Not long ago – just thirty years or so – historians felt justified in complaining that the popular image of Georgian Britain was a reductive and myopic one. Most ‘educated people’, they grumbled, understood the Georgian past primarily through the buildings and relics it had left behind.1 For most of the twentieth century, Georgian Britain was indeed a victim of its own historical myth, its wider history obscured behind its architectural achievement. No age before or since – including that of the fussy and over-decorative Victorians – managed to match that of the Georgians in its capacity to transpose the virtues of order, elegance and rationalism into bricks and mortar, Bath stone and stucco, silverware and furniture. The Britain they had created, with its neat city squares, tranquil, effortless churches and restrained, perfectly proportioned homes, left in its historical wake a sense of stability and even serenity that encouraged subsequent generations to view the period through the distorting prism of architecture, art and design.
Fine art further conspired to fix the gaze in that general direction. In many of the most celebrated street scenes painted by home-grown artists like Samuel Scott, and by artistic visitors to Britain like Canaletto, it is often the architecture that dominates, the streets are rendered placid and left half empty. Urban landscape paintings of the period tend to be urban only in the thinnest sense. The stench, dirt, danger and cruelty that moulded the lives of so many eighteenth-century city dwellers are all notably absent. Likewise, when the Georgians mapped their cities they captured that same sense of studied tranquillity. In Georgian maps it is always late afternoon on a summer’s day. The neat lines of trees that fringe every ornate garden, frame every public building and line the major thoroughfares cast long afternoon shadows across an empty cityscape, heightening the symmetry of the street plan.
Today, however, another vision of the Georgian age fires the British imagination, that of the Georgian street, populated and alive. While we admire Georgian architecture we are now also drawn to the dark and seedy side of that hypocritical age. We are fascinated by its great nocturnal empire of wine, prostitution, blood sports, card games and vice and long to peep into the homosexual, cross-dressing underworld of the molly houses and meet the bloodied heroes of eighteenth-century Britain’s bare-knuckle-boxing circuit. We find that England in Tom Jones and Moll Flanders and the art of William Hogarth, an artist who was without question one of Britain’s greatest storytellers – in any medium.
Part of what draws twenty-first-century viewers to the abyssal labyrinth of the Georgian slums, the underworlds of the brothels, prisons and gin-houses, is that special frisson of excitement that comes from self-recognition. Despite being more distant from us in historical time than the age of the Victorians, Britain under the Georges seems a more authentic representation of the British as we really are, before our vices, appetites and proclivities were partially concealed behind the veneer of nineteenth-century respectability. Both nations – theirs and ours – were awash with self-destructive, orgiastic excess. Although we live in cities that are more Victorian than Georgian any tour of those cities late on a Saturday night, when the Victorian cult of respectability has been partially dissolved by a tsunami of cheap beer and hooch, reveals the British street returned to the age of Hogarth and John Bull. The early twenty-first century’s binge-drinking culture is a milder version of the eighteenth-century gin craze, re-enacted with alcopops and ‘two-for-one’ happy hour offers. Hogarth’s celebrated Gin Lane is an eighteenth-century rendering of scenes that can be found in the pubs, clubs and Accident & Emergency Departments of any of our larger towns. Young women brought up in our modern drinking culture have given birth to babies bearing the indelible facial stamp of foetal alcohol syndrome, the same macabre death-mask worn by the infant in the centre of frame in Gin Lane, as he falls from the arms of his inebriated mother. Like us the Georgians were obsessed with fame, scandal and sex. The transient fame of today’s WAGs, reality-TV stars and kiss-and-tell girls neatly mirrors the various progresses and falls of the star courtesans of Covent Garden, and the celebrated rakes who fluttered away ancient family wealth in a single season at the card tables. The final comeuppances of Hogarth’s harlots and idlers are all very much in keeping with the familiar modern narrative of rise, hubris and fall, the subtext of every tabloid-enabled celebrity career. For despite the wigs, the bustling, fussy clothing and much else that is superficial and unimportant, the hypocritical, corrupt, sentimental, acquisitive, nationalistic, xenophobic, debauched, drunken, scandal-obsessed, globally-aware, riot-prone, debt-fuelled, multi-racial Britain of the late eighteenth century is instantly redolent of us.
But the kinship between the two ages runs even deeper. Both Britains – that of the late eighteenth century and early twenty-first century – were sustained by illusory, booming, bubble economies, built on the shifting sands of credit and debt. And in both most people appeared to be getting richer. Yesterday’s luxuries became firmly established as today’s necessities, commodities to which all but the poorest had automatic access. The eighteenth century, as much as the early twenty-first, was an era fascinated by new products, tastes and fashions. In both cases this was partly made possible by the unseen labour of foreign peoples, living and labouring in faraway lands. In the twenty-first century the shadowy figures whose plight plays on our collective conscience are the millions who toil in factories and sweat shops making our clothes and mobile phones and the impoverished Indians who construct football stadiums and fantasy towers in desert kingdoms that we visit on our holidays. In the eighteenth century the invisible enablers of everyday luxury were Africans, slaves who produced the tobacco that millions smoked in little clay pipes and snorted as snuff, and the cane sugar that in two generations went from a frivolous extravagance – added to the food of the rich in tiny quantities – to one of the main sources of calories for the poor.
The enslaved Africans who were the unwilling producers of those commodities were separated from the consumers by an ocean, and gradually by the developing idea of race. But as in the twenty-first century, the borders between ‘here’ and ‘there’ had a tendency to break down. People, money and ideas surged across the ocean, transitioning between Britain and the slave societies she had created in the Americas. Enslaved Africans were carried along on the global currents of an Atlantic economy that was anchored in three continents. Some were transported to Britain by returning plantation owners, soldiers and colonial functionaries who had grown accustomed to being waited on by enslaved servants and felt it natural that they would take their portable property – human or otherwise – home with them to Britain. Other black people were conveyed to British ports in the ships of the triangular trade, and offered for sale by the commanders of slave ships, like any other newly imported commodity. The forms of slavery that were practised in Britain were racial, in that they only applied to black people, but the picture is more complex. The story of black people in Britain during the age of the slave is not that of the transplanting of New World slavery onto British soil. Firstly, not all the black people who came to Britain in that period were slaves. Some made their own way to the centre of the empire, through their own ingenuity and tenacity; many of this group were sailors. More significantly a proportion of those who did arrive as slaves discovered that the borders between slavery and service were not nearly as well delineated in Britain as they were in the binary, slave societies of the West Indies and North America. There is evidence that some of them were able to navigate within Georgian society and to some extent and in some cases renegotiate their positions. Young enslaved children who were sold off to wealthy families sometimes spent their whole lives in service, but an unknown number came to be regarded as favoured servants rather than as human property. The most fortunate were educated by their ‘owners’, some were even apprenticed. The social mobility that underwrites the incredible lives of the most famous of the black Georgians – Ignatius Sancho, Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, Francis Barber and Bill Richmond – owed much to the education and opportunities opened up for them by the well-connected families within which they were ensconced, as well as to their own remarkable talents.
While ideas of race and African inferiority developed rapidly over the period of the British slave trade, and although those ideas were energetically propagated through the writings of men like Edward Long and Philip Thicknesse, it is not clear how influential they were among the great mass of the people. Historians have searched without great success for the black ‘communities’ of Georgian London – where the majority of black people were to be found – and various regions of the capital have been identified as potential sites where such communities might have gathered, but the evidence suggests that black Georgians were everywhere, scattered across London, and not limited to any district. Free or enslaved, or of some status undefined by the law and unclear to them or their purported ‘owners’, they were numerous enough to have been a feature of city life but still unusual enough to have remained an exotic novelty, worthy of mention in the accounts of travellers and the reports of journalists. They worked as servants in the homes of the wealthy, as liveried coachmen and pageboys, highly sought after and highly visible in the fashionable streets of the rapidly expanding city. They were bandsmen in the army, sailors both free and enslaved, on merchant ships and even on ships of the triangular trade. They worked as bargemen on the Thames or as stevedores on its banks. There were black people in the bars and taverns, some of which were key meeting places for black servants living otherwise atomized lives. There were black beggars on the streets struggling to survive, sharing their misery with equally desperate white people, with whom they formed partnerships, friendships and marriages. As there had been in the London of Shakespeare there were black prostitutes and there may have been at least one brothel in the city that made the sexual services of black women its speciality. A former slave known as Black Harriott who, one report patronizingly claimed, ‘had attained a degree of politeness, scarce to be paralleled in an African female’, became a famous courtesan before her untimely and tragic death.2 Her career was recorded in the book Nocturnal Revels, or the History of King’s-Place and Other Modern Nunneries, a late-eighteenth-century exposé of vice in the capital that shocked contemporary readers and detailed the sexual proclivities of a number of aristocrats.
As was the case through much of British history, black people were conscripted into the world of performance, their novelty making them attractive to impresarios; it was only later that the notion developed that black people were especially musical or gifted in dancing or singing. Georgian prints reveal that there were black performers in the hugely popular fairs. Hogarth’s depiction of Southwark Fair in 1733 has a black trumpeter in the foreground, entertaining the crowd. In other various guises over two dozen black people appear in his works, some appearing in his most famous sequences – A Harlot’s Progress and Marriage à la Mode.3 Hogarth was recording his city and his nation as he saw it and as it was, chaotic, violent, consumed by class conflict and multi-racial. Black people were part of that Georgian world and for those clear-eyed enough to make the connection they were a reminder of the realm from which they had been delivered and to which the less fortunate were returned; that vast empire of sugar, slavery and misery three thousand miles away across the Atlantic.
In 1744 a notice in the Daily Advertiser read,
To be sold. A pretty little Negro Boy, about nine Years old, and well limb’d. If not dispos’d of, is to be sent to the West Indies in six days Time. He is to be seen at the Dolphin Tavern in Tower Street.4
This advertisement for the sale of a child from a London pub was sandwiched between a listing for Scottish linen, ‘of the best Fabrick and Colour’, and an offer of employment for ‘Two Journeymen Taylors’ who might be willing to ply their trade in the West Indies. It is not unique. Historians have found around forty listings like it in English newspapers, and eight in Scottish periodicals, all from between 1709 and 1792.5 There are without doubt others that lie as yet undiscovered. In 1709 the Tatler offered ‘a black boy, twelve years of age, fit to wait on a gentleman’. That child could be procured from ‘Dennis’s Coffee-house in Finch Lane’.6 Half a century later the London Advertiser carried a notice of ‘a Negro boy age about fourteen years old, warranted free from any distemper’ who, it was assured, ‘has been used two years to all kinds of household work, and to wait on table; his price is £25, and would not be sold but the person he belongs to is leaving off business.’ Those interested were casually instructed to, ‘Apply at the bar of George Coffee House in Chancery Lane, over the Gate’.7
Although, as we shall see, some black people were able to move around within British society and integrate and assimilate with the white people they lived amongst, the reality remains that some Africans lived and died as slaves in Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There is still a misconception that slavery was restricted to the colonies of the Caribbean and North America, and while there is no question that the full-blooded brutality of plantation slavery was a colonial phenomenon, unfreedom and the sale of black human beings was a feature of British life between the 1650s and the close of the eighteenth century. The newspapers tell us that transactions for the sale of human beings were conducted not just from pubs but also in the thriving and fashionable coffee-houses, particularly in the key port towns of Liverpool, Bristol and London. Slaves were sold by art dealers, a few of whom appear to have carried on a profitable sideline, auctioning slaves alongside paintings, two commodities only available to the wealthy and increasingly targeted at those newly enriched by wealth from property in the West Indies, human and otherwise.8Black people were passed on in British wills and inherited alongside real estate and livestock. In 1701 Thomas Papillon of London left his son an enslaved man, ‘whom I take to be in the nature of my goods and chattels.’9 That Papillon felt the need to assert his claim to this enslaved man as chattel hints at some understanding on his part that the laws of England were unclear on the exact status of slaves, as they were to remain for at least another seventy years. In October 1718 the Bristol merchant Beecher Fleming evidently felt more confident about his right to leave ‘my negro boy, named Tallow’ to Mrs Mary Beecher, presumably his widow.10
The slaves listed for sale in advertisements tended to be recent arrivals, shipped in from the West Indies. A custom developed in the slave ships that plied the triangular trade that their captains were entitled to bring back a handful of slaves to sell in Britain. It was in effect a bonus that increased their personal profit from each voyage. Bristol appears to have been at the centre of this custom and there are advertisements in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century newspapers of that city offering ‘Negro’ boys for sale to ‘gentlemen or ladies’. Farley’s Bristol Newspaper of 31 August 1728 included an advertisement from Captain John Gwythen who offered for sale ‘a Negro man about 20 years old, well limbed, fit to serve a gentleman or to be instructed in a trade’.11
Other enslaved black people were brought to Britain by owners who had no intention of offering them for sale. Planters, merchants, soldiers, ships’ officers and officials who had spent time in the Caribbean sometimes returned home with their domestic slaves, who had attended to them in the Americas. These returnees saw no reason to change their habits and preferred slaves to paid servants, for obvious reasons. In 1752, when Colonel Richard Bathurst from Jamaica sold his unprofitable estates he brought with him the seven-year-old slave Francis Barber, who was to become the servant and companion of Samuel Johnson. It is also certain that some of the enslaved children who were brought to Britain were the mixed-race illegitimate children of West India planters; this may have been the case with Francis Barber and Colonel Bathurst, who ensured that Francis was educated and legally freed and left him money in his will. The captains of slave ships also retained slaves, and while they were happy to augment their profits through the sale of one or two ‘privilege negroes’ carried to Britain on the last leg of their triangular journeys, their personal slaves, it seems, were not for sale. They remained with them even when they settled back in Britain, where they worked as their attendants and became conspicuous demonstrations of their personal wealth. A Bristol newspaper of 1746 carried a notice from one Captain Eaton offering a guinea for the capture and return of his slave Mingo, whom he had owned for eight years.12 Eleven years later a different Bristol periodical reported that the human property of another of the city’s mariners, Captain Bouchier of Keynsham, had absconded.13
This practice of bringing slaves into Britain to work as servants in British households raised serious concerns in certain quarters. The magistrate Sir John Fielding, half-brother to Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, complained in 1762 of ‘The immense confusion that has arose in the families of merchants and other gentlemen who have estates in the West Indies from the great numbers of Negro slaves they have brought into this Kingdom.’14 A writer to the London Chronicle in 1765 calling himself ‘F Freeman’ complained along similar lines of the number of ‘Negro and east India servants, who of late have become too abundant in this kingdom’. Why he was so affronted by the sight of black humanity in London is not clear.15
How great was the influx of black people into Britain that so worried men like Sir John Fielding? That remains the most tantalizing and intractable of the many unknowables. The size of the black British population in the age of slavery is a mystery that lies beyond the capacity of historians to solve. All we have are the estimates that were made at the time. The author of a letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1764 believed ‘that the number in this metropolis only, is supposed to be near 20,000’.16 In 1789 a concerned commentator put the black population of Britain, as opposed to just London, at around forty thousand. A correspondent writing to the Morning Chronicle in 1765 was of the opinion that London’s black population had reached thirty thousand, while the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor founded in 1786 concluded that there were between three and five thousand black people in the capital. In 1772 an estimate of around fifteen thousand was cited during the famous Somerset case and was, it seems, accepted as the best available estimate by the Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield. The Jamaican planter Edward Long, one of the fathers of British racism, of whom we shall hear more later, had earlier estimated there were as few as three thousand black people in Britain. This conservative estimate, which might well be closer to the real figure than any other tally, rather undermined Long’s efforts to frighten the British public with apocalyptical visions of their nation brought to chaos by a large and rapidly expanding black community, whose unrestrained sexuality was contaminating the blood of the English; so Long later increased his estimate to between fourteen and fifteen thousand, putting it in line with the figure heard in court that same year.17 This allowed him to demand, in his somewhat hysterical tract Candid Reflections, that ‘some restraint should be laid on the unnatural increases of blacks imported’ into Britain.18 Anxious to establish some sense of scale to the black population that appears so vividly in newspaper advertisements, paintings, memoirs and letters, historians have tended to accept figures of between ten and fifteen thousand, but as the historian James Walvin has pointed out these figures remain estimates, perhaps little better than guesses, no matter how often they are repeated.19
The records are similarly mute as to where black people lived in Georgian Britain. What can be said with certainty is that the majority of black Georgians lived in London, with lesser but significant numbers in Bristol and Liverpool. There may have been clusters of black people in various districts of the capital. The St Giles’ area was said to be home to a black community known as the ‘St Giles’ blackbirds’, but the sources for this are vague.20 There may have also been other clusters in other parts of the city in the second half of the eighteenth century, but what seems doubtful is that these clusters amounted to what we would consider communities. There is no suggestion that there were ethnic ghettos in which black people made up anything even approaching the majority of the population.
Visitors to the capital from abroad commented on the numbers of black people they saw in the city. London’s reputation as a city in which black domestic slaves were common, combined with the capital’s place as a node in the Atlantic economy, was so well established that when the Russian Tsarina dispatched her agents to purchase a ‘number of the finest best made black boys in order to be sent to Petersburgh as attendants on her Russian Majesty’ that shopping party came to London to make its purchases.21
The numbers question is not the only difficulty. The list of what we do not know is long. How many of the black people who came to Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came as free people and how many as slaves? How were those who were enslaved regarded by white Britons who had never been to the Americas and were as unused to the sight of bondage as they were to the presence of Africans? Were those who lived as slaves exposed to anything like the levels of violence that was a routine feature of slavery in the colonies? How common was it for slaves in Britain to escape and seek to merge into the free black population? We can only guess at the answers through the fragmentary snapshots of individual lives that lie in official records, newspapers, court reports and other documents. However, the distance between us and them, between their world and our own, can be partially and momentarily suspended through art, as it is possible to see the faces of black Britons from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries staring back at us, from portraits and paintings scattered across Britain, in private collections and public galleries. Black Britons can been found in formal group portraits by Reynolds and Zoffany as well as in the earthy depictions of Georgian street life produced by Hogarth. In both cases these black figures usually appear individually and in the margins; they are rarely a central figure – although Hogarth broke that rule on a few occasions. Almost all of these black figures are servants, slaves and attendants, though a tiny number of the black faces captured on canvas in the eighteenth century are those of the most celebrated, educated and fortunate black Britons who rose to prominence and had their own dedicated portraits painted.
That black servants and slaves appear in such numbers in British paintings during the age of slavery is largely due to a fashion among the rich for enslaved black children, a trend that seems to have begun in Britain some time around 1650 and largely faded by the end of the eighteenth century. It was a fashion that united some unlikely constituencies; the commanders of slave ships, returned plantation owners, colonial officials and soldiers, as well as kings and queens. Black slave boys – and they usually were boys – became prized status symbols. There were certainly some black female maids in Britain but as they were deemed less fashionable they appear less often in art. As they were paid less, female servants, of any colour, were more common and therefore a far less potent statement of wealth and conspicuous consumption. We do not know, and never will, how many were formally slaves and how many might have been regarded more as servants, nor do we fully understand how the borders between those two conditions were policed and managed, and the likelihood is that it varied enormously from family to family and from case to case, as well as over time. In formal portraits these little black boys appear alongside their masters and mistresses as human ornaments. They are usually in the margins of the painting, sometimes pushed up against the frame. Their function is to indicate that the main subject of the portrait is a woman or a man of high social standing, someone who is educated, knowledgeable and a participant, in some way, in the intoxicatingly exciting New World economy. Enslaved black servants were signifiers of what the Georgians called rank, a word that was important to them but that has lost much of the meaning it conveyed in the eighteenth century. As the historian David Dabydeen has written, ‘the black existed merely to reflect upon the white’.22 It was an extreme form of objectification, one that was sometimes emphasized by having these black children pose alongside other ‘products’ of the tropics – exotic fruits, monkeys, and parrots and other birds that were rare and sought-after.
Both on canvas and in daily life the effect of owning an enslaved black pageboy could be magnified further through costume and dress. The clothes worn by the black boys in these paintings and described in various documents were designed to signify the wealth and rank of the master or mistress. The portraits show little boys and young men – often just teenagers – in liveried coats, of reds, blues and golden yellows, with metal buttons and neat waistcoats. Newspaper notices for the recapture of escaped black pageboys describe the outfits we see in the portraits – outfits which like the wearer remained the property of the master. ‘A NEGRO MAN, about 17 or 18 Years Old’ who had fled from slavery in Bristol was reported as wearing ‘a brown Livery Coat lined with Red, red Buttons Holes and Collar, red Waistcoat, a Pair of old Leather Breeches pieced at the Knee, a black Leather Cap and a Pair of black ribbed Stockings’.23 The outfits depicted on canvas and described in the newspaper notices sometimes reveal a confused jumble of exoticism, orientalism and geographic confusion. Black slave boys appear in the paintings wearing costumes and headdresses influenced by the styles of the Indian and the Ottoman world, rather than anything authentically African. A notice that offered a reward of ‘five Gines [sic]’ for the return of David Marat, a seventeen-year-old runaway, described him as wearing a ‘Cloath Livery, Lin’d with Blew, and Princes-mettal Buttons . . . with a Turbant on his Head’.24 In some portraits the turbans appear to be made of silk and come adorned with feathers.
Georgian portrait artists took dubious pleasure in contrasting the skin colours between the pageboys and their mistresses to add further layers of meaning. Black skin was generally regarded as a useful artistic device, in portraiture and beyond, which could be used to highlight the presumed superiority and beauty of whiteness, in an age in which both women and men whitened their skin with lead powder, which slowly poisoned them and ironically resulted in the slow blackening of their skin. The inclusion of a pearl ring in the ears of enslaved boys in some portraits was a beloved trope, allowing portraitists to further highlight contrasts between shimmering white pearls and gleaming black skin. This fascination with contrast was so pronounced that slaves with darker complexions appear, on occasions, to have been valued more highly than those with lighter skin. The intensity of blackness was a significant draw to those who sought a black pageboy as an ostentatious accessory. An advertisement from Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser of 1756 read, ‘Wanted immediately a Black Boy. He must be of a deep black complexion’.25 The exoticizing effects of dark skin, liveried clothes and oriental turbans was in many cases finished off with classical names that were ascribed to these boys and young men – Caesar, Scipio and Pompey were all recorded.
In portraits of male owners these black slaves tend to be older footmen rather than pageboys, and most look like teenagers. They attend to their master’s horses or offer drinks or food. A young black man in livery holds the reins of his master’s horse in George Stubbs’ painting Henry Fox and the Third Earl of Albemarle Shooting at Goodwood of 1759. Dressed in red and yellow livery he sits watching the action, alone except for the earl’s dog. A young black boy wearing a silk turban and feather leads the horse of Frederick William Ernest in a Joshua Reynolds portrait of 1767, and a similarly youthful black man in exquisite livery adjusts the even grander costume of the Prince of Wales himself, in another work by Reynolds.26 In a very masculine portrait that is now believed to be of Charles Goring of Wiston, a black pageboy in blue and red livery presents his master with the woodcock he has just shot, staring at him appreciatively and intently.
When the main subjects of eighteenth-century portraits are female, the pageboys offer their mistresses more suitably feminine items. Trays of flowers are a common device but ornate boxes of smelling salts are also popular. Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemache is shown in a portrait from around 1651 with a young black servant, who wears a silk shirt and a pearl earring.27 Leaning forward he stares fixedly at his mistress’ face and presents her with a bowl of flowers. Nearly a century later Elizabeth Murray’s descendants commissioned a rather crowded portrait of Lady Grace Carteret, Countess of Dysart, who is painted with her child, a black servant, a cockatoo and a spaniel.28 Little has changed. The black boy is younger than his predecessor and wears a liveried coat, but again has a pearl earring and stares at the main subjects of the portrait. He holds a cockatoo rather than a tray of flowers; the bird, like him, acts as an easily decipherable symbol of the family’s links to the New World and its riches, which had considerably expanded since 1651. Everything was done to emphasize the supposed inferiority of the black person in these portraits. Not insignificantly, enslaved Africans are repeatedly pictured alongside dogs, cockatoos, monkeys and other pets. The result is that although such paintings are by definition group portraits, the black people appear in them as lonely isolated figures.
The images preserved on canvas are affected snapshots of the lives of the sitters and the pageboys, but they were representations of a living fashion and real lifestyles of conspicuous wealth and consumption, lifestyles that were broadcast through fashionable society. The ladies who sat for their portraits with black pageboys also paraded around the more fashionable parts of London with them in tow. The pageboy’s day-to-day role was to attend to his mistress’ whims. At the theatre they accompanied them to their box and carried their opera glasses. When entertaining at home pageboys prepared their tea and generally impressed lower-ranking visitors. Plate 2 of William Hogarth’s brilliant rise and fall satire, A Harlot’s Progress, includes an enslaved black pageboy. The child is shown attending to his mistress, Moll the country girl corrupted by city life. He carries a teapot or a kettle – it is difficult to determine which – but Moll’s self-destructive debauchery makes for a chaotic rendering of this supposedly refined scene.
That Hogarth gave his ‘Harlot’ an enslaved pageboy hints at a problem. What was fashionable for wealthy ladies of the gentry and aristocracy was also vogue among what were called ‘town misses’, the high-class prostitutes of Georgian London. In 1680 an eight-page pamphlet, The Character of a Town-Miss, appeared. A nasty, judgemental, misogynistic little tome, it relishes in the inevitable fall and diseased ruin of a London prostitute and smugly rages against social climbing. It also identifies the black enslaved servant as one of the signifiers of the town miss, stating, ‘She hath always two necessary Implements about her, a Blackamoor, and a little dog; for without these, she would be neither Fair nor Sweet’.29 These two accessories are united again in satirical prints from the time. In one, entitled Heyday! Is this my daughter Anne!, a farmer’s wife arrives in London and is shocked to see her daughter parading through a park wearing an extravagant flowing dress and with an enormous powdered wig, piled several feet above her head, a comically exaggerated portrayal of the attire of a lady of fashion. In a 1779 version of the same satire, published by Robert Wilkinson, Anne has a lap dog snapping at her feet, but an alternative version of 1771, by Carington Bowles, has the lap dog held in the arms of a black pageboy, presumably enslaved. He wears the customary livery coat and feathered turban.30 Yet another version of 1774 came hand-tinted. Entitled Be not amaz’d Dear Mother – It is indeed your Daughter Anne, it shows the pageboy painted with the darkest complexion; his livery consists of a red waistcoat and gold-coloured coat, the feather in his turban an ostentatious pink.* The black pageboy had become firmly established as an essential accessory among the richest and the most fashionable, but also as a symbol of morally dubious extravagance and show.
Not all the black people who landed in British ports in the period of the British slave trade – from the 1660s to 1807 – were enslaved. Among the free black people were sailors, who like their white shipmates were discharged from ships in British ports – most notably Liverpool and London – and there awaited employment on another vessel. While waiting they lived around the docks and although their populations were constantly shifting and highly globalized, black seafarers might have the best claim to have organized the first geographic black ‘communities’ in eighteenth-century Britain. Yet even in the seafarers’ districts black sailors were always a small minority. While there were slaves working on British ships in the eighteenth century some of the sailors who are recorded in Britain are known to have received wages, and so were, by definition, employed rather than enslaved.31 Wills and other records reveal that some received prize money, for taking part in the capture of enemies’ ships and goods.
There was no obligation on ships’ captains to record the race of sailors they recruited; some recorded their places of birth and this information can be a clue to their origins. Sometimes the names of sailors revealed them to be of African or Caribbean origin and from this the trace of their presence in Britain has been deduced. Some of the black sailors who spent time in Britain or who settled in Liverpool, Bristol or London will have worked on the slave ships of the triangular trade. Baptism records reveal that a number of black seafarers passed through Stepney in London. One local clergyman, Dr Mayo, was reported as being ‘particularly kind to the Negroes and uninstructured men of colour, who, employed generally on board of ship, occasionally resided in his parish which is full of seafaring people. I suppose no clergyman in England ever baptized so many black men and mulatto’.32
Another group were students. The chiefs of Sierra Leone sent their sons to Britain to receive educations that would assist their families in their trading deals with Europeans. Around fifty boys, and some girls, from Sierra Leone were said to be studying in Liverpool in 1789, and there were others in Bristol, Lancaster and London. Some chiefs sent their wives as well as their children. Among the mixed-race students sent to Britain for their educations were the children, usually the sons, of British planters in the West Indies who had children with enslaved women. The most fortunate of these received the educations befitting Georgian gentlemen. One of the most remarkable cases was that of Nathaniel Wells, the favourite son of a prominent St Kitts plantation owner. Educated in Britain, in 1794 he inherited a fortune worth around £200,000 on his father’s death, which included three sugar estates and the slaves who worked them. Among the slaves was his own mother, an enslaved woman who had remained the legal property of his father. Wells freed his mother and a handful of other relatives but continued as a slave owner, despite his own racial heritage. As a mixed-race man he understood that his presence in the Caribbean would be unwelcome and so never returned to St Kitts. He used his great fortune to buy a country home, the grand Piercefield House, near Chepstow, and there he played the part of a country gentleman, becoming High Sheriff of Monmouthshire.
As well as carrying advertisements for the sale of slaves, British newspapers of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries carried notices reporting the escape of domestic slaves. Some historians have categorized these notices as Hue and Cry advertisements, which in theory obligated all who read them to be on the lookout for a criminal on the run.33 In this case the ‘criminal’ was a slave who had stolen him- or herself away. The legal veracity of these advertisements is questionable, as was the legality of slavery in Britain, but they open a window into understanding the conditions enslaved people lived in. On 10 February 1763 an advertisement in the Bath Chronicle offered to ‘sufficiently reward’ any person willing to return ‘A Negro Servant Named Gloucester’ to his owner, John Stone of Chippenham. Gloucester, who was twenty-one years old and five feet six in height, was said to speak ‘English tolerably well’ and was identifiable by his ‘light coloured Cloth Livery Coat and red waistcoat, with white Metal Buttons.’ The advertisement warned that ‘any person countenancing or harboring the said Black, will be prosecuted agreeable to Law’.34 Most chillingly John Stone of Chippenham informed readers of his notice that the young man could also be distinguished by ‘a long scar down the middle of his Forehead’. Repeatedly advertisements for Africans who had absconded from slavery in Britain listed the scars and disfigurements they bore on their bodies. William Jacobs ‘a Negro aged 22’ who escaped from his master in 1719 had ‘the Mark of a cut in his Forehead’.35 The London Gazette of 5 July 1715 carried a notice on behalf of Mr Pyne, the postmaster of Bristol, in which he offered a reward of two guineas and the payment of expenses for the recovery of Captain Stephen Courtney’s negro, aged about twenty and who, ‘having three or four marks on each temple and the same on each cheek’, was easily identifiable. A few notices of rewards offered for the return of runaway slaves describe them as bearing branding marks.
The number of these notices, from the middle of the seventeenth century to the last decades of the eighteenth, suggests that some of the enslaved in Britain were marked out as human property by slave collars. These were usually brass or copper, occasionally silver, and were riveted or padlocked around the neck and could not be removed. Some carried the initials or the name of the ‘owner’. In 1756 Mathew Dyer, a goldsmith on Duck Lane in Westminster, offered collars for sale as well as ‘silver padlocks for Blacks or Dogs’.36 They marked the runaway out as a slave making their recapture and return more likely. Some newspaper advertisements listed such collars as identifying features, alongside clothes and scars. In March 1685 the London Gazette offered a reward for the return of a fifteen-year-old boy named John White who had a silver collar fixed around his neck that bore the coat of arms and the cipher of one Colonel Kirke. The advertisement also noted that the boy had ‘upon his throat a great scar’.37 In 1691 the London Gazette reported that a ten-year-old boy named John Moor had run away with ‘a silver collar about his neck’.38Four years later the same newspaper accounted that a black boy, ‘about thirteen years old, run away the 8th inst. from Putney, with a collar about his neck with this inscription: “The Lady of Bromfield’s black, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.” Whoever brings him to Sir Edward Bromfield’s at Putney, shall have a guinea reward’.39
Slave collars can be seen around the necks of some of the black pageboys in Georgian portraits, and the pageboy in the bottom right-hand corner in Plate 2 of Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress wears the full panoply of slave garb and a polished slave collar – the only element of his dress that links him to the world he had come from, the Atlantic world of slave ships, whips, manacles and plantations. In A Harlot’s Progress Hogarth established the black pageboy as a mute witness to his owner’s gradual ruin, and he is depicted alongside her other exotic ‘pet’ from the tropics, a small monkey. Ornate slave collars of this sort, engraved and polished, were expensive items, and might be considered a repugnant form of jewellery. Disconcertingly they are almost indistinguishable from the brass dog collars of the same period. Very few survive, unlike the rougher more utilitarian collars and shackles used on the plantations of the Caribbean and on the ships of the Atlantic trade, which were produced in vast numbers.
Newspapers in colonial North America and the Caribbean dedicated whole pages to notices of rewards for Africans who had absconded from the plantations and there was nothing unique about slaves in Britain seeking freedom through flight, but life in Britain, away from the clear black and white binary of the slave societies, must have made the possibility of freedom appear more tangible. Most black people in Britain – free or enslaved – worked in domestic service. This was the biggest sector of the employment market in the eighteenth century. There were said to be fifty thousand servants in London alone, one in thirteen of the population, and the plans and layouts of middle-class Georgian homes demonstrate that servants were the engines of domestic life. They worked in hot cellars and kitchens and slept in cold, small attics, while the rich and even the middling classes lived in the more spacious middle floors. Black slaves finding themselves working and living alongside white servants within such households will inevitably have begun to question their status and see themselves as little different from their white colleagues. Like migrants from Africa and the Caribbean in later centuries life in Britain also broke the unquestioned habit of the equating of blackness with service and whiteness with wealth and power. The sight of poor white people performing menial tasks or suffering hardships may have been an epiphany for slaves who had lived in the West Indies where even the least wealthy whites shirked any forms of service or manual labour. The magistrate Sir John Fielding believed that placing black slaves in positions comparable to those occupied by white servants lay at the root of a social problem. He complained in 1762 of the gentlemen slave owners from the West Indies who
have either, at a vast expense, caused some of these blacks to be instructed in the necessary qualifications of a domestic servant, or else have purchased them after they have been instructed: they then bring them to England as cheap servants, having no right to wages; they no sooner arrive here, than they put themselves on a footing with other servants, become intoxicated with liberty, grow refractory, and, either by persuasion of others or from their own inclinations, begin to expect wages according to their own opinion of their merits: and, as there are already a great number of black men who have made themselves so troublesome and dangerous to the families who brought them over, as to get themselves discharged, these enter into societies, and make it their business to corrupt and dissatisfy the mind of every fresh black servant that comes to England; first, by getting them christened or married, which, they inform them, makes them free.40
Slaves and black servants, and those who occupied some position between those two states, were isolated and preoccupied with their daily work. They were not the issue. What bothered Fielding was not the sight of liveried black coachmen and enslaved pageboys following their mistresses around fashionable parts of London but the presence in Britain of free black people, who he feared were expanding their ranks by recruiting new members from black people in service.
Two years later the Gentleman’s Magazine warned that –
The practice of importing Negroe servants into these kingdoms is said to be already a grievance that requires a remedy, and yet it is every day encouraged . . . the main objections to their importation is, that they cease to consider themselves as slaves in this free country, nor will they put up with an inequality of treatment, nor more willingly perform the laborious offices of servitude than our own people, and if put to do it, are generally sullen spiteful, treacherous, and revengeful. It is therefore highly impolitic to introduce them as servants here, where that rigour and severity is impracticable which is absolutely necessary to make them useful.41
The advertisements for the return of runaways suggest that there was some determination on the part of some slave owners to reclaim their property, despite the apparent likelihood that a slave who had tasted freedom in Britain once would seek it again. Fielding could see no solution to this problem and suggested that the least damaging strategy was to allow slaves who had rejected their condition in Britain to ‘go about their business’, rather than return them to slavery in the West Indies. This was not because he had any sympathy with them or their plight but because he believed ‘there is great reason that those blacks who have been sent back to the Plantations . . . have been the occasion of those . . . recent insurrections in the . . . West Indies. It is a species of inhumanity to the blacks themselves,’ Fielding concluded, ‘to bring them to a free country.’42
How common were Fielding’s views? The records tell us little but what they do not show is any general hostility towards runaway black servants. If the image he presented, of London under the scourge of an uncontrolled and expanding black population, had much truth to it or had much impact upon the popular imagination then one might expect that white Londoners would take the opportunity to support slave owners seeking to recapture their slaves and transport them to the West Indies. There is no evidence that this happened.43
Those who did escape slavery in Britain, like those who were freed with no trade, education or support, lived lives that were extremely hard. Freed from slavery, most were imprisoned by poverty. Few had skills with which they might build new lives and they lived in fear of recapture and deportation to the Americas. Some of the problems they faced were not a result of their race but down to their status as aliens. Being from the West Indies, North America or in some cases Africa, they had no home parish in Britain, which meant they vanished through the already sizeable cracks in the Poor Law system, which allowed those who had fallen upon hard times to return to the parish of their birth and there receive food and assistance. Just as important they were without family, in an age in which kinship networks were often crucial to entering trades and gaining access to apprenticeships.
Even former slaves who sought to work as servants struggled to survive, as without a family they had nowhere to shelter when they were ‘out of place’, and in between jobs. The pathway to a trade and a steady income in Georgian Britain, for men at least, was an apprenticeship but these were often organized by the parish, which tended to preclude former or escaped slaves. There was also a problem of age; while the black population of Britain in the eighteenth century was very young, many of those who were recorded in the newspaper notices as having escaped were rather old to begin a seven-year apprenticeship.44 Those with luck on their side or helpful contacts did, however. John Moore of York became a freeman of that city in 1687 and a century later Bill Richmond, who was to become Britain’s first black sporting celebrity, began his independent life in Britain serving as an apprenticed cabinetmaker; his incongruous shift to bare-knuckle boxing came later in life. But his acceptance as an apprentice came not after an escape from slavery but with the help and blessing of the influential white family who had taken him under their wing. Even former slaves who married into white families and had the support of white friends were not immune from poverty.
The story of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, a Nigerian who was sold into slavery in the West Indies and North America, gives us a first-hand account of life for a poor black man in Georgian Britain. His 1772 biography A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, As related by himself is especially useful as he lived not just in London but also in Portsmouth, Colchester and Kidderminster. He was taught to read when a domestic slave to a clergyman in New York. It was that master who freed him in his will. Gronniosaw served in the British army then headed to Britain, but in Portsmouth he was swindled out of his savings. Moving to London he was assisted by a white preacher he had known in North America and in the capital he met his English wife Elizabeth. Together they moved out of London. Gronniosaw’s narrative was probably ghost-written but is a poignant depiction of poverty as it existed in the late eighteenth century for people of any colour, revealing how precarious and unstable life was. There were periods when Gronniosaw and his wife went hungry but living among the poor of Georgian London, Colchester and Kidderminster the couple and their two mixed-race children seem to have encountered little direct racial prejudice, or at least none is reported. When Gronniosaw encountered difficulties contracting his marriage to Elizabeth it was not because of his race but because of her poverty and debts.
As the many advertisements for the sale of black boys or the return of runaways suggest, the great majority of the black British population were men and boys.* The historian Felicity Nussbaum estimates the gender balance as 80 per cent male to 20 per cent female.45 This was about the same ratio as the slaves transported from Africa by British traders, as plantation owners, for obvious reasons, preferred male slaves and paid more for them. This meant that most black men, if they were to marry, had no option but to marry white women and it is clear from those for whom we have records that many did; Equiano married Susannah Cullen from Soham in Cambridgeshire, George Scipio Africanus married Esther Shaw from Nottingham and had seven children, only one of whom lived to adulthood. Through marriage, men like Equiano and Africanus acquired not just wives and children but extended families and greater access through those networks into British white society which allowed them to both integrate and assimilate. But marriage and assimilation did not insulate former slaves from poverty and hardship.
A factor that might well have encouraged some enslaved Africans to escape their masters was the existence in London, and to a much lesser extent in Bristol and Liverpool, of free black people in significant numbers. As black people in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain were what today is called a ‘visible minority’, they would have been aware of one another and in a position to potentially cooperate. As well as sharing a physical, ‘racial’ identity they had shared experiences. Most had lost their links to Africa, if they ever had any. From the accounts of literate black Georgians, such as James Gronniosaw, Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, we know that some clearly had memories of their homelands and retained some knowledge of their native languages – though it must have been very rare for them to find someone with whom they could converse. More commonly black Georgians shared the mutual experiences and memories of slavery. They carried the scars – both physical and psychological – of childhoods or earlier lives spent on the plantations, or in the ships of the triangular trade. These collective experiences, as well as their shared racial identities, will naturally have drawn them together.
There is some evidence that black people living in Georgian London did cooperate and look out for one another, and stronger evidence that they sought out one another’s company and came together for social occasions. Black servants in the city appear to have organized their own gatherings in taverns. The Yorkshire Stingo, a pub in Marylebone, was said to serve a largely black clientele and in 1764 the London Chronicle reported that ‘Among the sundry fashionable routs or clubs, that are held in town, that of the Blacks or Negro servants is not the least . . . On Wednesday night last, no less than fifty-seven of them, men and women, supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music, consisting of violins, French horns, and other instruments, at a public-house in Fleet-street, till four in the morning. No Whites were allowed to be present, for all the performers were Blacks.’46
The diary of the magistrate John Baker, who served as Solicitor-General to the island of St Kitts, the Leeward Islands, records one evening in the 1760s when he arrived at his London home to discover that his black servant, Jack Beef, had ‘gone out to a ball of the Blacks’. It may well also have been the case that black servants in service to tolerant and obliging masters or mistresses may have occasionally been able to use the servants’ rooms in which they worked and lodged for small gatherings of fellow black Londoners. This seems to have been the case with Francis Barber, whose relationship with Samuel Johnson was at times more akin to that of father and son than master and servant. A guest who called at Johnson’s house in Gough Square, off Fleet Street, reported that ‘The Doctor was absent, and when Francis Barber, his black servant opened the door to tell me so, a group of his African countrymen were sitting round a fire in a gloomy antiroom: and on their all turning their sooty faces at once to stare at me, they presented a curious spectacle’.47
How typical were men like Francis Barber and Jack Beef? Both enjoyed considerable freedom and were respected and valued by their employers for their talents. Francis Barber, by 1752, was a free man, and in service to an extremely liberal and accommodating employer, and was in a position to have his own guests visit him. It is highly probable that Francis Barber and Jack Beef knew one another and that they both also knew the black servant, whose name is lost, who worked for Joshua Reynolds, a member of Dr Johnson’s famous club. But how typical was this group of black servants employed by members of the city’s cultural elite? Barber and Beef lived in central London, with the city’s infamous night life on their door step. Were they simply young black men about town, in an age when black people were still a novelty and in which long-established myths about black male sexuality were well understood? Or were they part of something we would recognize as a community?
Its seems likely that they were part of a group of black people who worked as servants to the rich – some of them formally free, some enslaved and some of undetermined status. The reports of black gatherings support this idea but how strong a sense of community might there have been between black servants who occupied such comfortable positions in the homes of the rich, and could afford to have guests call or be found out at night on their master’s return, and members of London’s hungry and illiterate black poor? On the same streets but in a different century, the social explorer Henry Mayhew encountered a black American who survived largely by begging. This unfortunate reported that his own brother, who was in service to ‘a great gentleman in Harewood-square’, was ‘very proud, and I do not think would speak to me if he saw me.’48 Georgian London was a society every bit as fixated with rank and social status as the Victorian city of the 1850s. While there was probably no exclusively black community among the poor in eighteenth-century London there is clear evidence that the black poor had formed a broader ‘community’ that consisted of themselves, their white wives and husbands and their mixed-race children. It is this community that was to become the focus of so much attention and effort in the 1780s, as we shall see.
Even if this ‘community’ of black servants and the black poor was fragmented, coming together only on rare occasions, and even then not in great numbers, reports of gatherings of black people were enough to convince some propagandists of racism that they were a threat to Britain. Or perhaps it was seen as a plausible spectre by which they hoped to whip up anti-black feeling and shore up support for slavery. These attacks slipped into the tone and the language of the immigration panics that repeatedly flare up throughout British history and are as old and established a British tradition as immigration itself.
Black Georgians who absconded from white masters who regarded them as chattels shared not just common experiences but the threat of recapture. Escaped black slaves could never be sure of their freedom. It is unlikely that there were professional slave-hunters in eighteenth-century London, the size of the black population was probably too small to make such a specialization viable, but there were men willing to hunt down and seize escaped slaves when paid to do so.49 Through their efforts black men and women were kidnapped, imprisoned and returned to their masters. More disastrously, and it seems more commonly, some were sold to new owners in the Americas. Despite the warnings of men like John Fielding that slaves who had tasted freedom in Britain were a risk to the security of the sugar islands of the West Indies, the owners of slaves resident in Britain were willing to accept financial offers for their slaves and sell them back into slavery when it suited them to do so – private profit overwhelming any collective concern for the security of the plantations. Some of those who were sold to New World slave owners had not absconded, their owners had simply been offered a good price and accepted it. Sometimes slaves living in Britain were sold because their owner had gone bankrupt or died and their assets, including human property, were liquidated. The threat of being sold to West Indian planters haunted the lives of black people in Britain, in service or ostensibly living independent lives. For those in service their owners’ ‘chief disciplinary weapon was the ship, not the whip’ suggests the historian Seymour Drescher.50
While slaves who had escaped and found refuge among the poor of London and the port towns were of no value to their masters they retained a residual value as a potential plantation slave if they could be traced and sold back to the Caribbean. Families who were short of money were tempted to sell black slaves, men and women whose lives had in most respects begun to look and feel very much like those of white servants, but who remained the property of their masters. Any uncertainty about the status of a black person was ended once they were shackled in a West India-bound ship. The case of John and Mary Hylas demonstrates how precarious the position of slaves in Britain was. They had arrived with separate owners around 1754 and married four years later, both sets of owners consenting to the union. But in 1766, after eight years of marriage, Mary was kidnapped and shipped to the West Indies by her owners, the Newton family, and there she was sold. It was only with the help of the great abolitionist and campaigner Granville Sharp that John Hylas was able to go to court and successfully demand the return of his wife.
There was what the historian Seymour Drescher has called a ‘deadly game of hide and seek’ played out on the streets and the docks of London, Bristol and the other slave ports in the eighteenth century, as slaves struggled to avoid the attentions of their former masters who hired kidnappers to seize them and smuggle them on board ships bound for the West Indies.51 The desperate attempts of former slaves to avoid transportation suggest that conditions of slavery in Britain, despite the evidence of violence and abuses, were still far removed from the routine brutality of plantation slavery.52 So feared was transportation that in 1773 an escapee who had been recaptured and separated from his English wife shot himself while on a boat on the Thames, rather than face a life of slavery.53 This tragedy was the supposed inspiration for The Dying Negro, an antislavery poem by Thomas Day and John Bicknall.* In 1790 the abolitionist Hannah More wrote to Horace Walpole describing the kidnap of a black woman in Bristol.
I cannot forbear telling you that at my city of Bristol, during church time, the congregations were surprised last Sunday with the bell of the public crier in the streets. It was so unusual a sound on that day that the people were alarmed in the churches. They found that the bellman was crying the reward of a guinea to any one who would produce a poor negro girl who had run away because she would not return to one of those trafficking islands, whither her master was resolved to send her. To my great grief and indignation, the poor trembling wretch was dragged out from a hole in the top of a house where she had hid herself, and forced on board ship.54
Two years later a Bristol journal reported the case of a black servant girl of many years’ service who had been sold by her master for £80 Jamaica currency, and that she had been shipped to that island. ‘A bystander who saw her put on board the boat at Lamplighter’s Hall says, her tears flowed down her face like a shower of rain.’55
The reason for deportation could be petty as well as pecuniary. Pageboys who had grown too old to play their allotted role of glamorous accessory were sent back to the West Indies. The black pageboy of the Duchess of Kingston, purchased when he was five or six, was dispatched to West Indian slavery when he reached his teenage years.56 The Duchess of Devonshire attempted to palm off her unwanted pageboy, regarded as superannuated at eleven years old, to her mother with the instruction, ‘if you don’t like him they say Lady Rockingham wants one’.57
Of those who did begin their lives in Britain as slaves – purchased from slave-ship captains, or brought over from the New World by their owners – how many of them remained enslaved? Some will have concluded that their life within the household of their master, despite being one of unfreedom, was safer and more desirable than any realistic alternative. So long as the family they were in service to were not violent and abusive, or more violent and abusive than average, then remaining with them at the very least offered a bed and food. The street might offer freedom but also starvation and danger.
Others may have formed bonds with their masters and mistresses. This is not as bizarre a notion as it might sound. Servants in the eighteenth century, particularly those who remained in service for many years, could become members of the household. Some attended church with the family and the inevitable intimacy of certain aspects of their work – helping family members dress and undress, caring for them when they fell ill – meant that in the best and most humane households servants could come to be regarded as part of an extended, informal family, and see themselves as such. Eighteenth-century guides to household management warned women of the perils of blurring the lines between servants, friends and family members. They counselled of the dangers of becoming overfriendly with servants or confiding sensitive information in them. But even in a society as hierarchical as Georgian Britain personal affections and loyalties could and did develop between people of widely different social standing. The evidence that such bonds could cut across distinctions of race, as much as they did differences of wealth and rank, can been found in English churchyards, in the inscriptions of the headstones of black servants. St Mary’s churchyard in the Henbury district of Bristol contains the wonderfully ornate, and presumably expensive, grave of Scipio Africanus, an enslaved teenage boy who was ‘servant’ to Charles William Howard, the 7th Earl of Suffolk. Scipio, who died in 1720, lies beneath a headstone decorated with black cherubs and an accompanying footstone inscribed with the following epitaph,
I who was born a pagan and a slave
Now sweetly sleep a Christian in my grave.
What though my hue was dark my Saviour’s sight
Shall change this darkness into radiant light.
Such grace to me my lord on earth has given
To recommend me to my Lord in Heaven.
Whose glorious second coming here I wait
With saints and angels Him to celebrate.58
A dedication from around 1700, set into a wall at Werrington Church, a village on the border between Devon and Cornwall, celebrates the life of Philip Scipio, ‘an African whose Quality might have done Honour to any Nation or Climate And Give us to See That Virtue is Confined To no Country or Complexion’.59 The epitaph suggests that Philip Scipio’s owners or employers – whichever they were or imagined themselves to be – were aware of the stereotype of Africans as disloyal, untrustworthy and innately immoral that was emerging in the eighteenth century, and regarded his virtues and qualities as a rebuttal to such notions. In the last decades of the century accounts of black slaves or servants who had performed years of loyal service, or demonstrated conspicuous skills or qualities, were deployed by the opponents of slavery to counter the spread of such stereotypes.
While there were slave owners who passed their human property on to their family in their wills there were also instances of slaves being rewarded with freedom on their master’s death. Some received money or gifts in addition. Some slaves were formally freed and others regarded themselves as free, a presumption that in many cases was never formally recognized but neither was it challenged or tested by them or their ‘master’. Slaves who had been baptized sometimes regarded that ceremony as marking the end of their status as chattel. As we shall see later the law, for many years, was uncertain on this point, but while the judges debated, there were black people who considered their acceptance into the Church and the Christian message as incompatible with slavery, and adjusted their view of themselves accordingly. Their owners often disagreed, as was the case with Katherine Auker, a baptized black woman who had lived in England for six years. In 1690 her master Robert Rich, who was preparing to return to Barbados, refused to release her from slavery or to allow her to find employment with another family. Indeed Rich and his wife ‘tortured her and turned her out’. From Barbados they arranged for her to be imprisoned. Auker eventually went to court in Middlesex to be released from her master but was only partially successful.60 She was granted permission to work for any master who would offer her a position but informed that she would be compelled to return to the household of Robert Rich should he return from Barbados.
An unknown number of enslaved black people in Britain in this period seem to have slipped into the very broad and vague category of ‘servant’, without any formal recognition or record of that transition. The fact that some black people were able to leave the household in which they were in service and work for another master, or indeed enter a different trade suggests that they occupied a position more akin to that of a servant. John Duck, a black servant to a family in Surrey, was permitted to leave their employment, get married and become an instructor in sword-fighting in London, where he passed on his skills to gentlemen and the Inns of Court.61 John Duck was clearly not a slave.
The fashion for black servants among the rich of Georgian Britain had a number of unintended consequences. For the most fortunate, life even as a slave within the homes of the wealthiest presented opportunities. The biographies of many of the best-known black Georgian figures show that they received some education while enslaved. We have no reason to presume that this was a common, never mind universal, experience but that it happened at all shows how complicated relationships could be between people who were ostensibly slaves and people who were ostensibly slave owners. That owners of enslaved Africans elected to bestow upon some of them the gift of education – with all the potential for social mobility and advancement that it offered – is in part down to the nature of service in the eighteenth century. Servants, no matter what their race, could become more useful if they were educated, but it is highly likely that some enslaved pageboys were educated to prepare them for a future after their years in service.
One recipient of an education was George John Scipio Africanus, who may have originated in Sierra Leone and is thought to have come to Britain in 1776, where he came into the household of Benjamin Molineux of Wolverhampton. Clearly treated more as a favoured servant than an enslaved person, he was educated by the Molineux family and apprenticed in a brass foundry. After leaving service he moved to Nottingham and married an English woman called Esther Shaw, with whom he began Africanus’ Register of Servants, a Georgian employment agency.62 When the doors to education were opened, it was discovered that some black servants had natural abilities and talents. When the young Phillis Wheatley, who from the age of eight was a servant to the Wheatley family of Boston, was given lessons in English she mastered the language with a speed that was said to have amazed those around her. After rapidly learning English she took up French and Latin. The published collection of her neo-classical poetry was ecstatically received in Britain and parts of America.
It was the prospect of literacy, eagerly embraced by some enslaved Africans, which, along with luck and talent, allowed some to rise in life and become independent and self-reliant. A handful, like Phillis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, Francis Williams, James Gronniosaw and Ottobah Cugoano, became not just literate but literary. We have their voices thanks to their own determination but also because they were lucky enough to have received some education.
Ignatius Sancho, who had been born on board a slave ship in 1729, was given the gifts of literacy and learning only begrudgingly. He was brought up in Greenwich by three sisters who had no intention of educating him, fearing knowledge and access to books would render the boy unsuited for the life of service that lay ahead of him. Although the young Sancho had no reason to imagine that he would ever be permitted to live an independent life, he set out to educate himself. He was helped in that endeavour by the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, who lived locally. The couple gave the young boy books and Sancho eventually entered the Montagu household, employed as a butler after the duke’s death, and there with the help of the duchess was able to throw himself into a world of learning. On her death the Duchess of Montagu left Sancho a gift of £70 and an annuity of £30. Sancho’s later achievements, his published letters and musical compositions and the place he came to occupy within Georgian society were made possible by the opportunities for learning that he wrested from those around him, sometimes in the face of considerable opposition. Although he lived modestly as a shopkeeper with his wife Anne, who was also literate and literary-minded, Sancho carried on a literary correspondence with Laurence Sterne, had his portrait painted by Reynolds and was friends with a number of eminent Georgians, including David Garrick. The critical and commercial success of his own letters, published posthumously, has to be put down to his own talents, but Sancho’s supposed exoticism might have added to his allure and increased his fame.
The figure whose life story encompasses the greatest extremes, ranging from slavery to privilege and flamboyant excess, was Julius Soubise, though it certainly cannot be said that Soubise used the education gifted him as wisely as Sancho. Soubise was born a slave on the island of St Kitts and brought to Britain in 1764 by a captain in the Royal Navy. That year he became the property of Catherine Hyde, the Duchess of Queensberry and cousin of the captain. A famous eccentric and socialite, Catherine Hyde occupied a central position within London high society, and cosseted in the unreal and arguably surreal world of privilege the young Soubise was both educated and indulged. The diarist Lady Mary Coke described visiting the Duchess of Queensberry at home in 1767 where she found her
half dress’d & half undress’d; She was talking to her Black Boy, who indeed seems to have a very extraordinary capacity, something very uncommon; She told me She had him taught everything he had a mind to learn, She thought it better than keeping him to serve in the House; in that I think her Grace judged right, but When She told me he learnt to ride & fence, I could not help thinking those exercises too much above his condition to be useful, & wou’d only serve to give him expectations that cou’d not be answer’d.63
The exact nature of the ‘condition’ that Julius Soubise occupied is difficult to determine. Growing to adolescence he developed into an excellent equestrian and swordsman and continued to perform some of the duties that might be expected of a servant, but there appears to have been absolutely no pretence of him being a slave. In the early 1770s Soubise emerged into the social scene of Georgian London; befriending David Garrick he became an amateur actor, musician and poet. With the bills for his lavish lifestyle covered by the duchess he lived the life of the upper-class rake, spending heavily on entertaining. He appears to have developed both an entourage and a reputation as a Don Juan. This did not go unnoticed. Soubise and the duchess were satirized in popular prints and the nature of their relationship questioned. Like Anne, the fictional ‘town miss’ depicted in engravings of the period, the very real Julius Soubise became a symbol for the folly and hubris of London’s fashionable elite – the ‘macaroni’ as they were known. As inevitably as if he was a character in one of Hogarth’s progresses, his rise ended with a fall, both literally and metaphorically. In 1777 he was accused of raping a housemaid. To protect him the duchess sent him to India. In Calcutta he opened a successful riding school and appears to have settled down to marriage, but in 1798 he died after being thrown from a horse. It was an incredibly privileged, exciting and global life for anyone in the eighteenth century, but more so for a boy born into slavery in the West Indies.
The last decades of the eighteenth century were a period during which new racial theories were developed and stereotypes of black people refined and propagated by a pro-slavery, planter class determined to defend the slave trade and their right to own slaves. Ideas from which we are still unable to fully break free took shape in these years. Yet there appears to be a gulf between the toxicity of the theories of stereotypes being developed and propagated by those pro-slavery propagandists, men like Edward Long, and the experiences of many black Georgians in their daily lives among the white population. This is not to say that racism was not a feature of those experiences. In the fractured biographies of a number of black Georgians we can see opportunities curtailed and chances of mobility and improvement denied to them on account of their race, or sometimes because of the presumptions that others would be offended by their presence. Yet it seems that for the most part white servants did not seem to object to working alongside black people performing similar roles, whether free or enslaved. Through the biographies of many of the best-known black Georgians we can see that inter-racial marriage was a seemingly unremarkable feature of life. Olaudah Equiano, James Gronniosaw, Bill Richmond, Francis Barber all married white women; Equiano, Gronniosaw, Richmond and Barber all left mixed-race children, Equiano left his surviving daughter a small inheritance. The focus in much of the propaganda of Edward Long and others on the dangers and immorality of racial mixing, combined with the vicious cartoons that lampooned black sexuality, seem not to have convinced some people that relationships with black people should be taboo. Long’s hysterical rantings about racial mixing and the comments by other writers who were disturbed by the sight of mixed-race children might be taken as evidence that what they really feared was white people who did not share their racism. That they felt the need to complain about the popularity of black men with white women again suggests that there were many people who did not share their views.
We know from the black Georgians who left us their own accounts that they did experience racism on the street. Ignatius Sancho and three of his daughters were subjected to racial abuse on a trip to the Vauxhall pleasure gardens. The extent to which this wounded Sancho is as ever difficult to tell. He routinely self-mocked in his affected literary style of the time, and made fun of his own racial identity; it is difficult to tell if this was a defence mechanism or part of the jovial demeanour of a man who knew he was fortunate and was unashamedly happy; with a loving wife and six children he had much to be happy about. Racism does not seem to have been a major issue in the lives of the Sancho family. In the lives of other black Georgians, poverty and the constant struggle to fend it off consumed much more attention. It is plausible that in their biographies some black Britons, Equiano, James Gronniosaw, Mary Prince, omitted accounts of racial abuse in Britain because they were trifling compared to the experiences they had known as slaves in the New World, or because they wanted to express their affection for Britain and conceal their disappointments. Equiano’s biography saved its ire for the slave trade and slavery, not British racism, but perhaps he was prioritizing and choosing his battles. Eighteenth-century Britain was a ferociously xenophobic society in which it was extremely unwise to appear disloyal or unpatriotic, and black British writers tended to stress their loyalty to Britain. Phillis Wheatley praised the King and Sancho commended Britain’s war against the North American colonists.64
The picture is mixed and much of it is concealed. What we can say is that most black Georgians lived lives of constrained unfreedom as slaves or low-ranking servants. Some were brutally treated by men and women who regarded them as their property and as the law was unclear on the issue they were able to make their claim real through physical force and violence. Black Britons who rejected that predicament fell into another one, and struggled destitute on the streets, where many lived off charity or crime, their names turning up in the records of the courts. The lives of the most fortunate were characterized by some degree of social mobility, with opportunities for learning and engaging in a religious life. Those who had the time and the security to look beyond their own needs were politically active and culturally productive. Equiano became a full-time antislavery activist and author. Ignatius Sancho never made a living from his writing but became a genuine cultural figure; he was painted by Reynolds. Francis Barber may have had the same honour – the provenance of the portrait believed to be of him is not proven. Sancho was also the first black man known to vote in Britain. His death in 1780 was announced in the Gentleman’s Magazine. His obituary, which was listed among those of other people deemed to be ‘considerable Persons’, reads ‘In Charles-str. Westminster, Mister Ignatius Sancho, grocer and oilman; a character immortalized by the epistolary correspondence of Sterne.’ It did not mention that he was a black man.65 Two years later The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African were published. The book drew more than twelve hundred subscribers and sold out the first edition. It was a demonstration in print of the author’s learning and eloquence.
The biggest question the achievements of figures like Sancho, Wheatley, and Equiano raise is this: how were they able to live such remarkable lives, escape from slavery and navigate across societies, during the decades that saw Britain become the dominant slave-trading nation and the Atlantic slave trade carried more Africans that ever before into lives of miserable and brutal slavery?