In the Victorian Galleries of the National Portrait Gallery in London hangs one of the larger paintings of the collection. At almost three metres by four and containing more than a hundred identifiable figures it is too vast and over-populated to be considered a mere group portrait. The painting, Benjamin Robert Haydon’s depiction of the World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, belongs to the genre of art known as history painting, great panoramas that capture decisive moments in human affairs. Almost extinct in the twenty-first century, it was in the nineteenth century one of the dominant genres. History paintings were visual narratives through which the story and the significance of an event could be read and understood, and as all the significant actors were depicted with portrait likeness, the viewer was able to pick out the faces of the famous and the celebrated from amidst the dramatic action. Jacques-Louis David’s The Tennis Court Oath, a depiction of a critical moment in the French Revolution, is – despite never being completed – among the most renowned examples of the genre. Haydon’s painting, however, must rank among the least successful. It is static despite trying to be dynamic, almost completely lacking in genuine drama and suffocatingly overcrowded. It was a critical failure and a flop with the public, all the more lamentable given that the event Haydon was attempting to capture on canvas was anything but dull.
The World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in the Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street, London between 12 and 23 June 1840. It had been called by the recently formed British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, an organization born out of a schism in British abolitionism that outlasted all of its contemporaries. It still exists today, as the NGO Anti-Slavery International. The Convention of 1840 was attended by over four hundred leading anti-slavery activists. Most came from Britain, many travelling to the capital from the important provincial outposts of the broader abolitionist movement. There were delegates from Canada, France, Haiti and Mauritius, but critically there was a delegation of fifty-three Americans. From the British Caribbean came a group of black and white abolitionists that included William Knibb, who less than two years earlier had watched ‘the monster’ die in Jamaica.1 Knibb’s companions were Edward Barrett and Henry Beckford, two black abolitionist campaigners who were described in the notes that accompany Haydon’s painting only as ‘liberated slaves’, and were not named as individuals.2 In all, the gathered delegates represented thirty-nine nations.3
Over the ten days of the Convention many of the tensions and divisions that existed within the abolitionist movement were exposed. Within the profoundly religious culture of abolitionism, sectarian disputes surfaced and had to be papered over, while the pacifism of many of the Quaker and Evangelical abolitionists led to disquiet when military methods of suppressing the slave trade were discussed. The most significant and damaging dispute broke out over the position of women in the anti-slavery struggle. The Convention had been conceived as an all-male affair. Britain’s female abolitionists, despite their critical importance to the workings and funding of the movement were refused permission to speak. The women abolitionists who had arrived as part of the American delegation and who were followers of William Lloyd Garrison, the most uncompromising, outspoken and passionate of the American abolitionists, were not permitted to attend as delegates. Refused entry to the main hall, they watched in silence from the public galleries. They can be seen as tiny details in Haydon’s painting, a semicircle of respectable Victorian women in their shawls and bonnets.* Garrison, who arrived halfway through the Convention, elected to join the women in an act of solidarity, but he was vocal in his condemnation of this aspect of British political culture.
That Haydon, a creator of history paintings, was commissioned to record the Convention reveals that the organizers imagined the event as a significant moment worthy of memorialization.4 Haydon attended the event and was deeply moved by a number of the speeches and debates. He chose to depict what most people believed was the most powerful moment, the opening speech by the moral godfather of British abolitionism, Thomas Clarkson. Haydon has Clarkson frozen in full oratorical flourish. His left hand is raised over his head, forefinger pointing to the heavens, as he denounces the evils of slavery. Every head is tilted in his direction, every eye focused upon his face. In reality Clarkson, who by 1840 was a frail octogenarian, spoke briefly and in what was described as a ‘tender feeble voice’. His health was so precarious that he was accompanied into the hall on the supportive arm of Joseph Sturge, the driving force behind the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. In order to protect the old man’s nerves the organizers had also ‘begged no tumultuous applause . . . greet his entrance, as his infirmities were great, and he was too nervous to bear [them] without risk of injury to his health.’5 The men of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society had similarly ensured that Clarkson’s speech would be greeted not with thunderous applause but with a quiet, respectful ‘Amen’, which was, in the event, accompanied by an unprompted wave of tearful emotion. Haydon, in his published description of his painting, admitted to being incapable of conveying in words – as he was later to be in paint – ‘the effect on the imagination . . . of such deep sincerity. Never did I witness’, he went on, ‘in life or in the drama, so deep, so touching, so pathetic an effect’.6
Although the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840 provided powerful speeches and passionate orations, what was perhaps most genuinely dramatic about the event was something that Haydon, or any artist, would struggle to capture on canvas – the declared mission of the delegates to end slavery across the world. Some of the fervour and passion with which the abolitionists embarked upon that crusade survives in the Official Proceedings of the Convention. The preface to that work of over six hundred pages contained what was described as ‘a brief statement of facts’, an overview of the task that confronted the movement.
In the United States of America, the slave population is estimated to be 2,750,000; in the Brazils, 2,500,000; in the Spanish Colonies, 600,000; in the French Colonies, 265,000; in the Dutch Colonies, 70,000; in the Danish and Swedish Colonies, 30,000; and in Texas, 25,000; besides those held in bondage by Great Britain, in the East Indies, and the British settlements of Ceylon, Malacca, and Penang, and by France, Holland, and Portugal, in various parts of Asia and Africa, amounting in all to several millions more; and exclusive also of those held in bondage by the native powers of the East, and other parts of the world, of whose number it is impossible to form a correct estimate. To supply the slave-markets of the Western world, 120,000 native Africans are, on the most moderate calculation, annually required; whilst the slave-markets of the East require 50,000 more. In procuring these victims of a guilty traffic to be devoted to the rigors of perpetual slavery, it is computed that 280,000 perish in addition, and under circumstances the most revolting and afflicting . . . These facts exhibit also the magnitude of the responsibility which devolves upon Abolitionists.7
The 1840 Convention was an event conceived and organized from within the traditions and culture of British abolitionism. The organizers prepared and disseminated an array of statistical data, and assembled a four-man press team to secure newspaper coverage, thereby demonstrating that the movement had lost little of its genius for public presentation.
The proceedings were open to all and each day around a thousand members of the public filled the visitors’ gallery. Over the ten days there were presentations of papers and discussion sessions, in which plans of action were debated and committees appointed to look into various aspects of global slavery. In their papers the delegates presented a vast panorama of unfreedom. Some delegates had been on fact-finding tours: they discussed the significance of slavery to the Ottoman Empire and the role of Islamic slave-traders in the plight of the African peoples. There were discussions of the various forms of slavery, many of them quite distinct from the chattel slavery of the Atlantic world. The slavery that held many millions of India’s people in bondage was outlined and condemned. Likewise a presentation of the serfdom that condemned so many of Russia’s millions to lives of unfreedom, prepared by ‘a gentleman long resident in Russia’, listed the ‘atrocities and horrors’ of a system of bondage that had been ‘carefully hidden from the enlightened eye of Europe’.8 In the highly religious atmosphere of the Convention there were calls from the American delegates for all Christian sects to publicly denounce slavery and a controversial demand that churches be called upon to expel members who continued to hold slaves. Clarkson wrote an open letter in support of this proposal. Most provocatively, open letters addressed to the monarchs and heads of state who led nations still involved in slavery were drafted, despite there being no known precedent for such actions. When the legality and propriety of such letters was questioned, one delegate brushed all concerns aside declaring, ‘This Convention occupies a moral elevation from which it may look down on any throne on the face of the earth . . .’9
From the viewpoint of the early twenty-first century what is striking about the speeches delivered and the resolutions passed at the World Anti-Slavery Convention is the revolutionary confidence that infused the event and energized the delegates. By the 1840s British abolitionism was in its sixth decade and the new struggle represented its third wave of activism. Despite divisions and disagreements the British abolitionists were infused with that rare sort of confidence that flows through a movement that has recently realized an objective that most commentators had concluded was impossible. One of the early speakers took a moment to access the magnitude of their achievement. ‘Under the British flag, with the exception of the East Indies, slavery no longer exists . . . It would be quite impossible’, he suggested, ‘to exaggerate what had been done. You have struck off the fetters from 800,000 human beings’.10 In another moment of true poignant drama, Joseph Sturge introduced Henry Beckford to the Convention, describing him as a man who ‘three years ago was himself a slave’. Beckford, a skilled orator, asked ‘God to look down in mercy upon the labours of this Society, which has been formed in this country to deliver us from bondage. I rejoice’, he said, ‘to see the kind gentlemen who, as the root of this Society, relieved my body from suffering.’ But his expression of gratitude was immediately followed with a call to action. ‘I was a slave for twenty-eight years, but look at me and work on. There are other parts of the world where slavery now exists, but I trust the negroes there will soon become freemen as I am to-day.’11
In the 1840s, as there still is now, there was a degree of exaggeration about the causes and the significance of British abolition. The abolition movement was just one of the forces that had led to abolition and then emancipation. Furthermore, Britain had not been the first nation to end the slave trade, and she had not been the first emancipator; the black people of Haiti had emancipated themselves with the sword and the musket during their revolution which had begun in 1791. Yet none of that changed the fact that the speakers in the Freemasons’ Hall were right; what Britain had done was remarkable.
Britain had not only ended her slave trade and then slavery itself, she had done so by paying compensation to the slave owners, which had its own significance. That was blood money in the minds of some, but regarded by others as having absolved the nation of some of the guilt accrued during her two centuries of slave-trading and slave-owning. Anthony Trollope, the novelist, spoke years later of slavery as the sin from which ‘we have cleansed ourselves’, while Darwin, writing around the same time, believed that Britain had ‘made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin, of slavery’.12 The men and women gathered in the Freemasons’ Hall saw themselves as having been the driving force for that great act of moral purging; Britain’s clear and righteous mission was therefore to help other nations undergo the same process. The nation’s often repeated boast of being a land uniquely dedicated to principles of freedom and personal liberty – the claims the independent slave-traders had deployed against the Royal Africa Company a century earlier – were now repeated, but this time founded upon the reality of abolition.
Exhilarated by their historical triumphs and reinvigorated, more latterly, by the successful campaign against the hated apprenticeship system, the speakers of 1840 declared their firm belief in the notion that abolition placed Britain in a position of global moral leadership, a view that was reinforced on several occasions by the foreign delegates, who vied with one another to praise Britain.
The delegates at the Freemasons’ Hall were not alone in looking to Britain for moral leadership. The significance of what had taken place in the West Indian islands in August 1838 was grasped not just in the meeting halls of London but in the slave huts of Mississippi and South Carolina. If the idea of Britain as the light of the world and champion of the anti-slavery cause was believed anywhere it was among the slave states of the American South. Before the 1830s the West Indies, in the minds of American slaves, was a place to fear. Those islands were where troublesome slaves, repeat escapers and the disruptive were sent to break their spirits and quell their rebellious tendencies. But in 1838 those fearful colonies were erased from the map of world slavery. If slavery could end on Jamaica, on an island that had consumed the lives of three-quarters of the 1.3 million slaves transported there, it could be ended anywhere. So strong was the link between the example of Britain and the hopes for emancipation in America that in the 1840s and 1850s Britain’s Emancipation Day, 1 August, was celebrated by free black people in the Northern states on behalf of their unemancipated brothers and sisters south of the Mason–Dixon line.13 Black abolitionists and the congregations from which they emerged dismissed America’s 4 July holiday as a hypocrisy that was irrelevant to a people who were held in bondage in the South and humiliated by segregation in the North. Among free black communities, 1 August was a day to fill the churches and meeting halls and sing the praises of Britain and her abolitionists. In other speeches there were condemnations of the United States, a nation that had disastrously failed to live up to her founding principles when it came to her black population. So confident were free African Americans of Britain’s commitment to abolitionism that all British visitors to the US were presumed to be opposed to slavery and warmly embraced by delegations of black Americans, whether they deserved such plaudits or not.14
In 1841, one hundred and twenty-eight slaves on board an American brig expressed their faith in the notion of British freedom more directly. The Creole was carrying them from the declining tobacco fields of Virginia to the booming cotton plantations of Louisiana, where they would be more valuable and their labour more profitable, but they seized control and changed course for Nassau in the British Bahamas. There they were deemed to be rendered free by setting foot on British territory. When the nineteen leaders were tried for piracy, the court ruled that they had been illegally held in slavery and their use of force to effect their freedom was justified. It was a judgement greeted with fury by the owners and it rumbled on for years, to the detriment of Anglo-American relations. The seizure of the Creole was the largest successful slave rebellion in American history, but it is largely absent from the black history of Britain. Twelve years later two slaves on board the Paraguay achieved their freedom when they landed in Kingston, Jamaica. Two years after that a black man who was held on board a ship newly arrived in the west Jamaican port of Savanna-la-Mar from Baltimore, and who was believed by local people to be a slave, was freed by a crowd several hundred strong, who had gathered at the wharf. His freedom was confirmed by the judge of a local Court of Petty Sessions.
The concept of ‘British freedom’, so abused and contorted for so many years, once again resonated among those in American bondage, as it had during the American Revolution. Likewise, the belief that by reaching British territory a slave was freed, the concept that had been tested in the courts by Granville Sharp, Jonathan Strong, James Somerset and Lord Mansfield, was revived in the imaginations of African Americans, both free and in chains.15
In his opening speech to the Anti-Slavery Convention, Thomas Clarkson was unequivocal about whom he regarded as the great enemy of abolition. ‘Your opponents who appear the most formidable,’ he told the Convention, ‘are the cotton and other planters of the southern parts of the United States; who, I am grieved to say, hold more than two millions of their fellow-creatures in the most cruel bondage.’16 Similar condemnations of the planters of the American South were repeated by speakers both British and American. Daniel O’Connell, the architect of Catholic Emancipation, who spoke on the first day of the conference, was careful to draw a distinction between American slaveholders and ‘the honest citizens of America’. O’Connell thundered that there was nothing ‘more glorious to America than the number of anti-slavery societies already established in that country’, with whom he urged British abolitionists to establish a ‘perfect brotherhood of affection’. But, he warned, ‘I can never speak but with indignation of the monsters who claim liberty to themselves, and yet inflict on the backs of the slaves the vilest marks of their tyranny.’17
This refrain was refined and repeated for the next two and a half decades, by waves of British abolitionists and African American campaigners who joined their ranks, as all jostled to remind Americans that while they held millions of their fellow countrymen in bondage their declarations of rights and equalities rang hollow. In many of these denunciations sympathy for enslaved Africans was tainted by a degree of triumphalist patriotism. Americans were prone to respond by condemning the motives behind British abolitionism, attacking her growing imperialism, and decrying the nation’s devotion to the ‘tyranny’ of monarchs. The two countries were, in this respect, bound together. Each believed in its own exceptionalism and each considered itself a realm in which the people, their rulers and laws were uniquely devoted to the principles of liberty, which were defended as inalienable rights and natural freedoms. Britain had abolished slavery while America had not. But Britain had also been the originator of American slavery and after its own abolition was still the purchaser of the cotton the American slaves produced.
As Britain’s position as the supposed arbiter of global morals was based on her own virtue, British abolitionists sought to preserve their own moral purity. The delegates of 1840 denounced everything but schemes for immediate abolition and attacked the American colonization movement, which wanted to end slavery but transport the former slaves to colonies in Africa, rather as Granville Sharp had done for the black poor of London and the Sierra Leone Company had done to the Nova Scotians half a century earlier, although those schemes had been minuscule compared to the American colonization movement’s proposals. The delegates of 1840 also dismissed any suggestion that slavery should be ended in America through any scheme of compensation. Papering over historical divisions, they were quick to remind the fifty-three American delegates that compensating Britain’s slave owners was a pragmatic measure forced upon them by the slave owners and the government, and had never been their chosen tactic.
Having identified the planters of the South as the greatest foe, the pious Thomas Clarkson warned that as such men lived ‘in the daily habits of injustice, cruelty and oppression [they] have no true fear of God’. So how then, he asked, were the abolitionists of Britain and their comrades in the US ‘to get at them so as to influence their conduct?’18 One clear strategy when confronting those who were amoral, Clarkson suggested was, ‘to make them feel their guilt in its consequences. . . You must endeavour, among other things, to affect their temporal interests.’ American slavery was to be undermined economically by being undercut by cheaper goods from India and elsewhere that were produced by free labour, in what at the time was described as the ‘mighty Experiment’. The other strategy was to isolate the United States behind what the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass later described as a ‘cordon of antislavery feeling’ built around the American slaveholder, ‘so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light.’19 This barrier was to be erected by an international alliance of abolitionists, inevitably led by Britain. A resolution was proposed and approved that called for Britain to become the base from which an anti-slavery propaganda mission should be launched directly and specifically against the slaveholders of the United States. The promoter of the motion was Henry B. Stanton, who appears in Benjamin Haydon’s painting. Stanton’s journey to attend the Convention with his new wife, the feminist and equally committed abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was taken in lieu of a honeymoon. From the podium Stanton stated that ‘the literature of Great Britain exercises so vast an influence over the public opinion of America, British abolitionist periodicals must spread before the American public evidence of the deep indignation of the civilized world against the slaveholding republic.’20 In other words, Britain should shame America towards abolition, isolating her from what we would today call the international community. This strategy, as the historian Richard Huzzey has pointed out, involved the exercise of what twenty-first-century politicians call ‘soft power’.21
It was, ironically, the closeness of America’s relationship with Britain that made the abolitionist strategy of moral isolation theoretically feasible. John Bull and his American equivalent Brother Jonathan – a figure long since supplanted by Uncle Sam – had a relationship, in the mid-nineteenth century, that was in different ways as ‘special’ as that of the mid-twentieth. There were strong economic and trading links, close ties within various religious sects and innumerable familial connections. America in the middle of the century was not the economic and cultural giant she was to become. In this relationship Queen Victoria’s Britain was the imperial superpower and America the young republic. With a common language, Britain’s cultural reach into America mirrored her economic power and British books, novels and works of science and ideas were published in huge numbers in America. The enormous popularity of Charles Dickens there reinforced the dominance of Britain in literary matters.* However, ideas, debates and individuals flowed back and forth across the Atlantic, assisted by ever-faster ocean crossings. These communications and other factors meant that, ultimately, it was to be the words of American abolitionists – spoken by them in person, in British town halls directly to British audiences – along with the publication of American books and pamphlets that would stoke the engines of the transatlantic campaign against American slavery, and do so more effectively than any ‘British abolitionist periodicals’.
Between the 1830s and the American Civil War most of the prominent African American abolitionists, who had escaped to or risen to prominence within the free states of the North, came to Britain to campaign against slavery. Together with their supporters in Britain, they embarked upon speaking tours that were one of the most dynamic and energizing features of the transatlantic anti-slavery culture. Most were former slaves. Some, at the time they came to Britain, were fugitives from slavery who presented themselves to appalled British audiences as the legal property of other men. They had known slavery, seen it from the inside, recorded its most dreadful details, and from the podiums of British meeting rooms and church halls were able to recount its dreadful impact upon their own lives – the beatings, the whippings, the sale of wives, husbands and children and the sexual abuse of women. They brought to Britain what were in effect dispatches from the front lines of the global abolition battle. In an age when British abolitionists were occasionally dismissed by their opponents as mere ‘drawing-room philanthropists’, African Americans brought a raw authenticity to the campaign and became some of its most successful recruiting sergeants. Their anti-slavery campaigns were every bit as slick and effective as the far better-known campaigns that the British abolitionists had masterminded during their struggles against British slavery and the trade in slaves.
Between 1840 and the 1860s the majority of small towns and major cities of the United Kingdom were visited by one or other of the African American abolitionists. There developed what amounted to a circuit, a network of town halls, church halls and assembly rooms in which anti-slavery speakers could gather an audience. Some travelled to small village halls, taking their stories of plantation slavery in rural America into the British countryside. Scotland was a critical part of the anti-slavery circuit, Wales much less so. Ireland was visited on numerous occasions by most of the more prominent speakers. Like travelling musicians they passed one another on the roads and lodged in the homes of the same sympathetic supporters.
Among the first to arrive was Moses Roper.* He was born into slavery in North Carolina. His mother was an enslaved woman, his father was her white owner. Because there was a strong resemblance between father and son, Moses was sold to another plantation as a young boy. In all he was bought and sold seventeen times before escaping bondage in 1834. He came to Britain the year after and there received support and an education from British abolitionists, before heading out on tour, speaking on the evils of slavery. Roper’s tours were popular not just because of his power as a speaker but because at six feet five inches tall his physical frame and countenance were as impressive as his speaking style; he used both to add theatrical drama to his shocking personal story.
Another powerful performer and firm favourite among British audiences was Henry ‘Box’ Brown. A slave from Virginia, Brown saw his three children and their mother, then pregnant with a fourth, sold to an owner in North Carolina, slave marriages having no basis in law. The loss of his family inspired a determination to escape. His ingenious plan, which was devised and executed with the assistance of two free accomplices, one white, the other black, was for Brown to hide in a wooden mail crate and have himself literally mailed from Richmond to Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania. The box was just three feet long and two feet wide, and marked as ‘dry goods’. In March 1849, twenty-seven hours after entering the box, and having narrowly escaped suffocation, he arrived in Philadelphia, at the home of a sympathetic Quaker abolitionist. ‘I had risen as it were from the dead’, Brown later wrote. He came to Britain in October 1850 and went on tour. A year later he published an English edition of his Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. Brown and others presented his astonishing escape as proof of the desperate desire for freedom among the slaves, who Southern propagandists often claimed were content to live in a state of bondage. Brown repeated the feat by having himself successfully posted from Leeds to Bradford in the same box.22 He toured the country with his ‘unrivaled Panorama of African and American Slavery’, which one provincial English newspaper described as being ‘painted on 50,000 feet of canvas’ and as having ‘been exhibited to three hundred and sixty-five thousand persons since its arrival in this country!’23 During the 1850s Henry ‘Box’ Brown honed his performing skills on the anti-slavery circuit. In addition to exhibiting his panorama he appeared from his box in front of audiences. He became such a confident performer that he eventually became a stage mesmerist and conjuror. A quarter of a century after his arrival in Britain he finally returned to America to tour as the magician Professor H. Box Brown.24
An American abolitionist who, despite being born free, was powerfully able to convey the realities of slavery to her audience was Sarah Parker Remond. She came from a free black family with strong links to many of America’s leading abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Henry Stanton. Her older brother, Charles Lenox Remond, became the first black anti-slavery lecturer within the American Anti-Slavery Society and was one of the fifty-three American delegates at the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Sarah Parker Remond combined powerful and emotive descriptions of the realities of slavery with carefully worded exposés of hidden aspects of the system. She horrified British audiences by revealing how the rape of enslaved women had created generations of mixed-race female slaves who, in turn, had themselves come to be regarded as a specialized commodity within the larger slave market. The African Americans were drawn to Britain by what the historian Richard Blackett called the nation’s ‘moral prestige’,25 and came to regard the country as a pulpit, a sanctuary from which they could preach against the sins of American slavery and a place where their message would be warmly received and they themselves would be safe, and for thirty years Britain performed exactly that function. Some spent months touring the UK; others were resident for years.
Public speaking in the middle of the nineteenth century was a form of mass media, a well-recognized and appreciated art and a species of public entertainment. A good speaker, who could take an audience with him or her on an emotional as well as an intellectual journey, was able to generate significant press coverage and build a nationwide reputation as an orator, fame that would itself generate audiences. Newspaper reports from the day repeatedly refer to the ‘eloquence’ of public speakers, describing in detail the cadence of their voice, their appearance and dress, as well as the content of their message. During the 1840s and 1850s audiences of over a thousand were relatively common, and for the more famous speakers at the larger auditoriums, attendances of two or even three thousand were not unknown. The tours of the African American abolitionists became one of the spectacles of the era. Not only were they speaking on one of the most emotive issues of the day, they were in most cases formidable communicators; some were skilled showmen. Furthermore they were foreigners who came from a nation that increasingly fascinated the British public. They were also exotic visitors arriving at a time when the British black population was declining, as the end of the British slave trade dramatically reduced the numbers of black people coming into the country.
As the reports of their lectures reveal, abolitionists’ talks were evening-long affairs, with individual speeches of over two or even three hours not uncommon. Some speakers added further drama to their talks by brandishing implements of slavery – neck collars and chains – some of which were manufactured in Britain even after British abolition, an uncomfortable fact which they made abundantly clear. Each of the African American abolitionists had their own speaking style, although many shared certain devices or structures. Some introduced themselves with an apology for their lack of education and learning, a consequence of slavery. After lowering expectations they then confounded their audience with eloquent phrases and cleverly structured arguments, in lectures that overflowed with clear evidence of learning and educational attainment. They also had their own personal narratives, stories of suffering and family break-up that gave their accounts of slavery an emotive impact that was beyond the reach of their white brethren in the abolitionist movement. This authenticity added to their appeal as very few Victorians had any first-hand experiences of slavery as it had existed in the British Empire. The African American speakers were also able to stir indignation and flatter their audiences by tapping into the national rivalries that existed between Britain and America. Stripped of American citizenship, and routinely denied passports, even when legally free, the black men and women who stood on the stages of British meeting rooms were living refutations of America’s claims to be a ‘land of the free’. But some of them were also known to play upon British sensitivities, by reminding audiences that it had been Britain that had introduced slavery into America. This historical fact, they argued, gave her a special responsibility to fight for its abolition in her former colony. Most powerfully of all, the black anti-slavery speakers who toured Britain stood before the hundreds of thousands of people who came to see them speak as living proof of the intelligence, humanity and Christianity of Africans. In this way they profoundly challenged the racism upon which slavery had been built and upon which slave societies depended.
There is debate as to how widely across the social spectrum of Victorian Britain their message was transmitted, but there is much anecdotal evidence from the diaries and journals of the African American abolitionists and from the pages of the provincial newspapers to suggest that the working classes as well as the wealthy and well-to-do attended anti-slavery events and lectures and were drawn to the famous African Americans who appeared in their towns and cities.
In 1850 the numbers travelling to Britain increased when in that summer the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Patching up the holes in earlier laws it compelled American citizens and officials, in the free as well as the slave states, to cooperate in the return of escaped slaves to their legal owners, and mandated serious fines and prison sentences for those who refused to cooperate or who harboured escapees. One result was that around thirty thousand African Americans fled to British Canada in the two years after 1850 to escape the dangers of recapture.* Others elected to put an ocean between them and the armies of slave-catchers, kidnappers and bounty hunters who were unleashed upon people of colour by the 1850 law. African American abolitionists who might have come to Britain in the hope of receiving support for their cause now had an additional reason to set sail for Liverpool or London. Henry ‘Box’ Brown, one of the most famous escapees, came to Britain within three months of the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. William Wells Brown had to make the calculation in reverse. He was in Britain on an anti-slavery lecture tour with his two daughters when it was passed. Wisely he decided not to return to the US, remaining in Britain and going on to speak against slavery at over a thousand talks and lectures. He only left Britain after his freedom had been purchased on his behalf by Ellen, Anna and Henry Richardson, a remarkable family of Quakers from Newcastle upon Tyne, of whom we will hear more later.
Not every African American who landed in Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century was an anti-slavery speaker. Some were free people of colour who came as students or entertainers; others, after 1850, were fugitives who had come not to fight for abolition but simply to find refuge. We will never know how many came and what happened to them but it does seem clear that most were men. Those who arrived with skills or were simply lucky found work and became black Victorians, mostly marrying white British women, their descendants disappearing into the background population after a couple of generations, as had the children and grandchildren of the black Georgians. The less fortunate slipped into the world of the Victorian streets. Henry Mayhew, the great social explorer and journalist, encountered a handful of men who claimed to be fugitive slaves on London’s streets while researching his epic book London Labour and the London Poor. The fourth volume of that work, subtitled Cyclopedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those that Will Not Work, published in 1862, contained a section on encounters with ‘Negro Beggars’. ‘The negro mendicant,’ Mayhew informs us, ‘who is usually an American negro, never studies the picturesque in his attire. He relies on the abject misery and down-trodden despair of his appearance and generally represents himself as a fugitive slave.’26 In a separate encounter in the same volume Mayhew recorded another tragic tale, that of a man who had stowed away on a ship bound for Britain in the hope that there he might escape unemployment and poverty. His account reveals how British racism could force black immigrants into marginal and temporary work in entertainment and manual labour.
My father was a slave, so was my mother . . . I am the eldest son. I had only one brother. Three years after his birth my mother died. My father was a shoe-black in New York. He very often had not enough to eat. My brother got a place as a servant, but I went out in the streets to do what I could. About the same time that my father, who was an old man, died, my brother lost his place. We agreed to come to England together. My brother had been living with some Britishers, and he had heard them say that over here niggers were as good as whites; and that the whites did not look down on them and illtreat them, as they do in New York. We went about and got odd jobs on the quay, and at last we hid ourselves in the hold of a vessel, bound for Liverpool. I do not know how long we were hid, but I remember we were terribly frightened lest we should be found out before the ship got under weigh. At last hunger forced us out, and we rapped at the hatches; at first we were not heard, but when we shouted out, they opened the hatches, and took us on deck. They flogged us very severely, and treated us shamefully all the voyage. When we got to Liverpool, we begged and got odd jobs. At last we got engaged in a travelling circus, where we were servants, and used to ride about with the band in beautiful dresses, but the grooms treated us so cruelly that we were forced to run away from that. I forget the name of the place that we were performing at, but it was not a day’s walk from London. We begged about for some time. At last, my brother – his name is Aaron – got to clean the knives and forks at a slap-bang (an eating-house) in the city. He was very fortunate, and used to save some bits for me. He never takes any notice of me now. He is doing very well. He lives with a great gentleman in Harewood-square, and has a coat with silver buttons, and a gold-laced hat. He is very proud, and I do not think would speak to me if he saw me. I don’t know how I live, or how much I get a week. I do porter’s work mostly, but I do anything I can get. I beg more than half the year. I have no regular lodging. I sleep where I can. When I am in luck, I have a bed. It costs me threepence. At some places they don’t care to take a man of colour in. I sometimes get work in Newgate-market, carrying meat, but not often. Ladies give me halfpence oftener than men. The butchers call me ‘Othello,’ and ask me why I killed my wife.27
In his 1852 travelogue Three Years in Europe: or, Places I have Seen and People I have Met, William Wells Brown describes seeing black people on the streets of London as an everyday experience. Many of those he met were students from Africa and the Caribbean, but he also left us an account of a meeting with one of his fellow countrymen.
I observed . . . a coloured man, and from his general appearance I was satisfied that he was an American. He eyed me attentively as I passed him, and seemed anxious to speak. When I had got some distance from him I looked back, and his eyes were still upon me. No longer able to resist the temptation to speak with him, I returned, and commencing conversation with him, learned a little of his history . . . He had, he said, escaped from slavery in Maryland, and reached New York; but not feeling himself secure there, he had, through the kindness of the captain of an English ship, made his way to Liverpool; and not being able to get employment there, he had come up to London. Here he had met with no better success, and having been employed in the growing of tobacco, and being unaccustomed to any other work he could not get labor in England. I told him he had better try to get to the West Indies; but he informed me that he had not a single penny, and that he had nothing to eat that day . . . I took from my purse my last shilling, changed it, and gave this poor brother fugitive one-half. The poor man burst into tears as I placed the sixpence in his hand, and said – ‘You are the first friend I have met in London.’ 28
It was not necessary for Victorian Britons to attend anti-slavery lectures or happen upon a fugitive slave on the city streets in order to learn of the many horrors of American slavery. In an age of increasing literacy there was a rapid expansion in newspaper circulation and reports from the slave states of the US were a regular feature. The papers were especially fond of contrasting British attitudes towards slavery, and sometimes towards the rights of all black people, with the racism of America, North and South. General accounts of life in America rarely failed to dedicate a few passages to the brutality of slavery and the crimes of American slaveholding classes. The same papers and the booming local press relished in reporting the speeches of the African American abolitionists, especially when they poured praise on Britain and scorn on their homeland. British newspapers liked to draw particular attention to the warmth with which black abolitionists were greeted by British audiences in contrast to the abuses they had suffered at the hands of Southern planters.
The other great literary expression of the transatlantic abolitionists’ campaign was the huge popularity of slave narratives, biographies of African Americans who had escaped slavery. Just as The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano had been a powerful propaganda tool for the British abolitionists, the life stories of escaped American slaves became Victorian bestsellers and works that helped spread the abolitionist message. The popularity of slave narratives peaked in the 1840s and 1850s. Moses Roper’s A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery, published in 1837, was said to have sold twenty-five thousand copies in England and another five thousand in Welsh translation. The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself, the second of Brown’s autobiographies, was written in the UK, published in Manchester in 1851 and sold by the author during his lecture tour. William Wells Brown sold twelve thousand copies of his narrative while in Britain but being a more versatile and energetic writer than many other anti-slavery speakers, went on to write novels as well as works of history and travel writing.
Most slave narratives tended to follow a similar trajectory, a journey from suffering, oppression and violence to escape and finally freedom. There was a strong tendency towards sentimentality but most were, in truth, much more than narrative biographies. They were powerful exposés of the slave system in America, an unveiling of its bleak inner workings. What gripped British readers were the emotive accounts of punishments and the cruel break-up of slave families, something that spoke loudly to the Victorian cult of the family as the basic unit of a functioning and decent society. Some narratives also described, in carefully calibrated detail, how female slaves were made the sexual prey of male owners and overseers, a notion highly offensive to Victorian beliefs in female vulnerability and inviolability. These shocking details and dramatic passages were punctuated with descriptions of more mundane details: how slaves lived, their huts, their food and the hours and conditions of their work, which varied enormously from plantation to plantation, season to season and owner to owner. These nuanced, granular details remain useful for historians of slavery today. Other passages explained the laws that underpinned the slave system and the economics of cotton cultivation.
Slave narratives were in wide circulation; many were sold directly to the public during the speaking tours. Book sales, combined with donations offered by admirers and members of the audience, became a means of keeping the abolitionist tours out there on the circuit. To some extent the tours became self-funding and self-perpetuating, so long as British people were willing to pack church and town halls to hear of the horrors being perpetrated an ocean away, and right up to the Civil War, with peaks and troughs, the audiences kept coming.
The most celebrated and most eloquent of the African American abolitionists who spent time in Britain was the author of the best selling of the slave narratives, Frederick Douglass. After escaping from slavery in 1838 with his wife Anna Murray, a free black woman, Douglass became a preacher and anti-slavery speaker in Massachusetts. He was allied to William Lloyd Garrison, and rapidly developed into one of the most effective and persuasive abolitionist speakers on either side of the Atlantic. In 1845 he published the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in which he revealed details of how he escaped, and named his legal owner – one Thomas Auld. The book made Douglass famous, an extremely dangerous condition for a man who was the legal property of another. In large part because he feared Auld would attempt to have him kidnapped, in August 1845 he boarded a ship bound for Britain.
During the nineteen months from his arrival in 1845 to his departure in April 1847, Frederick Douglass, by his own estimation, lectured on slavery on three hundred occasions, meaning that he spoke publicly against slavery on more days than he was silent. In some ways he completed his development in Britain. Freed from the daily fear of re-enslavement, and able to live a more expansive existence in an unsegregated society, he had the emotional space to evolve intellectually. In January 1846, in a speech in Belfast, he described how he had been ‘persecuted, hunted, outraged in America, I have come to England, and behold the change! A chattel becomes a man. I breathe. I am free.’29
In Britain, Douglass was also free from the schisms and disputes within American abolitionism and became more of his own man, determined to forge his own alliances. It was during his eighteen months in Britain that he gathered the funds to set up his abolitionist newspaper, the Northern Star. They came again from British supporters. His fundraising efforts were assisted by Jonathan D. Carr, the proprietor of Carr’s of Carlisle, a firm which still exists as the makers of Carr’s Water Biscuits, who acted as the treasurer of the Douglass Testimonial. By 1847 Douglass’ admirers had raised over $2,000, which he used to found the paper, which was later renamed the Frederick Douglass Newspaper, a testimony to his fame. In this respect and in other ways Britain played a significant part in the making of Frederick Douglass.30
Douglass’ impact on Britain was just as profound. Partly through his incredible energy and endless touring, he became a national sensation and revitalized the anti-slavery issue as no other speaker had managed. He was able to build on the idea that the abolition of British slavery in 1838 was not the closing of the account, and that the global mission that had been launched at the Convention of 1840 was Britain’s destiny and perhaps her duty. Speaking in Leeds in 1846 he argued that ‘of all of the nations of the earth England should be foremost in advancing the great cause of emancipation’.31 Douglass excelled at putting forward one of the key arguments in the abolitionist arsenal that slavery was a moral rather than a political issue. As such it could not be contained by political borders and should never be considered only a domestic issue of any sovereign state. Slavery anywhere was a challenge to moral people everywhere, he argued. Humanity was an indivisible brotherhood and ‘when any part of that brotherhood is trampled into dust,’ he proclaimed, ‘all should spring at once to the rescue, and for their instant deliverance’.32 It was an argument designed to further internationalize the slavery issue and nullify American arguments that abolitionists in Britain had no right to interfere in American affairs.
Throughout all of this he remained legally a slave. Then in 1846, while on his anti-slavery tour, he met Ellen, Anna and Henry Richardson, a family of Quakers from Newcastle upon Tyne. The Richardsons had long been involved in anti-slavery work. They were highly independent, self-organizing and most importantly their strand of abolitionism eschewed ideology for pragmatism. To Ellen and her sister-in-law Anna, Douglass’ legal status and the predicament in which he lived were intolerable. On 29 October the two women arranged a meeting of abolitionists in Edinburgh, at which they began a campaign to purchase his freedom. Tapping into both religious and abolitionist networks they raised the money within weeks. Meanwhile Anna Richardson wrote directly to Thomas Auld to negotiate. For £150 Auld agreed to make Douglass a free man and with the help of a team of abolitionist lawyers in Boston the transaction was completed on 5 December.
What Ellen and Anna Richardson had done was immediately criticized. They had made the same compromise that the British abolitionist movement had been forced to accept during their negotiations with the planters and the government over the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833 and, in the name of pragmatism, suspended their moral objection to the principle of ‘property in man’. In a flurry of transatlantic correspondence between Douglass and leading members of the American abolitionist movement, he too was condemned for having acquiesced with the Richardsons. The abolitionist and journalist Henry Clarke Wright wrote to him denouncing ‘That certificate of your freedom, that “Bill of Sale”, of your body and soul, from that villain, Auld, who dared to claim you as a chattel . . . you are free, you always were free, and the man is a villain who claims you as a slave, and should be treated as such.’33 Douglass, writing from Manchester, replied ten days later and, in terms that are as stark as they are eloquent, reminded Wright of the realities of his legal status. ‘I am legally the property of Thomas Auld, and if I go to the United States . . . Thomas Auld, aided by the American Government, can seize, bind and fetter, and drag me from my family, feed his cruel revenge upon me, and doom me to unending slavery . . . it was not to compensate the slave-holder, but to release me from his power; not to establish my natural right to freedom, but to release me from all legal liabilities, to slavery.’34
That two Americans were in disagreement over the philanthropic actions of a family of abolitionists who lived by the banks of the River Tyne, thousands of miles away from the cotton fields of the Southern states, testifies to how closely entwined and transatlantic the abolitionist and anti-slavery struggles had become by the 1840s. When Douglass returned to America he was not just a free man, he was an international celebrity, famous in London as well as in New York.
In his ‘Farewell to the British People’, a speech he delivered to a London audience in March 1847, Frederick Douglass contrasted his treatment in Britain over the previous eighteen months to the life he had known in the United States in the years after his escape from slavery.
I came to this city accustomed to be excluded from athenaeums, literary institutions, scientific institutions, popular meetings, from the colosseum – if there were any such in the United States – and every place of public amusement or instruction. Being in London, I of course felt desirous of seizing upon every opportunity of testing the custom at all such places here, by going and presenting myself for admission as a man. From none of them was I ever ejected. I passed through them all; your colosseums, museums, galleries of painting, even into your House of Commons . . . In none of these places did I receive one word of opposition against my entrance . . . however much the Americans despise and affect to scorn the negroes, that Englishmen – the most intelligent, the noblest and best of Englishmen – do not hesitate to give the right hand of fellowship, of manly fellowship, to a negro such as I am, I will tell them this, and endeavour to impress upon their minds these facts, and shame them into a sense of decency on this subject.35
Douglass was, of course, doing his best to flatter his audience and embarrass his homeland but his experiences and his conviction that Britain was largely free from racial prejudice are broadly representative of those of the other African Americans who toured the country in this period. Harriet Jacobs wrote that being in Britain felt like ‘a great millstone had been lifted from my breast’, as ‘for the first time in my life I was in a place where I was treated according to my deportment, without reference to my complexion’.36 This might be because British racism was mild in comparison to the strains they had known in the United States, and was therefore deemed to be not worth reporting. But as a key strategy of the abolitionists was to lionize Britain and repudiate America, they also had a clear motivation for under-reporting the racism that was a feature of British culture. In The Heroic Slave, his novella of 1853, Douglass had his central character explain that to be an American slave in Britain was to nestle ‘in the mane of the British lion, protected by his mighty paw from the talons and the beak of the American eagle’.37 The character into whose mouth Douglass placed those words was a slave on board the Creole, the American ship seized by the slaves on board and diverted to the Bahamas in 1841, in order to find their own safety.
Despite the positive experiences of Douglass and others, Britain was a land that was far from being free from racism. In 1852 Henry Box Brown was the victim of an incredibly vicious and racialized attack by the Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Herald, which dismissed his audiences as the ‘shoeless daughters of the slums and alleys’ and him as a ‘bejewelled and oily negro’. Brown sued the editor and won £100 in damages.38 Historians have suggested that the African Americans might well have chosen not to report incidents or remarks out of politeness to their hosts and in order to shore up their strategy of contrasting post-abolition Britain favourably against the slaveholding United States. They might also have not been subjected to British racism because of their novelty and exoticism; as royal African visitors to Britain discovered later in the century, celebrities with black skin, who moved in exalted circles at the top of British society, were to some extent exempt from the mundane, daily racism of the Victorian street. But even within the exalted and sympathetic circles of the British abolitionist movement into whose embrace the African American abolitionists were welcomed, ideas of the racial inferiority of black people were not unknown, as was revealed by an incident that took place during the creation of Benjamin Haydon’s painting of the Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840.
In order to make his preparatory sketches, which were executed with great speed, Haydon attended the conference. Over five days he produced fifty-two portrait studies but even working at that pace he was unable to sketch all the delegates whose portraits were to appear in the finished painting. Haydon had to complete his preparatory work over the following months, by inviting the delegates he had been unable to sketch to attend his studios or by visiting them in their homes. Some of these additional studies were necessary because the London Committee of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which had commissioned the painting, asked for additional figures to be included. Haydon was well aware that the result of all these extra faces being squeezed into the finite space of his canvas would result in precisely the sort of compositional mess for which his painting has long been criticized. Among the delegates depicted by Haydon was Henry Beckford, the black abolitionist who had travelled from Jamaica with William Knibb. Beckford, who was a powerful anti-slavery speaker, was placed in the very centre of the foreground, beside the eminent Secretary of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, John Scoble.39 As Scoble sat for his portrait Haydon informed him of the compositional arrangement, and of his proximity to Beckford, presuming, as he said in his journal, that as ‘an abolitionist on thorough principle [he] would have gloried in being so placed’.40 Haydon noted however that Scoble was resistant to the composition and his proximity to a former slave, suggesting that there was, in Haydon’s words, a ‘greater propriety of placing the Negro in the distance, as it would have much greater effect’. Scoble was passionately committed to stand up for black people but, so it seems, not to stand beside one. Haydon asked other abolitionists who came to sit for their portraits later if they would be willing to be placed next to a black man, and recorded a tally of those who objected and those who, like the radical moralist William Lloyd Garrison, declared themselves happy to be painted shoulder to shoulder with Beckford. Irrespective of Scoble’s obfuscations he was placed next to Henry Beckford in Haydon’s completed painting.
It is our modern supposition that those who were opposed to slavery and felt genuine compassion and empathy for the enslaved were disposed to regard all men as equals and oppose racism. We similarly imagine that they would have adopted other humanitarian, liberal, feminist or anti-colonial stances. But the reality is that among abolitionists in both Britain and America an anti-slavery position, even one that was passionately held and courageously campaigned for, did not necessarily go hand in hand with a belief in racial equality. As the historian Catherine Hall and other scholars have pointed out, the abolitionists, while opposing the racial ideas generated by the pro-slavery lobbies on both sides of the Atlantic, were still as liable as their opponents to see black people as stereotypes. Rather than rejecting the principle of racial stereotyping, they generated an alternative stereotype of their own that was designed to ‘counter that of the planters, which represented “Quashee” [a black person] as lazy, mendacious, incapable of working without the whip, mentally inferior and sexually depraved.’ The abolitionist stereotype of the African was of ‘new black Christian subjects – meek victims of white oppression, grateful to their saviours, ready to be improved and transformed.’41
That Victorian capacity for being passionately committed to anti-slavery as both a moral principle and an article of British national identity while at the same time holding old racial ideas and dabbling in new ones can be seen in the writings of one of the most famous men of the age, Charles Dickens. He was born in 1812 and died in 1870 – thereby missing the last thirty-one years of the Victorian era of which he is regarded as the narrator – and so, like most of his generation of Britons, did not see British slavery in operation. In 1842 he made the first of his two trips to the United States. He was already a successful writer although his greatest work lay ahead of him. While there he expressed a desire to visit the South and see the peculiar institution of slavery in the flesh. He travelled to Richmond, Virginia, the city that became the capital of the Confederate South, and there saw William Knibb’s ‘monster’ alive and well.
Dickens was appalled by the violence of slavery, the results of which he saw manifested in the wounds, scars and disfigurements on the bodies of the slaves. He was also disturbed by his exposure to the full force of Southern racism, and the dismissive swagger with which Southerners defended the slave system and their power over black people. Descriptions of his encounters with slavery were included in American Notes for General Circulation, Dickens’ journalistic account of his time in America. But even before his immersion in the antebellum South, Dickens reported feeling uncomfortable during a dinner in Baltimore by the fact that the waiting staff were enslaved Africans. He felt overwhelmed, he tells us, by ‘a sense of shame and reproach’ for being in the presence of ‘human creatures who are bought and sold’ and passionately condemned the ‘upholders of slavery in America’ and the ‘horrors of the system’. He dedicated four pages to reprinting a total of forty-four shocking notices and advertisements from American newspapers concerning runaway slaves, which listed the various injuries and scars by which they might be identified and offered rewards for recapture. We don’t know if Dickens was aware that similar advertisements had appeared in the pages of British newspapers only a few decades earlier.
However, Dickens’ vivid heartfelt denunciation of American slavery exists on the same pages as his highly derogatory racialized descriptions of the black people he encountered. His description of a black coachman he met at Potomac Creek contains many of the well-worn racial stereotypes that had emerged over the previous century and a half. The black coachman is described as ‘rolling his eyes’ and ‘grinning ear to ear’. Dickens castigates him for performing what he labels an ‘insane imitation of an English coachman’. Throughout this passage and others, Dickens fixates on the darkness of black people’s skin.42 There is no question that Dickens’ revulsion at slavery was real and that it stayed with him in later life, but so did his dislike of black people and their physical appearance. Six years after his tour of America, Dickens sent a copy of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to his friend the actor William Charles Macready, who was himself about to embark for the United States. In his accompanying letter Dickens informed his friend that, ‘There was such a hideous and abominable portrait of him [Douglass] in the book that I have torn it out, fearing it might set you, by anticipation, against the narrative’.43 Dickens, who we know admired Douglass’ writing and was able to empathize with the sufferings he had endured as a slave, still felt compelled to remove his portrait from a copy of his biography he was sending to a friend. No matter how difficult it is for us to understand, the fact remains that many millions of Victorians who, like their most famous author, passionately opposed slavery saw no contradiction between that opposition and an unshakable belief in black inferiority.
On 20 March 1852 a book was dispatched to Windsor Castle, from the town of Brunswick, in the American state of Maine. The accompanying letter, written by the book’s author, was addressed to ‘His Royal Highness Prince Albert’, Queen Victoria’s consort and, by then, her husband of twelve years. After some initial niceties the author confessed that she had sent her novel to the prince in the hope that ‘He who is nearest to her’ might present the Queen with ‘this simple story’, believing that it might ‘win from her compassionate nature, pitying thoughts for those multitudes of poor outcasts who have fled for shelter to the shadow of her throne’, by which she meant the fugitive American slaves who, she wrote, are ‘by thousands . . . crouding [sic] British shores’. The enclosed novel, she went on, was, ‘an honest attempt to enlist the sympathies both of England & America in the sufferings of an oppressed race, to whom in less enlightened days both England & America were unjust’. The book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the author, the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her letter to Prince Albert, despite the overdose of meek humility, was arguably as brilliant a work of emotional manipulation as the novel it accompanied. At one point Stowe appealed woman to woman to the Queen, writing that she was ‘encouraged by the thought that beneath the royal insignia of England throbs that woman’s & mother’s heart’.
On the day Stowe dispatched her appeal to Windsor Castle, some of the more vocal of the ‘poor outcasts’ who had fled to Britain were in the energetic vanguard of the transatlantic campaign against slavery. That very evening the fugitive slave Henry ‘Box’ Brown was at the Corn Exchange in Wolverhampton presenting his famous Panorama of African and American Slavery, the last performance in a run of five that the local newspaper informs us had been organized ‘on behalf of the three and a half million of his race in a state of degradation and slavery in America’.44 1852 also saw William Wells Brown tour across Britain promoting his newly published travel narrative, Three Years in Europe. But within a year of the arrival of that first copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Windsor Castle, this one work of fiction had begun to have a more powerful influence on how Queen Victoria’s twenty million subjects regarded and envisaged slavery and black people than any anti-slavery speech or slave narrative.
It would be a blithe understatement to describe Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a publishing success. It was a book that redefined what success in publishing looked like and that altered perceptions of what literature could achieve. Between its publication in March 1852 and the close of the following year, it sold a third of a million copies in the United States. More remarkably over the same period an unprecedented one and a half million copies were sold in Britain and her empire. In Britain alone eighteen different publishing houses issued forty different editions between them, many of them unofficial pirated editions from which the author gained no royalties; this allowed British publishers to offer the book to the public for as little as one shilling, which in turn increased sales.* In part because it was written by an American and set in the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not usually thought of today as a Victorian novel, and its impact upon Britain and British culture has largely been forgotten, yet after the Bible it was the best-selling book in Britain during the entire nineteenth century. It went on to become the best-selling book of the century across the world.
The subtitle, Life Among the Lowly – rarely mentioned today – is a reminder of how unlikely its success was. This was a book that managed to take black characters, people who occupied the very lowest strata of another society, and place them in the minds and the hearts of millions of British people. For at least two generations Stowe’s enslaved black characters – Topsy, George Harris, Eliza, Harry and Uncle Tom himself – were as familiar to British readers, both adults and children, as Oliver Twist, Scrooge, Miss Havisham, David Copperfield, or any of the other creations of Charles Dickens. Even in the 1940s, ninety years after publication, it was recorded that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was still among the most commonly read books by working-class schoolgirls in Britain.45 On the shelves of hundreds of antiquarian bookshops in Britain today can be found thousands of Victorian and Edwardian copies, many with the carefully inscribed signatures of the British children who had won them as prizes in schools and Sunday schools. For well over a century Uncle Tom’s Cabin was ubiquitous, carried by every library and passed down through millions of British families. But its impact spilled over far beyond the Sunday school or the family bookshelf. Within its first few years in circulation the novel exploded into Victorian popular culture. It broke free from its literary form and invaded the theatres and the music halls. It inspired comic sketches and satirical cartoons; there were versions that both celebrated and mocked the book, its characters and the issues around slavery and abolition that it raised. Uncle Tom’s Cabin infiltrated the English language and was refracted through British popular music and collided with another lost feature of Victorian popular culture, the enormous popularity of blackface minstrel acts.
In the vaults of museums and in private collections are the physical relics of Britain’s fascination with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book spawned a vast array of what we would today call tie-in merchandise. Uncle Tom figurines poured out of the Staffordshire potteries and bronze statuettes were cast in their thousands. Playing cards and jigsaws appeared, as did tableware – crockery and cutlery.46 One manufacturer even produced Uncle Tom wallpaper that depicted the key scenes from the book, while a London bookshop let it be known that it stocked ‘Uncle Tom’s New and Second Hand clothing’.47 Toy makers manufactured thousands of dolls of the main characters and Uncle Tom board games were hastily devised. One of them, entitled Justice, allowed each player to take on the role of a central character.48 Parlour songs were composed based on Uncle Tom storylines, and popular ballads were cheaply printed, often illustrated with scenes from the book, and sold in large numbers. Sermons were delivered from the pulpit and poems were composed in praise of the book and its humanitarian, Christian themes.
Even a hundred and sixty years later the unprecedented popularity of this one book is not fully explainable. Some of its extraordinary success must rest upon the foundations of sympathy and engagement with the issue of slavery that had been laid down during the previous seventy years of abolitionist activity in Britain. There is also the possibility that the popularity of the many slave narratives published in Britain over the preceding two decades had to some extent cleared the way, though it has to be said that in 1852 no slave narrative had sold even fifty thousand copies, never mind one and a half million.
Today Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those books that almost everyone has heard of but few people have read, and to us it is a difficult read – clumsily proselytizing at times, melodramatic in places while slow-moving and overly wordy in others. In the least successful passages, Stowe’s characters become ciphers for her own anti-slavery convictions and at times for her other moral views. Her passionate belief in temperance is particularly poorly camouflaged. But at its most persuasive and in its most humane passages Uncle Tom’s Cabin still has the capacity to stir emotions and elicit genuine sympathy. In those passages, particularly those that explore broken family bonds and parents’ love for their children, the raw emotional power of the book is little dimmed by the passing of the decades.
At its heart Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the story of the break-up of two enslaved families, but like the narratives penned by fugitive slaves it explores other aspects of American slavery. Uncle Tom himself, a man in late middle age, is literally ‘sold down the river’, eventually to Simon Legree, who becomes the personification of the vindictive Southern slave owner, and who was probably based on a number of infamous Southern planters whom Stowe had read about or heard reports of. While Uncle Tom is abandoned to the cruelties of his new owner, another group of slaves, George Harris with his wife Eliza and child Harry, make a long and perilous progress across America, finally escaping to freedom by reaching British Canada, a significant detail that was not lost on British readers. In the scene in which they land in Amherstburg, Stowe describes the British territory as an almost mystical realm of natural freedoms: ‘clear and full rose the English shores; shores charmed by a mighty spell, – with one touch to dissolve every incantation of slavery no matter in what language pronounced or by what national power confirmed’.49 The Virginian slaves who followed Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775 and the slave mutineers who sailed the Creole to the Bahamas probably envisaged British territory in similarly idealized terms. The chapters describing the escapes of the enslaved characters and their pursuit by slave-catchers were a pointed and timely attack on the Fugitive Slave Act, passed two years before publication. Stowe herself had harboured a fugitive slave in her own home and appreciated the vindictiveness of the new ordinance. The climax of the book is the murder of Uncle Tom by Simon Legree. In his determination to crush the honest spirit of the old man, and, significantly for Stowe, to break his faith in God, Legree whips Tom to death in an uncontrollable explosion of animal rage. Yet even at the moment of his death Tom forgives his murderer.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains largely unread in the twenty-first century not simply because its melodramatic style has fallen from literary favour but also because it is highly contentious. In the second half of the twentieth century it was largely disowned by African Americans, who recoiled at the meek passivity of the central character, whose name has become a pejorative shorthand for a black person unable to stand up for his own life and in thrall to white power. Tom is the simplistic and saintly figure that Stowe intended him to be, but also the embodiment of the stereotype of Africans that had emerged from within transatlantic abolitionism; honest, childlike, uncomplicated and deeply imbued in the Christian message. Other characters can also appear to be personifications of various stereotypes, or at least to display traits that accord with the racial paternalism of the abolitionist movement. As these characters were some of the best known ever generated by any work of fiction, the significance of these failings and limitations is enormously magnified. Yet there are other characters who demonstrate autonomy, resistance, pride and devotion to family, most notably George Harris, who bravely leads his family to liberty in Canada.* Even Uncle Tom, who refuses to whip another slave and is punished for his disobedience, does not fall neatly into the stereotype.
Whatever our modern difficulties with the novel and its characters, for the millions of British people who encountered the book in the 1850s the experience of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin could be revelatory and visceral as they encountered Stowe’s characters and bore witness to their sufferings in the sobering knowledge that as they sat reading, almost four million black people were living in similar conditions across the ocean, quaking under the private tyrannies of slaveholders like Simon Legree.
The book’s raw intensity came from its portrayal of the slave family as a network of emotional bonds and shared kinship that was wrought apart by slavery. This was something that British readers appreciated from the outset. Through the sufferings of its central characters, who were scattered across America, the novel cast the slave system as the enemy of what we today call the nuclear family. Its thunderous central message was that to be pro-slavery was to be anti-family, a notion repugnant to Victorian religious and moral sensibilities. The brutal punishments suffered by the black characters, their desperate escapes from both slavery and the white slave-catchers, combined with their emotional and familial loyalties to one another could have the effect of re-humanizing, in the British popular imagination, a people who had been systematically dehumanized by the slave system.
The intensity of this moral message was known to incite a physical and visceral reaction. Readers were reported weeping and shuddering at the most violent or emotionally resonant passages. The brutality of the punishment scenes was seen as so shocking that Stowe was repeatedly accused of exaggeration. In 1853 she responded by publishing A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a 270-page, point-by-point defence of the novel’s characters and plot. In this second work, Stowe openly acknowledged that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an ‘inadequate representation of slavery’, but only because ‘slavery, in some of its workings, is too dreadful for the purposes of art. A work which should represent it strictly as it is, would be a work which could not be read’.50 Inadequate or not as a description of slavery, the emotional journey that Victorian readers were taken on by the novel could be overwhelming. A stage performance put on in a north Welsh mining village, graphically demonstrated how it permitted white Britons, both men and women, to immerse themselves in and even publicly express their powerful feelings of empathy for the enslaved.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin played absolute hell with our emotions. We felt every stroke of the lash of the whip. It cut us to the quick, heart and soul. In the audience some people wept unashamedly, like the Greeks of old who considered it manly to give vent to their feelings when moved. Others with obvious efforts restrained themselves by the exercise of great control from rushing on the stage, taking the whip out of the hand of the cruel task master and giving him a taste of his own medicine.
One member of the audience, a Mrs Whalley, was ‘loudly sobbing, looking up and calling out, “Oh, oh” as each lash discordantly cut the air and Tom’s poor body. At one juncture her grief was awful to behold and she was sympathetically escorted out to the back . . . she was still sobbing and crying and would not be comforted.’51
Yet it was not just empathy that allowed the book to achieve its unprecedented sales figures, and what made Uncle Tom’s Cabin genuinely loved in its day was the way it mixed tragedy with comedy. Reading it was not an act of dutiful solemnity. Both British and American reviewers noted how the book was able to shift the reader between the extremes of tears and laughter. Putnam’s Monthly, a New York magazine, recounted the story of a man who, while spending the night in a strange house, became ‘annoyed by hearing someone in the adjoining chamber alternatively groaning and laughing’. Eventually, ‘he knocked upon the wall and said, “Hallo, there! What’s the matter? Are you sick, or reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” ’52
Historians have debated the extent to which Britain’s anti-slavery culture of meetings, pamphlets and speaking tours reached down into the lives and experiences of working-class people. We know that the poor as well as the well-off attended anti-slavery lectures and talks, and were especially drawn to listen to figures like Frederick Douglass, as his celebrity radiated out beyond traditional abolitionist and Nonconformist circles. But there is no doubt that Uncle Tom helped spread the anti-slavery message into regions of the country and sections of society that had been less interested and less engaged. The novel won converts to the anti-slavery mission, inspired some of its readers to become involved in the crusade against American slavery and generated a new wave of activity that helped British anti-slavery campaigners transmit to this broader audience one of their most persuasive arguments – that slavery was a moral sin, no matter where it took place. Within a few years of publication, the book had become what the scholar Sarah Meer describes as ‘the frame for the majority of British discussions of slavery.’53 Uncle Tom did more to damage the reputation of America abroad and shine a light on Southern slavery than any other feature of the transatlantic abolitionist campaign. Its runaway success in Britain and popularity in the free states of the North also helped reaffirm the links between the anti-slavery movements on both sides of the Atlantic.
The sensational impact of the novel inevitably made the author internationally famous and in 1853 Stowe travelled to Britain, along with her husband Calvin. They came to promote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, revel in its success and support the anti-slavery cause. Stowe’s arrival added fresh fuel to the Uncle Tom bonfire. She attended several anti-slavery gatherings, but hid behind the veil of Victorian propriety and had her husband speak on her behalf. Also on her behalf, a petition was initiated by the Earl of Shaftesbury, guided by the offices of the Queen’s close companion the Duchess of Sutherland. It was entitled ‘An affectionate and Christian address of many thousands of women of Great Britain and Ireland, to their sisters, the women of the United States of America’ and generated over half a million signatures from British women. This was deemed to be a socially acceptable way for respectable British women to express their support for Stowe and their opposition to American slavery without being seen to have strayed too far into the male realm of politics and international relations. It was envisaged as a direct appeal to the women of America to reflect on slavery in their nation, a force that broke up families and that was simply ‘an Affliction and disgrace’ that had to be removed ‘from the Christian world.’54 To make the address more palatable in the United States, it did admit that Britain had ‘introduced’ slavery into her former colonies. Among the ladies who added their names to the address and helped organize it was Catherine Dickens, who had accompanied her husband on his American tour and who shared his opposition to slavery. Gathered together into twenty-six bound and heavy volumes, the petition was presented to Stowe, reinforcing British womanhood’s commitment to the anti-slavery cause and the personal celebrity of the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
As Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the landscape of anti-slavery sentiments in Britain, all those involved had to adapt. African American abolitionists on lecture tours increasingly encountered audiences who viewed American slavery through their own reading. To tap into this new interest anti-slavery speakers began to refract their own personal experiences and readings from their own slave narratives through references to famous passages in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They were also able to use their own authority as former slaves to confirm that the terrible abuses and outrageous violations Stowe had described accorded with their own real experiences of American slavery. In these ways they tailored their message to the new mood, and largely welcomed the novel as a new and powerful feature of the struggle against slavery, one that had created a welcome wave of new interest and enthusiasm. The popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with British readers also became a fundraising opportunity. The anti-slavery societies began to organize Uncle Tom Penny Offerings, a campaign which gathered significant funds to support American abolitionist activities. As was the case with the phenomenal success of Frederick Douglass’ tour in the 1840s, a great deal of the activity was directed and organized by women. That the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was herself a woman naturally feminized the immediate response to its runaway success in Britain.
But Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its slave characters did not remain fixed in Britain. The book was adapted to fit British tastes and agendas, and was used and misused in various forms. On the stage it mutated through hundreds of productions and innumerable versions, rewrites and reimaginings. By the end of 1852 eleven British theatres had produced Uncle Tom plays.55 These variants and plays become almost a sub-genre of British theatre, and Uncle Tom-themed plays were among the most performed during the second half of the century. White actors blacked up to play the roles of the enslaved, and later in the century African American theatrical troupes or individual performers travelled to Britain to take Uncle Tom on tour. Playwrights simply cannibalized the original, selecting from its key scenes, reordering where necessary, rewording when they saw fit, dropping other parts of the book to highlight their chosen themes. As a consequence the play could be put on almost anywhere, from the rough theatres of the East End, where the audiences were male and predominantly working class, to the refined theatres of the city centre and the West End. Some Tom plays took the key characters and placed them in scenarios that were not in Stowe’s novel. Others invented new characters and threw them onto the stage to mingle among Stowe’s originals. Some playwrights recoiled at the prospect of dramatizing the brutal murder of Uncle Tom by Simon Legree before refined, middle-class audiences; in one British version Tom’s saintly kindness overcomes Legree’s inner demons and he is freed, escaping to Canada. In another version Legree is shot by his enslaved concubine Cassy. Other Tom plays even depicted slave revolts and the burning of Legree’s plantation, to the shock and horror of American visitors to London, who the British Army Despatch noted were ‘disgusted with the Uncle Tom Mania here’.56 Other American theatregoers of the 1850s were disturbed more by the appearance on stage of Uncle Toms who delivered their lines with strong cockney accents. Perhaps the most interesting reworking was The Tyrant, which interjected into Stowe’s story a British sailor, a Jack tar, who acted as a device to link the anti-slavery theme of the novel to British patriotism. Other plays made much of George Harris’ escape with his family to British Canada, thereby providing an excuse for a burst of British pride and moral self-satisfaction, served up, at times, to the strains of ‘Rule, Britannia’.
From the very start readers and reviewers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin compared and contrasted the characters in Stowe’s novel to the caricatures of black people that could be found within another cultural phenomenon that had firmly taken root in Britain. No precise date can be given for its entry into British popular culture but one critical moment came in September 1836 when a new musical play, The Black God of Love, was performed at London’s Surrey Theatre. The Times carried a review of the play which commented upon the extraordinary effect that its star performer, ‘Mr. Rice, the American comedian’, had exerted upon his mainly male and working-class audience. The review noted that
though his audience did not at first appear to understand his drift, it was not many minutes before he completely secured their attention and gained their applause. At the conclusion of the ‘extravaganza,’ . . . the curtain fell amidst an uproar of applause from every part of the house. The audience were, however, resolved to have a farther treat, and an unanimous call for ‘Jim Crowe’ [sic] succeeded. The curtain again rose, and Mr. Rice, in the character of Jim Crowe, immediately came forward and sung the song, which was encored four times!57
In 1836 Jim Crowe was the comic persona and dance routine of Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white New Yorker who had emerged as an actor and comedian in the 1820s. It was later in the nineteenth century that the name Jim Crow was appropriated as shorthand for the system of segregation and violent repression that condemned African Americans to spend a century in the wilderness, between the Civil War of the 1860s and civil rights campaigns of the 1960s.
At some point in the 1830s, Rice began to appropriate aspects of the musical and dance traditions that had developed among the enslaved people of the Southern states. He had assembled these cultural fragments and added his own distortions to black speech patterns and exaggerations of black dancing, and created the stage character Jim Crow, an enslaved man dressed in rags and faded finery who sang songs, danced and told jokes. To complete the persona, Rice blackened his face and hands, as earlier minstrel performers had done. In 1836, at the height of British abolitionism, three years after the passage of the Emancipation Act and four years before the World Anti-Slavery Convention, Jim Crow came to Britain.
The arrival of Jim Crowe, and his dance ‘Jumpin Jim Crowe’, was not something entirely new to Britain. In the 1820s the stage performer Charles Mathews had brought to Britain his own adaptation of early American minstrelsy routines that pre-dated Thomas Rice, which he had seen on a trip to the United States.58 Britain also had her own traditions of blackface and British audiences had, after all, been watching white actors in black make-up play Othello for two and a half centuries. The new forms of blackface minstrelsy that emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, rather like abolitionism, were transatlantic phenomena, in that ideas, people and innovations moved in both directions. It cannot be simply thought of as an American import. Although blackface minstrelsy, its popular songs, slang phrases and comic routines, has been largely airbrushed out of our standard, Dickensian image of Britain in the Victorian age, it was enormously popular right through into the twentieth century. There were times during which minstrels acts were at least as widespread in Britain as in the United States, and one British blackface performer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was adamant that minstrelsy had reached its most heightened stages of perfection in Britain rather than the US.59 By the 1850s minstrel songs had usurped many of the ballads that had been popular earlier in the century to become some of the best-known tunes in Britain. The near ubiquity of minstrel shows and minstrel imagery made it one of the cultural forces that helped shape how black people were imagined and how slavery was envisaged in Victorian Britain.
Minstrelsy was in essence a form of musical clownery, but one that is so racially toxic to the twenty-first-century observer that it is almost impossible to regard it as anything other than a racist attack on black people. The racial stereotyping, the exaggerated gestures, the faux African American dialects and above all the blackening of white faces with burnt cork in a grotesque act of racial impersonation – everything about blackface is profoundly unpalatable today. Yet, difficult though it is to grasp, minstrel shows were not initially and not always the enemy of the anti-slavery position. Broadly speaking, in the period between British abolition in 1833 and the early 1850s, minstrelsy was not as racist as it was to become later in the century. As the historian Robert Nowatzki has pointed out, minstrel shows were capable of ‘appropriating abolitionism’s melodramatic depiction of the separation of slave families and other sorrows caused by slavery’.60 On occasions the most benign of the minstrel songs and sketches presented the anti-slavery cause as a form of anti-slavery entertainment, one that condemned American slavery while at the same time lampooning and stereotyping black people. From the 1830s to the 1850s white men in blackface delivered anti-slavery speeches from the stages of British theatres and music halls, in the same acts in which they rolled their eyes and crudely imitated black dancing, during their high-speed comic routines. Thomas Rice’s first performances as Jim Crowe in the Surrey Theatre were a mixture of singing and dancing, racial lampooning but also anti-slavery statements.
In the mid-1840s, the Ethiopian Serenaders, the first of many extremely popular American minstrel troupes, toured Britain. They arrived in the country around the same time as Frederick Douglass, coming in 1846 and staying until 1847. Their tour, like that of the great abolitionist, took them across the provinces and brought them both rave reviews and national fame. Their progress around the country was even more arduous than that of Douglass; they played on over four hundred occasions in their eighteen months in Britain, in many of the towns and cities that welcomed and embraced Douglass and the other black abolitionists. How was it that audiences who attended anti-slavery lectures and who heard fugitive slaves recount their highly personal experiences of suffering and family break-up apparently felt no discomfort in attending the minstrel shows? Not only did British audiences attend both anti-slavery lectures and minstrel performances, they were, on occasions, encouraged to do so. In 1846 the people of Exeter, not long after they had welcomed Frederick Douglass to their city, were informed by the Western Times, their local newspaper, that a troupe of minstrels had arrived in town. The newspaper that had praised, in solemn tones, the words and the gravitas of Douglass gushed enthusiastically about the delights of the blackface performers and suggested that its readers would appreciate their performance, since ‘The negroes of America, a light-hearted and joyous race, whenever they are treated with the least kindness, have a great love of music’. This music, the report explained, was ‘unsophisticated and their instruments simple and crude’, yet ‘Some of them have fine voices’.61 The minstrel acts, even when anti-slavery in sentiment, presented black people as childlike and unsophisticated. This was in striking contrast to how contemporary audiences reported their encounters with Frederick Douglass. Many accounts noted his obvious intelligence and evident learning, attributes which were cited on occasion as proof that when freed from slavery and given the gifts of education and moral instruction black people were able to demonstrate their intellectual capacities and potential for refinement. Douglass played on the gulf between his intellectual abilities and the expectations some of his audience might have had of him within the strictures of some of his lectures.
There is no single explanation as to why blackface minstrel acts caught hold of the British popular culture so profoundly in the Victorian age. This incongruity, along with minstrelsy’s American origins, might partly explain why minstrelsy has been airbrushed out of our historical memory of Victorian theatre and music hall. One suggestion for its success at the time is that minstrelsy in Britain may have tapped into a reservoir of implicit sympathy for black people built up over decades of anti-slavery campaigning. Some historians have argued that blackface characters, performing the role of slaves who were often persecuted and exploited by figures of authority, enabled a play of words and meanings around issues of class and exploitation that working-class British audiences could easily relate to. When minstrel characters mocked and ridiculed their oppressors was it that difficult for the white working-class audiences to draw parallels and even choose sides? After all both the emerging trades unions and some Victorian social reformers had used terms like ‘white slavery’ and ‘wage slavery’ to compare the privations of industrial and agricultural workers to the conditions and sufferings of the more pitied slave.* It seems likely that there were occasions when white working-class audiences were able to see through the burnt cork and to some extent identify with the hard labour, endless poverty and abject powerlessness of the ‘slave’ characters. The historian Robert Nowatzki speculates as to whether blackface minstrelsy, for all its racism, ‘may have done more to stir up anti-slavery sentiment among the British working classes than formal anti-slavery campaigning was able to do’.62 The almost unfathomable strangeness of minstrelsy was that it was capable of drawing its emotional power from these sorts of identifications and from the reservoir of sentimental, anti-slavery feelings that were held by many British people while at the same time pandering to the stereotypes of black people that reduced them to childlike clowns who were endlessly imitative, often joyous, occasionally witty, always musical but never intellectual or reflective.
During their 1846–47 tour the Ethiopian Serenaders took their act not just across the country but also up the social scale. As well as East End theatres and provincial concert halls they played in West End theatres such as the St James. Two years later they were back in London, this time performing with William Lane, an African American dancer known as Master Juba who is believed to be the dancer Charles Dickens saw perform in the Five Points district of New York during his American tour, an encounter he described in American Notes, another ‘Dickensian’ scene of rolling eyes and flailing limbs in which he fixated on black physical difference. The Ethiopian Serenaders also popularized in Britain the song ‘Lucy Neal’, a slave lament of which there were innumerable different versions, different lyrics arranged around the same melody and chorus. Versions of ‘Lucy Neal’ ranged from sorrowful anti-slavery ballads to raucous versions that are both racially derogatory and sexually obscene. Its flexibility was both a reason for and evidence of its popularity; the song became one of the most common in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, reaching far beyond the theatres and music halls. The huge success of the Ethiopian Serenaders not only increased the popularity of minstrel shows, it encouraged British performers to abandon their traditional acts and form minstrel troupes.
While the more successful and astute minstrel troupes followed the American acts and migrated towards the more respectable theatres, adapting their acts to meet the tastes of middle-class audiences, other minstrel performers took the music of the theatre shows out onto the streets. By the 1850s working-class white Britons, often men on the margins of society, were blackening their faces. They tended to play banjos and for rhythm and percussion the bones, the two classic African American instruments of the period. The street minstrels, who described themselves using the N-word, played at the newly popular Victorian seaside resorts, to the enormous crowds that flocked to the race tracks and were drawn to any fair, fete, market or public gathering that offered them a crowd to work with and at which they were tolerated. While exploring the streets of London in the summer of 1850, researching for his book London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew encountered a minstrel duo who were scraping a living as what he described as ‘Ethiopian serenaders’. Although the two men were ‘dressed like decent mechanics, with perfectly clean faces’, Mayhew identified them as minstrels because ‘a little of the professional black’ remained ‘at the root of the hair on the forehead.’ They claimed, probably erroneously, to have been the city’s first blackface street entertainers and Mayhew, who had his interviews recorded by assistants using a form of shorthand, left us this highly detailed account of these street minstrels, their trade and their repertoire of minstrel tunes they had mastered, many of them containing references to slavery.
‘We are niggers,’ said one man, ‘as it’s commonly called; that is, negro melodists. Nigger bands vary from four to seven, and have numbered as many as nine; our band is now six. We all share alike. I (said the same man) was the first who started the niggers in the streets, about four years ago . . . Last year was the best year I’ve known. We start generally about ten, and play till it’s dark in fine weather. We averaged 1l. a-week last year. The evenings are the best time. Regent-street, and Oxford-street, and the greater part of St. James’s, are our best places. The gentry are our best customers, but we get more from gentlemen than from ladies. The City is good, I fancy, but they won’t let us work it; it’s only the lower parts, Whitechapel and Smithfield ways, that we have a chance in. Business and nigger-songs don’t go well together . . . When we started, the songs we knew was ‘Old Mr. Coon,’ ‘Buffalo Gals,’ ‘Going ober de Mountain,’ ‘Dandy Jim of Carolina,’ ‘Rowly Boly O,’ and ‘Old Johnny Booker.’ We stuck to them a twelvemonth. The ‘Buffalo Gals’ was best liked . . . Things are not so good as they were. We can average 1l. a-piece now in the week, but it’s summer-time, and we can’t make that in bad weather . . . there’s no demand for us now at the theatres, except the Pavilion.63
It is clear from Mayhew’s evidence that London’s street minstrels often struggled to make enough money and were drawn from the poorer sections of London society. The more vocal of the two men Mayhew encountered in 1850 candidly admitted that ‘we’re more of a poorer sort, if not to say a ragged sort, for some are without shoes or stockings. The “niggers” that I know have been errand-boys, street-singers, turf-cutters, coalheavers, chandlers, paviours, mudlarks, tailors, shoemakers, tinmen, bricklayers’ labourers, and people who have had no line in particular but their wits.’64The witness enlightened Mayhew as to the ethnic origins of the mid-century street minstrels, and here the history of the portrayal of black people in Britain and their presence in the country overlapped. ‘Some niggers are Irish’, he told the social explorer. ‘There’s Scotch niggers too. I don’t know a Welsh one, but one of the street nigger-singers is a real black, an African.’65
Mayhew’s impromptu interview with the two blackface musicians took place around the same time as William Wells Brown’s poignant London encounter with a fugitive American slave. The city that sustained numerous troupes of blackface minstrels was in the same years home to black students and preachers, fugitive Americans and black and mixed-race Britons, some from families of long standing with roots in the eighteenth-century black communities. All lived their lives alongside these musical parodies of blackness. But not only did black people pass by blackface performance on the London streets, African American musicians themselves came to Britain to take advantage of the huge new interest in black American music that had been inspired by the minstrel craze. Black men now performed on stages alongside white men in blackface, they shared the bill with acts built on the racial lampooning of African American slaves.
Some black performers arrived in Britain as established stars of the American stage and were able to attract large audiences. Bill Kersands, a comedian and minstrel dancer of legendary athletic skill, toured Britain in the 1880s. Kersands performed his dance routines for Queen Victoria and was a hit on both sides of the ocean. His routines however struggled to escape the crude stereotyping of the blackface shows. Known for his large mouth, one feature of his act involved him putting billiard balls in his mouth, several at a time, and contorting his face to comic effect. To uproarious laughter he would attempt to regale his audience with comic anecdotes through a mouthful of billiard balls or even while holding a complete cup and saucer between his lips. When he met Queen Victoria, Kersands is reputed to have said, ‘If God ever wanted my mouth any bigger, he would have to move my ears.’66 Given that throughout the nineteenth century it was not unknown in both Britain and America for physically disabled people, or those with congenital birth defects, to be put on public display in travelling circuses, the contortions of Bill Kersands’ large mouth might have seemed relatively harmless in comparison, were it not for the fact that his physical comedy was so in keeping with prevailing stereotypes of black people as a race that was marked out by outlandishly sized lips and mouths – as well as other features. Kersands’ act was made more troubling by his regular renditions of minstrel songs with all their derogatory lyrics and his racial caricaturing. Just as popular although less controversial were the Bohee Brothers, James and George. They first arrived in London as part of the black minstrel troupe Haverly’s Genuine Coloured Minstrels but saw a business opportunity and decided to stay on in England, forming their own act, The Bohee Operatic Minstrels. This consisted of them and around thirty other musicians, both black and white. Master showmen, the Bohee brothers announced their arrival in provincial towns with street parades, and they were known for their luxurious stage costumes. The Bohees’ fame was built on the enormous popularity of the banjo, the central instrument of minstrelsy in all its forms, which, in its original but now antiquated form, was an authentic African American instrument. So renowned were the Bohees for their sophisticated finger-picking banjo style that they launched a profitable sideline manufacturing banjos in Britain, deploying their name and their fame as a guarantee of quality. The brothers played a part in sparking a banjo craze in the late nineteenth century that saw the instrument become a favourite among the rich and the aristocratic. It’s believed that the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, took banjo lessons from James Bohee.67 In a programme for a Bohee Brothers performance in London, the brothers explained the ethnic roots of their banjo music. Although from the Northern states, the Bohees offered their British audiences comforting and familiar eulogies to the simplicity of black life in the American South, painting a picture of their people as comic, naturally musical, home-orientated and essentially harmless. They wrote,
The banjo is essentially a home instrument and among the Negroes of the South of the United States, that is to say amongst probably the most domesticity loving community in the world – the banjo is at once a solace and a joy. It is even more to the humble ‘darky’ than the pipe is to the British working man; for, not only does it keep him company when he is alone, but it is the national instrument of mirth and festivity.68
By far the most important of the black American musical troupes to tour Britain in our period were the legendary Fisk Jubilee Singers, who arrived in 1873. They came from Nashville, Tennessee, and were directly responsible for introducing British audiences to the world of Negro spirituals. Their impact upon British music tastes is too significant to be dealt with here, but more than any other troupe they changed British tastes, introducing into the national song book standards like ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I See’ and ‘Deep River’; songs that became part of the lives of millions of Victorian churchgoers. The Fisk Jubilee Singers performed for Queen Victoria and symbolically they gave a concert at London’s Exeter Hall, the historic headquarters of the British abolitionist movement. Two further tours followed, in 1875 and in 1884, during which their popularity remained undimmed. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, thanks to their ever-changing line-up, survived into the twentieth century and gramophone recordings of their singing exist. From these discs emerges music that is powerfully sombre and radically original when set aside the plodding music-hall routines and dated minstrel clichés that were popular throughout the era.
The cultural penetration of minstrel music, and later of genuine African American spiritual music, from which the minstrels had borrowed, was remarkable. Minstrel tunes were ubiquitous. Karl Marx, then resident in London, was said to have sung minstrel songs and taught them to his children. In addition to the flow of minstrel music into Victorian family life, terms and slang that were used in minstrel songs and in blackface stage acts infiltrated everyday speech, and not just that of the poor. Among the words that surface in the letters of even the highly respectable are ‘Mammy’ and the N-word. Charles Darwin, writing to his wife Emma in a letter of May 1848, signed off, ‘Your old nigger—C.D’.69 He deployed that word – so repugnant to us today – as a term of endearment, using it to playfully imply that his love for his wife was so great that he was her slave. Emma Darwin used the same term in her own letters, calling Darwin her ‘nigger’ and describing him as ‘Chattel’.70 In a letter to his sister in 1836 Charles Darwin told the story of how his brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin was being so overworked by his sweetheart, Miss Harriet Martineau, that he had begun to claim that his lot in life ‘(to use his own expression) . . . shall be not much better than her “nigger”. – Imagine poor Erasmus a nigger to so philosophical & energetic a lady’. Darwin concluded, ‘We must pray for our poor “nigger” ’.71 Unlike most of his contemporaries, Charles Darwin had actually seen slavery in operation and witnessed the trade in slaves while in South America during his travels on board HMS Beagle in the 1830s. These experiences had reinforced the strong anti-slavery sentiment with which he had been brought up, and throughout his life Darwin was a committed anti-slavery man. The use of the N-word in jest, whether imbibed from the culture of anti-slavery or the popular culture of minstrelsy or perhaps from both, was, it seems, an accepted joke within a family whose abolitionist credentials were unquestioned.72
In 1859 Frederick Douglass returned to Britain and embarked upon a second speaking tour. He came seeking sanctuary, once again fearing for his liberty. Although a free man, he believed he was at risk of extradition to Virginia to stand trial for his association with the radical John Brown. In October 1859 Brown had launched a doomed raid on a government munitions depot at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in the hope of inciting a slave rebellion; the raid is regarded as one of the stepping stones that led America towards civil war.
In Britain, Douglass reacquainted himself with old supporters, some of whom had continued to raise funds for his anti-slavery activities in the United States. In anti-slavery circles he was feted and celebrated, as he had been in the 1840s. But he noted a change. Britain of the late 1850s felt distinctly less welcoming than thirteen years earlier. Anti-slavery, both as a movement and as a popular tendency, had diminished, despite the enormous success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The fervour of the 1840s, which had convinced millions of Britons that slavery was so dreadful a sin that it had to be ended wherever it was found, was now challenged by a new belief in non-intervention in the affairs of other nations and the United States in particular. Despite this, Douglass still had considerable success on the lecture circuit, in part due to his international fame, but he was conscious that the British newspapers were less keen than they had been in the 1840s to publish his words or contrast his treatment in Britain with the racism he endured in America. Equally disturbing, he sensed not just a decline in anti-slavery sentiment but a rise in racism. A harsher, less sympathetic attitude towards black people was in evidence.
On more than one occasion Douglass suggested that these changes were the result of the infiltration into the country of what he described as ‘American prejudice’. He detected in the mood of Britain in 1859 and 1860 the toxic influence of what he called ‘pro-slavery ministers’. To counter this he included in his lectures appeals for the rejection of these American influences. During a visit to Newcastle upon Tyne in 1860, the city that was home to the Richardson family who had purchased his freedom in 1847, Douglass identified another route by which American racism had seeped into Britain. He complained that ‘Ethiopian minstrels’, who he regarded as a ‘pestiferous nuisance’, had ‘brought here [to Britain] the slang phrases, the contemptuous sneers all originating in the spirit of slavery’. Minstrelsy, Douglass warned, represented black people as being ‘contented and happy as a slave, thoughtless of any higher life than a mere physical one’.73 The increasing popularity of minstrel shows, and the increasingly derogatory nature of blackface performances and routines in British theatres – whether performed by visiting American troupes or home-grown bands – was more likely a symptom of hardening racial attitudes than a cause. Minstrel acts had themselves adapted to the new atmosphere, but were not directing it. Douglass was probably right that American racial attitudes had found favour in some parts and some sections of Britain, and there were figures who could qualify as ‘pro-slavery ministers’. Britons resident in the United States had returned with their own views on America’s ‘peculiar institution’ and a number of prominent Americans who had travelled through or settled in Britain had publicly suggested that slavery was not the inhuman system that the anti-slavery lobby claimed. Much like some of the minstrel shows, the defenders of American slavery peddled the familiar line that the slaves in the warm climes of the Southern states were happy in their current condition and aspired for no more complicated a life. In 1859 Douglass identified the economic and political influence of the Southern states most clearly in Liverpool, the key port in the cotton industry and home to a number of American cotton factors, Southern businesses and their British supporters, whose pro-slavery voice was heard loud in the city. However, much of the hardening of racial attitudes that Douglass was right to be troubled by was home-grown. What he was sensing was a generational shift in both people and ideas. The generation that had called the World Anti-Slavery Convention twenty years earlier, many of whom had been veterans of the abolition campaigns of the 1820s and 1830s, were ageing and fading away. In the same years, the optimism of those earlier decades was being overwhelmed by newly emergent racial ideas. The capacities of black people, intellectual, spiritual and political, were increasingly being called into question by new supposedly scientific ideas about race and the capacities of the various branches of humanity. These new ideas fused and mingled with the older racisms. In this new atmosphere not only did increasing numbers of Britons believe that the nation had no business intervening in the issue of slavery in America, some suggested that even abolition in the West Indies, the great act of moral absolution on which so much of Britain’s self-image and patriotic triumphalism rested, might have been a mistake.