I had the pleasure of being sent an advance reading copy of Black Victorians: Hidden in History. The introductory email claimed “Black Victorians explores the intersections between Black history and British history in the nineteenth century, with a focus on human stories as a vehicle for illuminating Victorian attitudes to ‘race’. “
Most of the ‘human stories’ covered I was familiar with as I recognised many of the characters where names I knew from Peter Fryer’s seminal text Staying Power. What was different with Black Victorians were the connections identified and discussed between the individuals and Victorian society. This was to me a particular strength of the book as it wasn’t a series of unrelated biographies, not a series of stories about Black exceptionalism rather the individuals’ histories are given context in aspects of Victorian society - Part 1 Struggle and Survival , Part 2 Church and State , Part 3 The Arts and Part 4 The Fight for Freedom – which made identifying and understanding the books intersections between Black history and British history easy to follow through ‘rooting lives within braoder networks, milieus and contexts’.
It was the names under Part 1: Struggle and Survival that introduced a new context to me, Broadmoor: the criminal lunatic asylum, clearly demonstrating the book’s ability to tell a Black history beyond the conventions of Black exceptionalism. I recognised none of the names I was taken out of my Black British history comfort zone in which to varying degrees I knew most of the characters in the other Parts, in Part 1 I knew none.
Part 1 gives an account of the disabled: Edward Albert from his own brief memoire and his appearance in London Labour and the London Poor (1851-65) where he is described as ‘The Negro Crossing-Sweeper, Who Had Lost Both His Legs’. And the lives of three Black inmates of Broadmoor, England’s first lunatic asylum for the criminally insane from its records: John Flinn spent forty seven years inside Victorian institutions, dying in Broadmoor, William Brown an ex-seaman who murdered his wife by cutting her throat, tried to kill his stepson, set fire to the house then tried to commit suicide by cutting his own throat – he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, he died in Broadmoor and Joseph Peters who seems to be have driven insane thru isolation following the death of his only relative his mother was sent to Broadmoor after being declared insane following an attack on a shipmate. Each was given the opportunity to tell their story in their own words, stories once lost in the archives have resurfaced. The Black Victorians considered in Part 1 demonstrate how their stories endure in the archives, stories of the fight for survival from the margins of society contrasting with those discussed in the other parts who were not at the edge but moved within the establishment or protested against its structures.
I was particularly interested in the analysis of responses to Victorian racism. The celebrated actor Ira Aldridge was hounded by the British press having to continually fight for equality both on and off the stage ‘forever confronting the racist depictions of African Americans in the form of the minstrel.’ While Aldridge accepted that racist criticism, the escaped slave and abolitionist William Wells Brown would not accept criticism. When a newspaper ‘described his exhibition in contemptuous terms, and thereby materially curtailed the receipts’. He successfully sued for libel and awarded £100. The probable racism within the criticism was ignored by the national press who focused on ‘benign British justice.’
The highlight of the book for me could have been the chapter – Land of Hope and Glory – which went some way to setting the scene for the Victorian attitude to race. I was minded of Fryer’s seminal Chapter 7 The Rise of English Racism in Staying Power which covers similar ground. I would have hoped for deeper analysis in Black Victorians of the impact of development and growth of the British Empire following abolition of the slave trade. The 3Cs – Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation – that drove Victorian expansion of Empire in Africa leading to the destruction then looting the treasures of the Benin Empire in Nigeria, Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana and Maqdala in Ethiopia. I would have welcomed some analysis of Victorians in Africa and growth of its Empire. What impact if any did it have on the attitudes of Black and white Victorians?
I enjoyed the chapter on the Pan-African Movement in which we can see how the eighteenth-century British abolitionist organisation the Sons of Africa could be linked a century later to Pan Africanism. Pan-Africanisms is shown as a global movement with the delegates to its 1900 conference in London coming from around the world to discuss, slavery, colonialism, racism and ways to fight these global scourges. One delegate celebrated the ‘common cause’ among people of the African Diaspora, another prophesised “America would never be at peace with herself until the negro problem was settled outright” showing how the ideas of Black Victorians still resonate today.
Setting aside the need for perhaps more on Africa and Empire Black Victorians gives insights into the intersection of between Black history and British history through some very human stories in a very readable, accessible format, free of the conventional exceptionalism approach to Black history. Black Victorians gives wider more holistic understanding of the Black presence in Victorian Britain, which I very much enjoyed reading.
I've yet to see a copy of the final version ...they may have corrected the omission on the Victorians in Africa addressing "What impact if any did it have on the attitudes of Black and white Victorians?"
Footnote to Footnote
I received my final copy as promised and yes they did address Victorians in Africa in the context of chapter Land of Hope and Glory:
Treasures were looted (and kept to this day), including from the Mandala in Ethiopia, The Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana and the Benin Empire in present-day Nigeria. Uprisings were viciously suppressed and natural resources exploited, while people starved (page 33)
and thanks to the authors for the mention in Acknowledgements