A maid runs off to the theatre to see the minstrels (and we get a reminder of our racist past).

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Isabella Parker was a servant at a house in Piccadilly. White domestic service brought a level of security as well as a bed and regular meals it must also have been a life of fairly monotonous drudgery. Every day was much the same and, if your were a maid of all work or one of few or even the only servant in a household you would have had almost no time for yourself.

So we can perhaps understand why Isabella chose to escape her dull life for an evening by clambering out of a window to find some entertainment. Having climbed on the roof she headed over several adjacent ones to reach the St James’ Hall near Regent Street and Piccadilly.  

On the night of the 6 June 1870 the Christy Minstrels were performing their ‘blackface’ routine, as they had since the early 1860s. Isabella made her way through a window and either consumed drink she brought with her or was already drunk when she left home. As a consequence she was loud and kept interrupting the act until the police were called and an officer managed to pull her down and escort her outside.

This wasn’t easy as Isabella struggled with him, ‘set to screaming, became quite infuriated, said that she was a Fenian [an Irish republican] and would shoot the lot’ [of them].

It was not the first time she had got drunk and snuck into the theatre; she was a big admirer of the Minstrels and clearly a lover of drink. At Marlborough Street Police court her previous record was read out and Mr Tyrwhitt fined her 5(or four days in gaol). That may have been the least of her problems for unless she had very forgiving employers Isabella may well have lost her position as a servant.

The original Christy Minstrels were formed in the USA in 1843, at Buffalo. They had a very structured show built around white men ‘blacking up’ and performing jokes, songs and dances that downplayed the horrors of slavery for a white audience.

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The Minstrels that Isabella risked her employment to see were a British tribute act (to use a modern term), not the American originals. There were more than one troupe of minstrels touring Britain in the 1800s and the one at St James’ Hall may have originated in Dublin, perhaps explaining Isabella’s mentioning of the Fenians.  

The St James show lasted until 1904 although the group had become the ‘Moore & Burgess Minstrels’ well before then.

The Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas described minstrel shows as:

‘the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens’.

Despite this and despite abolition minstrel shows continued to exist well into the twentieth century. I can remember watching the Black and White Minstrel Show on the BBC in the 1970s with my family; it was only finally cancelled in 1978, despite being the subject of complaints and accusation that it was racist.

I think this is useful reminder of how recently our television screens used to depict Black faces for comedic value – not in some minority or niche programming but on primetime for a family audience. Now I hear discordant voices complain that ‘allowing’ Black actors (as the BBC have done) to play roles in period dramas and other programing is some sort of ‘political correctness’ and an affront to indigenous ‘White Britons’. It is the same voices that challenge the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, those that don’t believe Britain is a racist country and either deny that prejudice exists or argue that it doesn’t matter.

If racism wasn’t a problem in this country we wouldn’t need the BLM movement. The fact that it is only in the last decade that positive images of Black people have routinely appeared on our television screen (the ubiquitous form of popular entertainment in this country) when negative ones have been common currency for well over a 100 years before then, should remind us to guard against complacency.

There is no place for racism in the world. 

From Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 12 June 1870

A beggar fights back and racism rears its ugly head in 1830s London

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Slaves on a West Indian plantation being freed following passage of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833)

Assaults were prosecuted frequently in London’s police courts in the 1800s, and many of them involved attacks on the police or other authority figures. So the violence meted out to Samuel Daniels, a Mendicity Society officer, is, on the surface at least, not particularly notable.  What makes this case – from 1836 – noteworthy is the language used to describe the attack and perpetrator of it. Because, as we shall see, this was shot through with early Victorian notions of race and prejudice.

The Mendicity Society had been founded in 1818 with the intention of preventing begging in London. It gave out alms to those that agreed to move away and brought prosecutions against those that did not. As a charity it relied on donations but was doing very well by the 1820s, to the extent that it drew down criticism that not all of its funds were reaching those it purported to help. By the time this case came before a magistrate at Marlborough Street, the society had acquired a corn mill where some of those swept from the streets could be given work.

Mr Daniels had been looking for beggars in Soho in September 1836 and found Domingo de Sousa. De Sopusa was known to him as an ‘incorrigible vagabond’ and ‘imposter’ and presumably that meant he had tried to ‘help’ him off the streets previously, without success. Now he determined to take him into custody and have him taken before a magistrate to be charged under the Vagrancy Act. He did not count of de Sousa’s resistance however.

The officer was sensible enough to recognize that the beggar was a powerful man and so enlisted a nearby policeman for support. The presence of the constable failed to have the desired effect and de Sousa declared that:

‘Me no go wid mendacity ________!’ and then thumped Daniels hard on his chest.

He grappled with him trying to throw the charity officer the ground as the police tried to pull him off. In the process PC Sullivan received a bite wound which drew blood and the beggar was only subdued when a second constable arrived.

It wasn’t the end of the violence; a few yards down the road de Sousa escaped the clutches of the law and turned on the Medicity man. He through him down so violently that he broke his right leg in two places. He then attacked PC Sullivan, kneeing him in the groin before the other officer managed to secure him once more.

It was clearly a violent attack but it is the language used to describe it that reveals contemporary prejudice.

PC Marchant (the second officer) was ‘attacked with all the activity and ferocity of a tiger’, the report stated. De Sousa ‘sprang away’ and his attack resembled that of a ‘wild beast than of a human being’. While the policeman was ‘strong and resolute’ de Sousa was described in animalistic terms:

‘His physiognomy, which closely resembled an ouran-outang’s [sic] , was hideously distorted; his eyes rolled furiously, and he bit at his opponents, using a kind of growl’.

De Sousa was a ‘black man of horrid aspect and powerful structure’. He was clearly seen as a threat to public safety just as many nineteenth-century people feared that freed slaves would be a threat to their former masters and the communities around the plantations on which they worked.   It seems that rhetoric was in use in London in the 1830s just as slavery was being abandoned after centuries of exploitation.

In 1834 the British parliament finally agreed to abolish slavery in British colonies but the process took another four years to complete. When the slaves were freed they did not rise up and slaughter their former abusers, they went to church to give thanks to God though the religion they had adopted in captivity.

Domingo de Sousa was treated not just as a violent beggar – cause enough to bring him to court – but as a member of an ‘inferior’ and ‘sub-human’ race. Mr Dyer, the sitting magistrate, committed him for trial at the next sessions and as he was led away he had one last blow to strike against his oppressors:

‘Me berry glad me break de medicity’s man’s leg’ he shouted as the gaoler dragged him back to the cells.

[from London Dispatch, Sunday 9 September 1836]

A magistrate has the chance to make a difference to one Black life; will he take it?

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The Demerara rebellion of 1823

On 26 July 1832 there was an unusual appearance at the Marlborough Street Police court. A man named only as ‘Burgess’ (no first name, no title), was brought in for begging in Charing Cross.

Placed in the dock the magistrate (Mr Gregorie) asked him where he lived. Begging was an offence that fell under catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824). This act, passed in the reign of George IV, is still on the books. It makes it an offence to sleep rough or to beg in the streets. It took no account of why someone would be on the streets and begging for money or food.

The original legislation was passed in the wake of the economic distress that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The period after Waterloo was a turbulent one for the British state with many people forced off the land and into urban centres where poverty was common. In addition thousands of discharged and disabled soldiers returned, many of them unable to find work.

Not for the first or last time the reaction of the ruling class to the economic distress of the majority was to pass laws that protected the wealth and privilege of the minority and, after 1829 in London, they had Peel’s ‘New Police’ force to enforce them.

But let us return to Burgess; what did have to say for himself when Mr Gregorie asked him where he lived?

Burgess replied that he had lived abroad, in Demerara, on the north coast of South America in what is now Guyana. In the 1800s Demerara was under the control of the British (although it had been a Dutch colony). In 1823 there had been  a large scale slave revolt (echoing a previous one in 1795). The revolt had the effect of bringing the plight of slaves in Demerara to the attention of the British public and the British parliament.

Although the slave revolt was not violent the reaction of the governor, John Murray, certainly was. As many as 250 slaves were killed in putting down the rebellion and more deaths followed as ringleaders were hanged. Their bodies were left in public view as a warning to others and the leader of the revolt – Jack Gladsone – was sent to St. Lucia. It is likely that it was Gladstone’s father, Quamina who was the real leader of the slave uprising and he was later to be acknowledged as such by an independent Guyanan nation.

So who was Burgess and what had he to do with all of this?

Burgess told Mr Gregorie that he was a runaway slave, who had escaped his master and come to England.  In 1823 many of the slaves that revolted reportedly believed that Britain had abolished slavery in the colony (when in reality all Britain had abolished was the trade in slaves in 1807). Britain did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1833 (effective from 1 August 1834).

Burgess – mostly referred to throughout the report as ‘the negro’ – said his master was named ‘Porter’ and he believed he was now in London. Not surprisingly then what Burgess wanted was to be allowed to return home, to Demerara. Perhaps he believed that he would be safer there, perhaps he was simply homesick. The move towards abolition was underway and he might have believed that he would return to freedom.

Freedom was a little way off however. Since he had no money and so no means of paying his passage to south America the magistrate said he would send  a message to the Colonial Office to see what the British state could do for him. In the meantime  Burgess was locked in a cell at Marlborough Street while the representatives of the wealthy decided what to do with him, a poor enslaved beggar.

The answer came back later that day and Burgess was once again set in the dock. The Colonial Office replied that they ‘could not interfere’. Could not or would not, it mattered little. No one was about to pay Burgess’ fare home. We don’t know his age but it is likely that Demerara was his home, his place of birth. But of course his ancestors, perhaps his parents and almost certainly his grandparents, had been taken from Africa against their will and brutally shipped across the seas to work on European plantations. It mattered little whether it was a Dutch or British plantation; the experience for Burgess and thousands of others was the same.

At least now the British state had the chance to make some amends. Sadly it chose not to. The Colonial Office would not help and neither would the magistrate at Marlborough Street. Burgess had infringed the Vagrancy Act and so he was sent to prison for a month. If, Mr Gregorie told him, ‘at the expiration of that time’, he ‘wanted to get back to Demerara, he must get there as well as he could’.

The slaves in Guyana were not freed until 1 August 1838, 6 years after Burgess appeared at Marlborough Street ‘begging’ to be allowed to return home. Whether he ever made it back to enjoy his freedom is unknown.

London was home to plenty of former slaves in the 1800s most of whom never came near a police court or in any other way troubled the record keepers. They often adopted the names of their masters or had names their master had given them – European names not African names – so they don’t stand out in the records. But they were here, as they had long been here. Anyone who believes Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and found an entirely ‘white’ country (or a country that had always been White) are  mistaken or misinformed and I suggest they  watch David Olusoga’s Black and British BBC TV series (and read the accompanying book).

This particular Black life might not have mattered to the early Victorian authorities, but Black Lives and Black history should matter to all of us.

[from Morning Post, Tuesday 27 March 1832]

 

 

 

 

 

Black Lives Matter: a very personal view

This blog is normally concerned with the police courts of nineteenth-century London. It may therefore seem a world away from the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that are echoing around the globe. But my research touches on inequality and oppression in so many ways that I see so many connections to current debates on prejudice, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that I feel that to stay quiet is impossible. So this blog post is going to be a little different, and I make no apology for that.  

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The killing of George Floyd was a disgrace, an outrageous act, an example of oppression, and one that demonstrated that for some people black lives really don’t matter. There can be no justification for Floyd’s killing just as there can be no justification for the hundreds of black lives that are taken every year by over zealous and, let’s admit it, often institutionally racist, police forces.

Before we think that this is an American issue, or even an old one, let’s remind ourselves that these killings have taken place in the UK, a country that our Prime Minister swears is ‘not racist’. Not everyone in the UK is racist, not every institution is either, but racism is endemic in Britain and so I find it completely understandable that acts of violence have resulted from the groundswell of anger that followed the news of Floyd’s killing.

On Sunday 7 June 2020 protesters in Bristol hauled down the statue of Edward Colston, an eighteenth-century merchant who owed his huge personal wealth to slavery, and dumped it into the Avon.

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The removal of Colston’s statue was not an eradication of history, it was history.

Colston’s statue was only erected in 1895 when his links to slavery were well known. In recent decades there has been a local campaign to remove his statue and rename Colston Hall. This campaign has been ignored and so it is no surprise to me that events in the USA sparked protesters here to react as they did to years of frustration.

The destruction of the statue has been condemned as ‘criminal damage’ and as an attempt to ‘eradicate history’.

It may, technically, be the former; it most certainly is not the latter.

Moreover, the actions of those involved have to be seen in historical context. History is not static; it is not somehow encased only in the monuments left behind by our ancestors, it is changing every day.

Which is why we need historians (those we have and future ones) to research, write, explain, and interpret that history.

Let us take the history of protest as just one example of the collective history of humanity over the past few thousand years. If we take the long view we can immediately see how ridiculous and insulting it is to dismiss Sunday’s ‘rioters’ as ‘criminal’.

Pretty much all of the rights we cherish in this country and throughout the world were won not given. These include the right to free speech (something championed by Far Right activists as much as those on the Left of politics); the freedom to practice whatever religion (or none) we choose.

To which we can add the right to political representation, and the right (of nations) to self-determination; the more modern rights to sexual freedom, gender equality, to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of race or disability.

Protest is not a recent invention.

History reminds us that people have protested about all sorts of things for as long as records exist  (and presumably longer). I work on the period 1700-1900 and there are plenty of examples in my area of individuals, communities, and groups protesting about access to common land, to food resources, the right to vote, the right to form a trades union, and against the forcible examination of the female body, to name but a few.

There have been notable eruptions of popular rebellion against oppression: most particularly given the current news agenda, in the Caribbean against slavery. Too often the emancipation of slaves has been credit to a handful of well-meaning white men (like Wilberforce) and to the neglect of the black actors (named and unnamed) who contributed to it.Unknown

The actions of the enslaved have often been written out of history, and the efforts of white men lauded instead. 

And we can see the role that violent direct action has played in winning votes for women, LGBTQ rights, and in winning freedom from oppressive regimes in Europe and elsewhere.

It would be lovely if protest was always gentle and respectful of property and persons. If governments would listen and consult with the oppressed and the exploited. History teaches us that they don’t; the reality is that for change to happen persuasion has to take place. Why should the rich and powerful conceded any of their wealth or privilege to those they control unless they fear the consequences of not doing so?

But power is very rarely given away, it is taken.

And before we get too precious about the violence that we’ve seen on the streets of Britain and America in reaction to the killing of George Floyd (and allowing for the fact that much of that violence cuts both ways – police ‘brutality’ and the ‘criminality’ of the activists), let us again remind ourselves of how states like the US and UK came into and have maintained their existence.

The USA was born in conquest. British, Spanish, Portuguese and French invaders (or settlers, discoverers if you prefer) brutally subdued the native indigenous peoples and seized their land. Then in 1776 a violent revolution took place and white colonial Americans overcame the lawful English government and (with the help of the French) established their own republic.  They continued to build a nation using slave labour imported (violently) from Africa.

The British state is even more rooted in violence. England was born from dynastic wars reaching back to the 700s or earlier. Britain only exists because English armies subdued the Scots and Welsh and Irish. The British Empire (‘overwhelmingly a force for good’ apparently) was really a product of violent land grabs in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, maintained by gunboat diplomacy and periodic warfare.

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The British Empire’s response to a national uprising in India was brutal

We owe our place in the world to violence: destructive, exploitative, nationalistic, imperialist, violence often justified on the basis that we (I mean white Britons) were members of a ‘superior’ race with a ‘civilizing mission’.

I could go on but I think the point is made.

Nowhere on earth has peaceful protest been the ‘norm’ for effecting change. Everywhere the nations that exist valorize violence in their national history. Yes, we might rightly laud the battle for freedom on D-Day, or the sacrifice of 60,000 British lives on day one of the Somme, but let’s not forget that war is the ‘extension of diplomacy by others means’ and power is equated to force.

If the marginalized fight back (or others take up arms on their behalf) we can hardly be surprised, nor, I would argue, can we deny them the rights and privileges that our ancestors won for us.

Black Lives Matter is a movement born of hundreds of years of exploitation and the frustration of the denial of equality and, in some cases, basic human rights. I cannot condemn them or those that support them, and can only hope that, as historians, we are part of the solution not a part of the problem.