of superiority over people of African heritage did become increasingly a feature of Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century, just as opposition to slavery had been a key feature of the national self-image in the middle decades.

This increasing belief in the hierarchy of races and the civilizing mission in Africa fused with a popular urge to encounter exotic peoples. This found its expression in the colonial exhibitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which have, with good reason, been described as ‘people shows’ and ‘human zoos’. Some of these were private affairs run by impresarios, others were vast exhibitions with a degree of state sanction and official recognition, with local councils becoming increasingly eager to secure the services of troupes of the most exotic Africans. The scale of some of these events and the efforts organizers made to provide audiences with supposedly authentic encounters with African peoples was previously unheard of, but the phenomenon of the African transported to Europe and displayed as a human exhibit was not. Africans had been exhibited before paying audiences throughout the nineteenth century.

Saartjie Baartman, also known as Sarah and as the Hottentot Venus, was a woman of the Khoikhoi people of southern Africa. She was born in the Eastern Cape around 1789. When white colonists murdered her fiancé, she was sold as a slave to Hendrik Cesars, a mixed-race Cape farmer, who made her work as a domestic servant in Cape Town. In 1810 she was brought to Britain by Cesars and a ship’s surgeon named Alexander Dunlop, both of whom later claimed that she had signed a contract allowing herself to be put on public exhibition. In London Saartjie Baartman was displayed almost naked in a cage. Her physical appearance, and in particular her large buttocks, was examined and prodded by the men and some women who came to view her. She was eventually transported to France and sold again, this time to an exhibitor in the French capital. In 1815 she was studied by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, one of the earliest proponents of the theory of extinction in the natural world. In the middle of the century more Khoikhoi and Khoisan people were exhibited in Britain, usually in temporary exhibitions and unsavoury sideshows that described them as ‘Bushmen’. They were followed by a number of Zulu people.

The development of photography brought images of the people of the ‘dark continent’ to a wider European audience, yet this, perhaps, only made the yearning for real contact all the greater. The black population of Victorian Britain, tiny and concentrated in London and a handful of port towns, consisted mainly of people from the West Indies, the USA or Sierra Leone, who had no connection with exotic tribes from the inner, dark heart of Africa. They were novelties, and many of them took to the stage – as we shall see – but they were no substitute for people brought directly from Africa.

The earliest human exhibits from Africa were presented to the public in music halls and travelling circuses, usually as individuals or small groups. But later in the century far larger imperial exhibitions were staged. The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851 marked the advent of an age of ‘International Exhibitions’, ‘World Fairs’ and ‘Expositions’. Between the 1860s and the First World War, the decades just after the creation of mass rail-transport networks and just before the advent of cinema, these events were an important aspect of European mass culture. All major European cities, and a number of minor ones, that had aspirations to or pretentions of grandeur and world status put on international exhibitions. London and Paris dominated but by holding an international exhibition smaller cities were able to momentarily burst upon the world stage, as Wolverhampton and Cork did in 1902, with Bradford following in 1904. The age of the international exhibitions coincided with the Scramble for Africa and the event organizers were happy to promote and celebrate the great imperial project. It was perhaps inevitable that the newly conquered peoples of Africa would be drawn into this new culture of mass spectacle. Imperial pavilions and ‘native villages’ which warehoused troupes of the supposedly savage peoples of Africa became an accepted and expected feature of the exhibitions. Millions of Britons living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries visited and so had contact, often for the first time in their life, with people from Africa in such circumstances; for visitors from rural areas or smaller towns the African ‘exhibits’ were in many cases the first black people they had encountered.

These ‘native villages’ purported to be authentic arenas for genuine representations of African life, and were contrasted in the official programmes with the displays of European industry and technology in the pavilions that surrounded them.6 The human exhibits were instructed to re-enact village life, produce the ‘handicrafts associated with their existence’, and perform tribal and even sacred customs.7 The ‘villagers’ were separated from the white audiences by fences and were often commanded to perform their simulations to a timetable that could be advertised in advance. A village at the Franco-British Exhibition in Earls Court in 1908 housing around a hundred and thirty allegedly Senegalese Africans attracted three-quarters of a million visitors, who were promised that they would ‘penetrate the mysteries of the sunlit Continent, to transport yourself at a moment from the prosaic world in which you live to a land of mystery and romance.’8 It was slightly less popular than the Ceylon Village and the Irish Village, both of which were more successful than the Our Indian Empire pavilion. Many of the more spectacular shows exhibited animals in similar surroundings that also had their ‘natural’ habitats recreated for them by the organizers.

While they were intended to be celebrations of the triumphs of the imperial project, such exhibitions were also a reaffirmation of European racial supremacy over Africans, and other supposedly lesser peoples. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, the new sciences of ethnography and anthropology were deployed to provide exhibitions with the veneer of scientific respectability and to suggest that they had some purpose beyond entertainment and titillation. Yet the exploitation of the Africans placed on public display in faux African villages, imperial pavilions and music-hall sideshows was not altogether unnoted. The misuse of a man known as Klikko the Wild Dancing Bushman, who was put on display in a stage show that ran between 1912 and 1913, was so blatant and distasteful that an appalled stagehand, working at the Palace Theatre in Maidstone, reported the show to the Aborigines Protection Society.9

While all of these exhibitions and shows were undoubtedly exploitative, not all were as they seemed, and in some cases, the paying public were exposed to a lesser form of exploitation. In a number of shows there were, among the human exhibits, African performers. These were men and women who had effectively become professional ethnographic re-enactors, and who moved from city to city performing as required, taking some share of the profits. The Bradford Exhibition in 1904 had attempted to secure the services of a troupe of Ashanti people from the Gold Coast. When they were unavailable, the organizers booked a group of around a hundred men, women and children from Somalia, a country in which British forces had recently been engaged. Led by a chief and a mullah, the Somalis constructed their own, allegedly authentic African village and there they lived for the duration of the exhibition, which lasted from May until October 1904. The enormous Yorkshire crowds who visited the exhibition could observe various aspects of their traditional modes of life; there were demonstrations of traditional wrestling and spear-throwing, traditional metal workers produced authentic weapons and other implements, and weavers produced handicraft items. One of the most popular events was ‘washing day’, which predictably was dominated by the women. However, the savage authenticity of the Somalis was called into question by a report in the Bradford Daily Telegraph, which noted that on their departure a number of the men were seen wearing English suits. Many of them also spoke English, and when a fire at the showground damaged the troupe leader’s accommodation, his personal belongings were valued at almost £300, enough in 1904 to purchase a small house.10 It was also observed that the Somalis were in no particular hurry to return to their homeland and throw themselves back into the traditional modes of life they had spent the summer of 1904 re-enacting in a public park in Yorkshire. Their next stop was not the Horn of Africa but the Belgian town of Liège. It was clear that the Somalis were a professional outfit whose leaders had done financially very well by touring the European circuit of colonial exhibitions and African shows, thereby making a mockery of the popular notion of Africans as naive and unworldly. It was noted too that the Africans who occupied the Senegalese village at the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908 had arrived in London from France rather than Senegal. From there, they continued their progress across Europe. Other troupes of Africans were similarly professionalized and well travelled.

The African villages at some exhibitions (including the Somali and Senegalese Villages at Bradford and the Franco-British Exhibition) included schools or workshops which were intended to demonstrate that the process of European colonization had brought immeasurable advantages to primitive peoples. The official guide to the Franco-British Exhibition described the Senegalese Village as a ‘cruel-looking stockade’ where ‘over a hundred men and women from the borders of the desert are now living exactly as they do in their native Africa’. The presence of the school was proof, said the guide, ‘that France cares for her far-away children with as much solicitude as Great Britain, and seeks as energetically and successfully to raise the standard of their lives’.11

The imperial exhibitions often attempted to draw anatomical and cultural comparisons between the various African peoples on display. The International Horticulture Exhibition held in London in 1892 included a number of people from the Zulu tribe and contained a Sudanese village. Attempts to contrast the qualities of the two peoples were somewhat undermined by the fact that the Sudanese were in reality from Senegal. Undeterred, the programme suggested the ‘Sudanese’ had attained a higher level of civilization than the Zulu as some of their number had been converted to Christianity.12 The appearance of a Zulu choir was presented by the organizers as proof that efforts to similarly ‘civilize’ the Zulu were under way and bearing fruit.

During the Scramble for Africa, audiences were especially keen to view Africans who came from tribes against whom British forces had fought. Decades of intermittent colonial warfare, ceaselessly relayed to the public in sensationalized newspaper accounts and Boy’s Own colonial adventure books had accustomed millions to think of tribes such as the Zulu of South Africa or the Ashanti of the Gold Coast as particularly warlike and savage. The opportunity of seeing, in the flesh, the warriors who had fought against British troops on the colonial frontier and, in the case of the Zulu, comprehensively defeated them at the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana was not to be missed. The impresarios who organized and profited from such exhibitions discovered that the effect could be further heightened if their African ‘exhibits’ were made to re-enact famous frontier battles that had, just years or in some cases months earlier, been the subject of fevered press coverage. These displays of colonial warfare, pitting British forces against ‘savage’ Africans in mock combat, were enormously popular, and never more so than when they portrayed white soldiers holding the ‘thin red line’ against men from tribes whose martial reputations were unquestioned and widely understood. That the Europeans, played by re-enactors or former soldiers, wore uniforms and the Africans appeared semi-naked all added to the sense of spectacle and exoticism.

At the turn of the century the most extravagant of all the imperial exhibitions arrived in Britain. The legendary ‘Savage South Africa’ show was the invention of Frank Fillis, an Anglo-South African circus owner. The show promised the public ‘a sight never seen previously in Europe, a horde of savages direct from their kraals’.13 Savage South Africa landed at Southampton docks with six elephants, seven lions and, somewhat incongruously for an African show, eight tigers. Travelling with the wild beasts were ten Boer families and, according to the Bristol Mercury, ‘several members of the Cape Town Rifles, Bechuanaland Police and South African Police’ all of whom were to perform in the show.14 The other stars of ‘Savage South Africa’ were two hundred Africans, said to be made up of a hundred and fifty ‘Swazi’ and ‘Basotho’ people, and a group of ‘Shangane mine-workers’. There were also fifty Zulu men, who had been recruited not to further demonstrate the fearsome reputation of their people, but to impersonate the Ndebele, against whom Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company had recently fought the Second Matabele War. The Ndebele people are an ethnic offshoot of the Zulu and it was presumed that the London audiences would be none the wiser. A film camera was sent to Southampton docks to meet the ship. The minute-long reel shows the ‘Zulu’ men gathered under the shadow of a giant crane, performing for the camera, encouraged by a white man in a frock coat and top hat. From Southampton ‘the natives and animals’ were transported to Earls Court on ‘three special trains’.15

The show ran for a year between 1899 and 1900, and during this time the Anglo-Boer War broke out. Fillis seized the opportunity to approach the British army which, rather remarkably, loaned him six hundred soldiers. Fillis’s new show, hosted in London’s Olympia, staged re-enactments of episodes from the conflict.16 Among the African ‘performers’ was Peter Lobengula, the son of the late King Lobengula Khumalo, the Ndebele leader who had been defeated by the British South Africa Company in the First Matabele War, 1893–94.

However, this most extravagant of shows brought to a head a disapproval that had been rumbling since the exhibitions had begun. In 1899, the Aborigines Protection Society condemned it for exploiting Africans and in Parliament, one MP asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, to take ‘steps to procure the return of these Natives to their own country’.17 While The Times did worry about the ethics of turning Africans into human exhibits, it ultimately concluded that ‘whatever view one may take of the action of the organizers in bringing over a large number of natives to be stared at and to take their chance of being demoralized in such strange and unedifying surroundings, there is nothing to be said against the entertainment itself. It is a capital circus performance with a special interest lent to it by the representation of famous scenes in recent South African history’.18

But what disturbed a number of Victorian and Edwardian commentators more than the exploitation of African people was that such exhibitions brought African men into contact with white British women, and not only that, but there were rumours of sexual contact between the black men and white female visitors. These claims led the organizers of ‘Savage South Africa’, the London Exhibition Company, to bar all white women from the area housing the Africans – the so-called ‘Kaffir kraal’. When it was revealed that Peter Lobengula had married an English woman, Kitty Jewell, even the most lurid rumours were recounted as fact. American newspapers took great delight in reporting that in London ‘fashionable women go into the black men’s huts and give them presents’. These encounters, they maintained, were merely the overtures to the ‘vilest orgies’.19The Texan newspaper the Galveston Daily News suggested that by allowing ‘this little band of savages’ into their capital city the episode had ‘brought home to the English people for the first time the seriousness of mixed marriages’.20 In 1917, a writer in the popular magazine Tit-Bitscommented that, ‘some years ago we used to have large bodies of natives sent from Africa on military service or in some travelling show, and it was the revelation of horror and disgust to the whole the manner in which English women would flock to see these men, whilst to watch them fawning over these black creatures and fondling them and embracing them, as I have seen dozens of times, was a scandal and a disgrace to English womanhood.’ Racial mixing did not just offend the author, he believed it was a real and direct threat to the control of the empire and the preservation of racial hierarchies. If, as he was convinced, such events permitted the barriers that separated the races to be crossed, ‘how then’, he asked, ‘is it possible to maintain as the one stern creed in the policy of the Empire the eternal supremacy of the white over black?’21

British administrators in the colonies similarly disliked the imperial exhibitions. There were reports in 1899 that the South African authorities had attempted to prevent Africans being taken to London for ‘Savage South Africa’. What the authorities there and elsewhere in the African empire feared was that those who had taken part in such events, having travelled to Europe and met thousands of Europeans, would return home with a new understanding of their colonial rulers, which would undermine white racial prestige, and that contact between white women and African men would put white women in Africa at risk. One of the ways in which the organizers attempted to limit the damage – as they saw it – was to control how much of Britain the African ‘exhibits’ and performers were able to see. This was achieved, on occasion, by containing them within the exhibition grounds, or at least attempting to do so. When Africans travelled as self-contained and self-organized troupes, who moved independently from city to city, this was, of course, impossible and there was another type of visiting African even more difficult to control and corral.

Throughout the later decades of Queen Victoria’s reign, a number of royal delegations containing African kings and chiefs visited Britain. These were often arranged by the Colonial Office, which liked to use them to impress upon African rulers the military and economic power of Britain. Others were arranged in order for African leaders to negotiate with officials at the Colonial Office, and some were the initiative of Africans themselves. These visits subverted the racial hierarchies of empire in ways that fascinated the hierarchical and class-based British public. African kings were both black and royal – and therefore doubly exotic. Some had attained fame before they set foot on British soil and their arrival in the country was a national event. Cetshwayo kaMpande, the deposed King of the Zulu people, visited Britain in 1882, just three years after his victory over British forces at the Battle of Isandlwana. The British press, which had reported the defeat in lurid detail, was fascinated by the King’s visit. The shock of Isandlwana had inspired a wave of hatred against the Zulus; however, once British military dominance in southern Africa had been reasserted and the natural order of things – as the British viewed it – restored, the mood changed. Deposed and exiled, Cetshwayo was no longer a military threat and could thus be feted as a ‘noble savage’ and leader of an exotic warrior people. The Zulu king used his visit to meet Queen Victoria and officials at the Colonial Office, with whom he negotiated his partial reinstatement as King of the Zulu. Rather unsubtly, the Colonial Office included in his itinerary a tour of Woolwich Arsenal, during which he saw enormous artillery pieces being forged, and of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth.

The most remarkable of the many royal African visits of the Victorian age took place in 1895. It was initiated by King Khama of the BagammaNgwato people, who lived in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, modern Botswana. In 1893, the Ndebele King Lobengula (whose son had been a human exhibit in the ‘Savage South Africa’ show) had been defeated by Cecil Rhodes, the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and diamond-mining millionaire whose British South Africa Company ruthlessly used its own private army to expand British control in southern Africa. The Ndebele had then been largely corralled onto two ‘native reserves’ and huge swathes of land had been distributed to white settlers by what was called the ‘Loot Committee’. By 1895, Cecil Rhodes had decided on his next target. His aim was to draw the Bechuanaland Crown Colony into the Cape Colony, then to bring the Bechuanaland Protectorate under the control of his British South Africa Company, rather than the British government. Threatened by Cecil Rhodes’s plans, King Khama protested to the Cape Colony government, where he had a number of supporters who regarded him as a loyal ally of the British. Though he had fewer supporters in London, the new government of Lord Salisbury was far more sympathetic to Cecil Rhodes and his ambitions than the Liberal Party administration it had toppled. When Rhodes succeeded in annexing the Bechuanaland Crown Colony it was inevitable that the Bechuanaland Protectorate and the lands of King Khama would be next.

In September 1895, Khama travelled to Britain with two other kings from the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Sebele I of the Kwêna people and Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse. Their unlikely plan to protect their land from Rhodes was to appeal directly to the British people. In 1894 Khama had written to a sympathetic supporter in the government of the Cape Colony, explaining that he intended to ‘seek another way of approach which I can speak to the Queen and the people of England’.22 Their great ally in this venture was the Reverend William Willoughby and his colleagues in the London Missionary Society. Once they arrived in Britain, Khama, Sebele and Bathoen attended a meeting with Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, in which they made a plea for their lands to be maintained under the protection of the Crown and not incorporated into the territories administered by the British South Africa Company. They then embarked upon one of the best organized and most effective public-relations operations in British history and visited every major city in the country, clustering their appearances by region for greater efficiency. During September they toured the Midlands, visiting Wellingborough, Leicester, Enderby and Birmingham. In October they went to Stockport, Liverpool, Manchester, Dewsbury, Bradford, Leeds and Halifax. Another tour later that month saw them appear in Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sheffield and Hanley. Upon the instruction of the kings, professionally produced books of press cuttings containing articles taken from a hundred and thirty-five British newspapers and New York dailies were distributed.

A glimpse at the itinerary for just one stop in the tour shows how each day was a whirl of events, meetings, speeches and dinners, and reveals the warmth of reception they received. The visit of Khama, Bathoen and Sebele to Birmingham on 27 September 1895 began at nine thirty with a special breakfast in the mayor’s parlour in the Council House. In his invitation for the breakfast the Deputy Mayor of Birmingham requested the pleasure of the company of those Birmingham citizens who were ‘To Have The Honour of Meeting Khama, the chief of the Bamangwato; Sebele, Chief of the Bakwena; and Bathoen, Chief of the Bangwaketse’.23 A special ‘Royal Programme, and a Descriptive Sketch’, of the ‘Visit of King Khama, ruler of Bechuanaland Accompanied by Native African Chiefs to Birmingham September 1895’ was also printed.24 It promised to reveal ‘King Khama’s Life, Character, and Career: A Most Interesting And Graphic Account of African Habits and Customs.’25 The schedule of events explained that after a busy day meeting local manufacturers, having lunch with Mr R. Cadbury of the Bournville chocolate factory and speaking at the Council House with the Deputy Mayor, the kings were to ‘attend a reception at the Town Hall (for which 2,500 invitations have been issued) afterwards KHAMA will be presented with an illuminated address; and in the same building be present at a meeting of the London Missionary Society, at which the KING will speak’.26 The three kings were to stay at the Cobden Hotel and leave Birmingham New Street Station the following morning for their next set of engagements, in Brighton.

It was a hectic, inventive and brilliantly stage-managed tour that turned three unknown African kings from minor southern tribes into national celebrities and unleashed a great torrent of press coverage in which Rhodes and the British South Africa Company were largely vilified. The three kings and their missionary allies ensured that every positive aspect of their characters and back stories was emphasized and publicized, and that the people they ruled over were portrayed as the innocent victims of Rhodes and his limitless ambition. Readers of British newspapers in the autumn of 1895, like any of the thousands of people who attended the numerous meetings, talks and audiences at which the three kings were present, were reminded that King Khama had refused to take a second wife, as had been customary, and had repressed polygamy among his people. They were also informed that King Khama personally eschewed alcohol and campaigned tirelessly for the eradication of hard liquor from his kingdom. As the temperance movement was the largest mass-participation social movement in late Victorian Britain, Khama’s abstemiousness won him a great many friends and admirers. The public were constantly and repeatedly reminded of the depth of the three kings’ Christian faith, and their strong links to the men of the London Missionary Society. It helped that Sebele’s father had been baptized by David Livingstone. Khama, Sebele and Bathoen and their missionary supporters were also able to tap into Britain’s long anti-slavery tradition by suggesting that Rhodes’s ultimate intention was to force the people of the Bechuanaland Protectorate to work in the Kimberley gold mines, where they would be reduced to something akin to a state of slavery. The effect was dramatic. The British press, which by 1895 had supported numerous colonial wars and annexations, and presented its readers with many sensationalist and exaggerated portraits of various African tribes, proved infinitely flexible. Sensing the public mood and knowing a good story when it saw one, it poured praise upon the three kings of Bechuanaland, never tiring of playing on the obvious symbolism of this ‘trinity’ of kings who had arrived from a distant land. The Yorkshire Daily Post was not untypical in its effusive praise for Khama: ‘The African Chief Khama is the best example of what a black man can become by means of good disposition and Christianity, a British officer described him as a man far in advance of his people in Africa ruling by generosity instead of fear, cool in danger and self possessed at all times. It has been said that his manners would win golden opinion in any society.’27

Throughout all of this Khama, Sebele and Bathoen were able to present themselves to the British people as grateful beneficiaries of the Victorian ‘civilizing mission’. They were, after all, not seeking to escape the empire but had willingly submitted to its embrace and hoped only for that embrace to endure. Here were Africans who wanted to live under the rule of Queen Victoria and under the protection of the empire. Instead, their dispute was with Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company, whose harsh rule they desperately sought to avoid. Throughout their tour they were, therefore, able to lay two opposing visions of the empire alongside one another. The ‘civilizing mission’ vision of British trusteeship, which, although paternalistic, patronizing and groaning under the weight of racial supposition, was infinitely more benign than the brutal, rapacious, land-grabbing form of settler capitalism practised by Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company. Khama, Sebele and Bathoen fully understood the difference between the two. In June 1895, Khama had sent a petition to Joseph Chamberlain which rightly appraised the methods and priorities of the British South Africa Company. ‘[We] see that the Company does not love black people’, he wrote, ‘it loves only to take the country of the black people and sell it to others that it may see gain.’28

As there had been during previous royal African visits, there were some attempts by the Colonial Office to control the schedule and determine which aspects of British life the kings were permitted to see. When it was suggested, for example, that they might visit a prison the request was refused on the grounds that it would be a ‘humiliation’ for the prisoners ‘to be looked upon by Kaffirs’.29 The kings did, however, go to the Crystal Palace, which by 1895 was no longer located in Hyde Park but in Sydenham, south London. There they visited an imperial exhibition entitled ‘The East African Village and Great Display by the Natives of Somaliland under the Direction of Herr Carl Hagenbeck’.30 Hagenbeck was a near-legendary supplier of exotic animals and ‘savage’ peoples to the colonial exhibitions and zoos of Europe. His East African Village came replete with sixty-five Somali ‘villagers’, who, as was customary by 1895, reenacted their daily routines and tribal customs for the paying public. Alongside the village was an ostrich farm, for which admission was two shillings. Khama, Sebele and Bathoen went to both and were all said to have been ‘greatly pleased by their entertainment’.31 What they thought of the morality of placing fellow Africans on display in an ersatz village on the edge of London was not recorded.

Repeatedly throughout their tour, as the three kings built up popular support, they held negotiations with Cecil Rhodes’s agents in Britain. In November 1895 they rejected what the British South Africa Company called its ‘maximum offer’ on the status of their territories and the amount of land they were expected to cede to the company for the construction of a new railway. In a letter of 4 November they wrote to Rhodes and his company:

You speak to us as if you had taken our land in war and we had to beg it from you. The land is ours, not yours, and we cannot speak of giving the best parts to you. We occupy the waters with our cattle and our gardens, and we cannot remove our people for the sake of letting you sell our country.32

That month, the kings met Chamberlain. They agreed to cede land to the government for the construction of the railway but were promised compensation. More importantly, they were assured that they were to ‘live as hitherto under the protection of the Queen’ and that they were to ‘rule their own people much as at present’.33 Rhodes responded to the government’s recognition of the rights of the kings to rule over their own land and people by complaining that it was a humiliation to have been ‘utterly beaten by these niggers’.34 On 20 November, at Windsor Castle, Khama, Sebele and Bathoen were finally granted an audience with Queen Victoria, who they knew as MmaMosadinyana – ‘the little woman of many days’.35 They returned to Bechuanaland in 1896 and the protectorate remained under direct British administration until 1960 when it became the modern state of Botswana. Khama, Sebele I and Bathoen I are recognized by Botswanans as founders of their nation. Had they not embarked upon their tour of Britain it is probable that Cecil Rhodes would have annexed the protectorate and incorporated it into what became Rhodesia.

Through all this – the Scramble for Africa, the rise of the imperial exhibitions, the visits of African kings and the emergence of new forms of racism – there were, at the centre of the empire itself, communities of black Britons: ordinary people living ordinary lives. There were black Victorians and black Edwardians, as there had been black Georgians and black Tudors. The new colonial project, like the slave trade before it, brought black people to Britain while at the same time older links, such as those between Britain and Sierra Leone, developed, evolved and in some ways deepened. There was often, as the historian Douglas Lorimer suggests, a divergence between attitudes and behaviour. While racism undoubtedly affected the lives of all black Victorians and Edwardians, some were able to navigate within British society and often move around within the empire and within certain British institutions – the churches, universities, the army and the professions. They found and created roles for themselves in which they were accepted, at least by some, and entered new arenas when allowed to become black ‘firsts’. As in all societies those with money and education fared best, and there continued to be a black underclass of beggars and the destitute, but luck sometimes counted for much.

Africans, West Indians and African Americans arrived in Britain in the latter half of the nineteenth century not as pageboys and domestic slaves as in the Georgian era but as students, as sailors and simply as migrants. Others were born in Britain, the products of generations of contact, migration and Christian missionary work. A disproportionate number of students came from Sierra Leone, as the Krio people built upon their unique links to Britain, which ran deeper than those of any other African people, except perhaps for some of the old coastal people of the South African Cape. The University of Durham developed particularly strong ties with both the West Indies and West Africa, and became one of the few centres for the education of black men in Britain through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A few black women were sent to Britain, by family or by the Church, to receive a higher education. Young people from both colonies trained and studied in the cold North-East. Other British institutions focused on training Africans as missionaries and by the end of the century London University and the universities of Cambridge and Liverpool had begun to attract and accept African students, most in medicine or the law. Thanks to these programmes there were African doctors working in British hospitals half a century before the advent of the National Health Service, which would so heavily rely upon the efforts of black migrants. Among the first black doctors in Britain were John Alcindor from Trinidad and the Jamaican Harold Moody, who studied medicine at King’s College but was denied a hospital position on account of his race. In the 1930s Moody formed the League of Coloured Peoples, a civil rights movement aimed at advancing the life chances of black Britons by attacking the inter-war colour bar and improving what later became known as race relations.

Some of the black students who studied in Britain stayed and became members of a black British middle class. Photographs of well-to-do black Victorians show the men in starched black frock coats, the women in respectable high-necked and embroidered gowns. They carry pocket watches, wear top hats and pose with Bibles in hand. They appear in family groups or as individuals, in front of painted backdrops of Arcadian scenes or sitting on heavy and overly ornate chairs. They look unmistakably Victorian, and yet as they have so often been written out of our vision of that period they can appear incongruous and out of place, as if a modern photographer has used an old camera to photograph twenty-first-century black Britons in costume.

Many of the more famous black Victorians and Edwardians came from Freetown families. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the celebrated composer of The Song of Hiawatha, who was once described as the ‘African Mahler’, was born in London, the son of a Freetown Krio man who had trained as a doctor in Britain. Others came from West Indian families. John Richard Archer was born in Britain but from West Indian stock; his father came from Barbados and his mother was Irish. Archer attended Coleridge-Taylor’s funeral and was politically active from a young age, becoming one of the first Africans to win public office in Britain and becoming a councillor for Battersea in 1906. In 1913, after a campaign marked by racial aspersions and questions over his nationality, he became mayor. As well as municipal politics he was active in Pan-Africanist and Labour politics, and corresponded with black political leaders in the United States.

As in the eighteenth century men of African descent played a role in Britain’s imperial ventures during the nineteenth century, serving in the army and navy. Most occupied lowly ranks as army regulations stipulated that officers had to be of ‘pure European descent’ – we shall hear more about this later. Yet exceptions were made. J. A. Horton and W. B. Davis, both from Sierra Leone, became commissioned medical officers in the British army in the late 1850s. Horton was the son of an Igbo man who was liberated from a slave ship, landed at Freetown and later married a woman who was descended from the Nova Scotian settlers. Horton wrote four medical books, based on his experiences serving as a medical officer in West Africa, but is better remembered for his greatest political work, West African Countries and Peoples, British and Native: A Vindication of the African Race (1868). This eloquent denouncement of the pseudo-scientific racism of the Victorian age is a forgotten classic. Horton described his masterpiece as ‘An endeavour . . . to disprove many of the fallacious doctrines and statements (detrimental to the interests of the African race)’.36 Among the ordinary soldiers who served in the Victorian army was Jimmy Durham, who was found as an infant by soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry abandoned on a battlefield in Sudan, in 1885. Renamed and brought to Britain he became an informal regimental mascot, then a bugle boy and finally, at fourteen, a boy soldier, his application being approved by Queen Victoria herself. He served with the Durham Light Infantry in India and after returning with his regiment to the North-East of England married a local woman. His mixed-race descendants lived in County Durham until the 1990s.

Since the sixteenth century and the life of the royal trumpeter John Blanke, black people in Britain had been involved in the world of performance: music, dance and the stage. Over the intervening centuries racial stereotypes about black musicality and physicality had reinforced the notional links between blackness and performance. In the second half of the nineteenth century, when black people were fewer than during the slave-trading seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their rareness made them an exotic draw for audiences, and hundreds of black Britons and black migrants from Africa and the Americas joined the Victorian entertainment industry, a vast and sprawling network of theatres, music halls and travelling shows that performed to millions of people each week.

The most celebrated black performers of the late nineteenth century were not black Britons but African Americans. The Fisk Jubilee Singers originated in Nashville, Tennessee, then in the early 1870s introduced the British public to black American gospel music, bringing new songs into British churches, including ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. Their tour of Europe was one of the greatest musical events of the century. Lord Shaftesbury arranged for them to perform in London for six hundred specially selected guests and in 1873 they sang for Queen Victoria, who was said to have been affected by their rendition of the song ‘John Brown’s Body’. According to one report, the Prince of Wales, who had been given lessons on the minstrel banjo from the black Bohee brothers, requested they sing the harrowingly tragic slave lament ‘No More Auction Block For Me’.37The impact of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was all the greater because black music performed by black people was a novelty to British audiences who, ever since the 1830s, had become accustomed to minstrel tunes – a distorted and appropriated form of black music – being sung by white men in blackface. When the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured there were reportedly difficulties with a number of inn-keepers who had accepted their accommodation booking presuming that the ‘minstrels’ were white and were unhappy to discover otherwise.38 Although their music was far closer to what we would today categorize as spiritual or gospel music and they themselves were largely responsible for the rethinking of some of these categories, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were, at the time, regarded as performers of ‘Negro Minstrelsy’.

The story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers is today becoming better known but most of the black entertainers who performed in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are long forgotten. Ella Williams, the daughter of South Carolina slaves, took to the stage under the name Abomah the African Giantess; on her second tour of Britain, she was billed as the Living Colossus. Many reports claimed she was seven feet six inches tall, although her height varied from billing to billing. An article in the never-reliable London magazine Tit-Bits declared her to be eight feet tall. It’s now suggested that she was around six feet eleven. To add topicality to her stage persona she was, during the 1890s, said to be the daughter of a female general who had, supposedly, commanded the ‘African Amazons’ of Dahomey. Tit-Bits went further, claiming that Ella Williams from South Carolina had formerly been ‘one of the attendants and body guard of the barbaric King of Dahomey, whose Amazonian warriors have been famous alike for their prowess and cruelty. Trained for her bloodthirsty calling from early childhood, she was inured to hardship and pain. Her stature increasing out of proportion to her years, she became a particular favorite of the monarch, and led his army. This extraordinary woman stands over eight feet in height, and can easily support the weight of a man on her outstretched hand. The dusky beauty, having recently evinced a strong desire to travel, and particularly to visit England, will no doubt soon pay a visit to some of our principal cities.’39 On stage, she narrated interesting incidents from her life and sang music-hall and minstrel numbers, including (sadly) a song by Ernest Hogan (who was himself an African American) entitled ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me’. She toured across Britain and the empire until 1915 when she returned to the United States, where she ended up performing in sideshows.

The circus proprietor Pablo Fanque, another of the most successful black entertainers of the Victorian age, was born in Norwich under the more mundane name of William Darby. His father was said, vaguely, to have come to Britain from Africa. The young Darby was apprenticed in the circus, and specialized in horsemanship and rope vaulting. He rapidly rose up the bill to become a star performer, adopting the flamboyant stage name Pablo Fanque. He later added to his celebrity by performing on the trapeze alongside his infant son, ‘Master Pablo Fanque’, who was described by one newspaper as ‘the youngest performer in the world, his precious talents have obtained for him the appellation of the gem of Africa’, although is unlikely that he ever set foot on the African continent.40 What is striking about the surviving advertisements and reviews of Pablo Fanque’s circus is how few of them make mention of his race. The Caledonian Mercury in November 1838 described him as ‘a gentleman of colour’ but dedicated far more column inches to describing his various ‘feats’ and ‘leaps’ than his complexion.41 Neither Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine nor the Illustrated London News in 1847 saw any difficulty in describing this black British entrepreneur ‘as a native of Norwich’.42

By the 1840s, Pablo Fanque had struck out independently to form his own circus and had become an established feature of the entertainment world. An entrepreneur, philanthropist and star of the circus ring he was one of the great entertainers of his age. His legendary acts of horsemanship were performed before Queen Victoria and for thirty years his circus toured Britain. An advertisement from the Preston Chronicle reported that ‘PABLO FANQUE’S CIRCUS in the orchard NIGHTLY OVERFLOWS’. Among the acts listed on the bill were ‘Mr Pablo Fanque’s leaping over a number of difficult objects’, ‘Principal Acts of Horsemanship’ by a Mr Moffatt and further down the bill an act described as ‘Serious Pantomime – Three Fingered Jack – Mr Moffatt and the whole company’.43 In wonderfully evocative Victorian prose the advertisement also informed readers that ‘It is Mr P. F.’s intention to give the proceeds of one night to some charitable institution in Preston; due notice of which will be given’. This was not unusual. Fanque gave numerous benefit performances in aid of local charities or even individuals who found themselves in distress, including an 1843 performance in Town-Meadows Rochdale that was billed as ‘BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR. KITE’. Despite the fame he enjoyed in the mid-nineteenth century, Pablo Fanque would be almost completely forgotten today were it not for a bizarre, chance happening. In 1967 a poster advertising the 1843 Rochdale performance of ‘Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal’ was bought from an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent, by John Lennon, who was there to film a video for the Beatles’ songs ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Lennon and Paul McCartney took the text of that poster, which listed the various acts due to appear alongside Pablo Fanque, and transformed them, sometimes verbatim, into the lyrics of the song ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite’ which appears on the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pablo Fanque himself is mentioned in the song.

Despite the enormous appeal of the imperial exhibitions and people shows, the images of Africans that developed during the Scramble for Africa and in the years that followed had to compete for space within British popular culture and the popular imagination with stereotypes and archetypes from the blackface minstrelsy and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This world of ‘Bibles, Banjos and Bones’, as one historian called it, remained a perennial feature of British cultural landscape and was no longer, strictly speaking, an American import.44 Uncle Tom lived to the century’s end and on into the twentieth century long after American slavery was dead in its grave.

Just as persistent were minstrelsy and minstrel tunes. The minstrel song book was still being played on the street, minstrel acts still took to the stage, and the minstrel tradition along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin were both able to transition into emerging new mediums. In the spring of 1896, just a few months after King Khama and the other kings of Bechuanaland had left for home, the Lumière Brothers, the inventors of cinema, opened their Cinématographe at the Empire Theatre at 7 Leicester Square, London. While filming street scenes in London the Lumière cinematographers stumbled across a troupe of blackface minstrels performing for a small crowd in front of Le Solferino Restaurant in Rupert Street. The silent film of that encounter, entitled Nègres dansant dans la rue, shows a group of six men in blackface. They are wearing white trousers, dark jackets and waistcoats; two have top hats and the rest straw boaters. Two play banjos, one man a guitar and another the penny whistle. There is a tambourine player and a troupe leader. They all dance the comic, exaggerated, swaying dance that had become part of the minstrel tradition, as they sang what one nineteenth-century journalist described as ‘ultra-sentimental ditties’, and ‘songs that affect a nonsensical jocosity’.45 The audience consists mainly of men and young boys, who smile and laugh, perhaps as amused by the novel presence of the film camera as by the minstrels’ performance. The minstrels filmed in Rupert Street, white British men working in a trade that was never secure or particularly well paid, presumably spent much of their professional lives taking part in this bizarre, almost ritualized form of racial impersonation, a daily lampooning of a people they did not know and who lived in a country they would never visit. By 1896 minstrelsy had been part of British culture for sixty years, ever since Thomas D. Rice had performed his Jumpin’ Jim Crow act at London’s Surrey Theatre. It was almost half a century, in 1896, since Henry Mayhew had encountered men from an earlier generation of blackface performers on the London street, with burnt cork framing their poorly washed faces. In the last years of the nineteenth century minstrelsy was still going strong but by then the men in blackface competed for custom and coins with other troupes performing other musical forms. Among their main rivals in the 1890s and during the first decade of the twentieth century were the popular German ‘Oompah’ bands that – for obvious reasons – abruptly disappeared from the British street in early August 1914, never to return.

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