What do a wealthy businessman, a member of the aristocracy, a best selling author and a shopkeeper have in common? The answer is that they all lived in 1700s London and came from Africa via slavery.
Cesar Picton, a coal merchant whose home in Kingston still stands, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was raised in Kenwood House by Lord Mansfield, Olaudah Equiano, whose autobiography detailing the horrors of slavery was written in Fitzrovia, and Ignatius Sancho, owner of a grocer’s shop in Mayfair, are among those featured in an illuminating new exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton.
Called Black Georgians, it reveals that there is more to the age than elegant squares, Jane Austen novels and Handel oratorios. As a result of the slave trade, at least 15,000 black people lived in Britain towards the end of the 18th century, 10,000 of them in London, or three per cent of the population. What is more, they belonged to a society that was in some ways similar to our own – hence the exhibition’s sub-title, The Shock of the Familiar.
“Black people could be found everywhere and were considered a feature of the landscape,” says its curator, the historian and author Steve Martin.
“The exhibition sets out to give an idea of the longevity of the black presence in Britain. Black history didn’t start with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 and in the Georgian period we see a society tackling the same issues we are familiar with today like immigration, repatriation and attitudes towards the black moneyed class.”
The Georgian era spans the the reigns of the first four Georges between 1714 to 1830, a time of great change as Britain began gearing up for industrialisation and empire. Black people, both unfree and free, became part of the swelling population. Although comprising a good number of servants and ex-servicemen living in the poorer districts of London like St Giles and Wapping, they came from all walks of life, indicating a surprising amount of social movement.
“There was racism but a lot less of it than you would expect to see,” says Martin. “Pseudo scientific notions of race hadn’t been developed and the British Empire was not yet established, which allowed a degree of social and geographical mobility.”
Moreover, Georgian Britain, a period of moral questioning and debate, offered black people freedoms denied to them on plantations in the Americas, including access to education. For the first time, former slaves were able to express themselves in newspapers, pamphlets and books, with the likes of Equiano, Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano and Mary Prince among the leading Abolitionist voices of the day.
Meanwhile, fire and blood radicals like Robert Wedderburn and William Davidson linked the campaign against slavery with religious dissent and working class agitation. Davidson was among those executed in 1820 for his part in an attempt to murder the British cabinet called the Cato St Conspiracy.
The poet Phillis Wheatley was no firebrand but expressed her abhorrence of slavery through carefully crafted classical verse and was feted when she toured Britain in 1773 to publicise her first book.
In terms of popular culture black people were very much in the public consciousness, with boxers Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux becoming sporting superstars and Billy Waters, a busker outside the Adelphi theatre in the Strand, immortalised by figurines produced by the Staffordshire potteries. Black characters also cropped up in Dr Syntax cartoons, which satirised English society.
Although many of the individuals brought to life by the exhibition gained fame and fortune, they tended to fade from view after their death and have been omitted from the Georgian story.
“Blackness and Britishness are never seen as co-existing,” says Martin. “There aren’t any stories in either community that we tell about this past, although it informed our culture then and today.
“I want people to come away with lots of questions about Georgian Britain, not just about the black presence but about the period itself, which is fascinating. We should ask questions about how we view history and how we view ourselves as part of that history.”
Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar continues at the Black Cultural Archives, Windrush Square, London SW2 1EF, until April 9. Free entry
This article first appeared in West End Extra on October 23rd, 2015