‘A very good idea’? Charity and race in mid nineteenth-century London

Some Inmates of the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders

Anyone familiar with print culture in the nineteenth century will probably be able to testify to its underlying racism expressed most often in statements of white (or rather British) racial superiority and in ‘ethnological studies’ of the many ‘others’ found in British society or in the vast reaches of the Empire.

This is most evident in the colourful descriptions of immigrant Jews in East London and in reports of the port communities that stretched the length of the Thames and its docks.

The racism may be familiar but it still has the capacity to shock. Take for example an article from the Daily News published in May of 1872 that was headlined ‘“Darkies” from the Deep’. What followed was a fairly sympathetic report of a visit to the Strangers Home for Asiatics,  Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which was then situated in the West India Dock Road.

The home was established in the 1850s; set up by charitable donations to create a haven for destitute Chinese and Indian (Lascar) seamen who, abandoned by ship-owners, struggled to find work in the capital. According to the author they fell prey to ‘crimps, mostly of their own colour’, who fleeced them of their meagre wages and left them nothing with which to support themselves.

‘Their bodies were found in out-of-the-way corners, under railway arches, or in common yards, whither the poor creatures, enfeebled by hunger, and their marrow chilled in their bones by the rigours of our climate, had crept to die’.

In three years (1854-56) hundreds had died and many more had been admitted to hospital. A huge donation by the Maharajah Duleep Singh was followed by donations from the Queen, Indian merchants and others, before Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the Home, which opened its doors in 1857.

When the Daily News’ reporter visited in May 1872 he described it thus:

‘A group of Lascars, with their bushy looks and swarthy skins, contrasts strangely with the solitary Chinaman who leans thoughtfully against the wall, his pigtail over his shoulder; a Malay with yellow eyes, long straight hair, and strong jaw, is conversing pantomimically with a tall, straight, hawk-eyed New Zealander, whose cheeks and forehead are fantastically tattooed. There are full-blood negroes from Gambia, and half-caste Portuguese from Goa, natives of the Friendly Islands, and lissome Cingalese [Singhalese], and representatives of perhaps a dozen other races neither easy to be distinguished at a glance, nor capable of being understood by any Englishman not endowed with the gift of tongues’.

The reporter noted the sounds and smells of the Home, the peculiar foods (’curry and rice’) that mingled with more familiar stuffs (like bread and butter and tea). He commented on the arrangements for bathing (‘the Oriental takes his bath every morning as religiously […] as he says his prayers’). And the article ended by noting that the Home had a good stock of Bibles and New testaments ‘in a variety of Eastern languages’.

A newspaper report from June 1857 described the opening of the Home (on 3 June) and noted that it had space for 230 inmates plus a superintendent and various officers and staff. The opening was formally marked by the singing of the psalm 67 (‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’), and a scripture reading.

This underpinned the Christian missionary ethos of the charity.

Almost all Victorian charity which operated to help the poor, the homeless, or the friendless, did so under the aegis of the church (in one form or another). There was a space for Muslim prayer in the back yard of the Home but while the writer of the 1872 article noted this, it seems clear that the hopes of those involved in this ’mission’ was that here were ready coverts to Christian religion and (perhaps even) Western ‘civilization’.

In the 1850s and throughout the century London was home to very many people of all races and creeds. It is likely that in the eighteenth century there had been many more, and that while they were denied the limited support available to the indigenous poor, they were not subject to the racism that developed from the end of the 1700s. With the expanse of Empire in the Victorian period that racism became more entrenched as white superiority was increasingly held up as a justification for subjugating ‘inferior’ races.

I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization?

‘I think it would be a very good idea’, he said.

[from Daily News, Wednesday 29 May, 1872; Daily News, Thursday 4 June, 1857 ]

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