A report from 1890 shows little difference in casual racism today: an (historical) note to Mr B. Johnson.

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Racism takes many forms, (as the comments of a former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs demonstrated yesterday). When we look back at the past we are apt to comment that ‘it was another country’ where ‘they did things differently’. London was a multi-cultural city in the late Victorian period and while there were pockets or moments of racial tension (such as during the Whitechapel murder panic in 1888) for the most part the different communities got along.

Nevertheless the idea that white Britons were superior to pretty much anyone else was a persistent trope in contemporary discussions. Britain ‘ruled the waves’ after all and had an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’. This was a time when the world map was heavily tinged with pink and when we, and not the USA or Russia, were the World’s chief ‘superpower’.

I do wonder how much of today’s angst about Europe is born of a desire to regain our imperial past. The EU leave campaign’s slogan ‘we want our country back’ is a curious one; what country were they talking about? The one that stood alone at the start of WW2? The one that was experiencing economic disaster in the mid 1970s? Or perhaps the nation that operated an empire on five continents?

The newspapers were certainly ‘casually racist’ in the 1800s. Most ‘foreigners’ are either seen as inferior, dangerous, or amusing. This seems to have persisted right up to the 1980s when things began to change in the way people described others. It is no longer acceptable to poke fun at people on account of their race, ethnicity or religion now, but that doesn’t seem to have filtered down to Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, that American born champion of British liberties.

In 1890 no such ‘political correctness’ existed and so the The Illustrated Police News ‘headlined’ its report of a case of domestic violence at the Thames Police court ‘The Heathen Chinee all over’. The case concerned two Chinese immigrants: Ah Wei (a young ship’s steward) and Ah Tuing (a fireman). Both worked on the ships coming in and out of the London Docks and belonged to the small but well established Chinese community in Limehouse.

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It was this community that inspired Sax Rohmer’s ever-so-slightly racialist crime series about the criminal mastermind Fu Man Chu. Contemporary depictions of Limehouse as an area overrun by the ‘yellow peril’ and clouded in opium smoke owe much to Rohmer and Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the reality was that most people there lived in reasonable harmony with each other, regardless of their background.

Ah Tuing had accused the ship’s steward of assaulting him and was asked to swear an oath before he gave his evidence. Speaking through an interpreter (interpreters were common in the police courts, given the proliferation different languages spoken from Chinese to Yiddish, to German or Italian) Ah Tuing explained that as a Buddhist the ‘only oath he respected was the extinguishing of a lighted candle’.

This meant that ‘if he did not speak the truth his soul would be blown away in the same way as was the light’.

Mr Cluer (the magistrate) asked if a ‘wax vesta’ (a match) would ‘do as well’ and reached into his pocket to fetch one. No, the interpreter insisted, it had to be a candle so one was fetched and Ah Tuing was ‘sworn’.

The case now unfolded and Mr Cluer was told that the prosecutor had lent Ah Wei a waterproof coat to protect him from a shower of rain, extracting a promise of sixpence for the loan. The steward refused to pay up when the rain ceased and an argument ensued. This descended into a fight in which Ah Wei was deemed to be the aggressor. One witness – most of whose evidence was given in translation – saved some English for the man in the dock. Turning to him he shouted:

‘You _______ liar. You one loafer!’

All the evidence then pointed to Ah Wei being guilty of assault but then all the evidence had come from the Chinese community. The key witness (for Mr Cluer at least) was Joseph Brown, a greengrocer on Limehouse Causeway. He testified that Ah Wei had been in in his shop when Ah Tuing entered carrying a child in his arms. He thrust the child in the steward’s face and ‘kept irritating him’ and then ‘afterwards [they] had a fair fight’.

The English of course, had very clear ideas about what a ‘fair fight’ was. This did not involve weapons and usually meant the two parties were roughly equally matched. Mr CLuer wasn’t interested in what the Chinese community’s idea of a ‘fair fight’ was, just as he seemingly dismissed the evidence of those that came in to back Ah Tuing’s version of events. An Englishman’s word was of much higher value than a foreigner’s and so he dismissed the charge.

The press reportage reminded the reader that ‘Johnny foreigner’ was a strange and exotic creature, and Boris Johnson’s equation of Muslim women wearing the Burkas with ‘bank robbers’ or  ‘letter boxes’ belongs to this tradition of English xenophobia; one ‘tradition’ we could do with ditching as soon as possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, August 7, 1897]

‘My God, what I say is true’; how should a ‘Hindoo’ swear an oath in court?

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In the 1800s those giving evidence in the Police courts were sworn on the Bible. This worked fine for most prosecutors and witnesses but occasionally someone stepped into the box who was clearly not a Christian, so what happened then?

Nowadays those swearing can do so on a religious text of their choice if the Bible is not appropriate, and those without a religion can affirm. In 2013 the courts rejected a move to abandon the oath in favour of a promise to tell the truth and it remains core to all trials and summary hearings in England.

In 1879 two men were charged at Marylebone Police court with stealing 100 rabbit skins, and with conspiring with another (not in custody) to sell them. The skins weren’t of particularly high value (just 8s) but the novelty of the case was that the chief witness was Indian.

Ballee Bhatter was described as a ‘Hindoo cook’ working at the home of ‘his Highness Suchait Singh of Chumla’. The Chumla valley is in the Punjab and British troops passed through here in 1863 what one officer described as a ‘frontier war’. By the 1870s the Imperial project in India was complete; the British had survived the 1857 Indian revolution, the Sikhs had been defeated and turned into allies, but some pockets of resistance continued from hill tribes in the far north. Afghanistan had never been successfully subdued and after the debacle of 1842 and loss of so many British and Indian troops the empire chose to avoid any major campaigns north of the Punjab until the late 1870s.

The question for Mr Cooke, the sitting magistrate at Marylebone, was whether it was appropriate for Ballee Bhatter to swear on the Bible before giving his evidence. Although described in court as a ‘Hindoo’ Mr Cooke thought he ought to swear on the Koran. The Rajah’s secretary confirmed that the cook wasn’t a Christian, but did that make him a Muslim? Was this a case of contemporary English ignorance or was the prince’s servant a Muslim working in the kitchens of a Sikh household? While today we would normally associate the word with the Hindu religion (for which the Koran would be an inappropriate text) in 1879 it may simply have been (mis)used to mean any native of the Indian sub-continent.

A police detective suggested that it was proper for the man to be able to swear the following oath: ‘My God, what I say is true’, but the justice wanted to be clear that Bhatter understood what was being asked of it. He decoded to adjourn the case so that a translator could be called for; someone that spoke ‘Hindostanee’.

Later that day the cook returned and the situation was explained in his native language. He swore an oath (on which text it is not stated) and explained that on the 7 April one of the prisoners and another man came to the Rajah’s house in Richmond Road, Paddington, and ‘asked him if he had any rabbit skins to sell’. Bhatter told him he had 100 and he was offered 2deach for them. Well, that is what he understood they’d offered, he added, his English wasn’t that good.

Since he wanted to be sure he went next door to find someone to translate for him but when he got back the men and the skins were gone. Two other local servants testified to seeing the two men and a barrow that day and Mr Cooke remanded the prisoners for a week.

This shows us that there were Indians living in London in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The British Empire involved a migration in both direction then, not simply a movement of British troops and administrators to India but families and their servants in the other direction. They would have added to the cultural melting pot that was London in the late 1800s and act as a reminder that this country (and particularly our capital) has been a multi-racial community for a very long time.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 14, 1879]

‘Mischievous’ or ‘evil’? An 11 year-old before the Guildhall Police Court

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In the nineteenth century the age of criminal responsibility was just 7 (today it is 10). It had been set at 7 for centuries and was not raised (to 8) until 1933. However, there was an understanding in law that while a 7 year-old could be tried for a crime the courts had to prove (up until the age of 14) that the child understood that what they had done was serious and not merely ‘mischievous’. This principle in law is termed doli incapax and in the wake of the murder of James Bulger in 1993 the Labour government abolished it.

Not only was it harder to prove that a child had committed an offence under the age of 14 it was also difficult to build a case if that was based on the evidence of children as well. There seems to have been no restrictions on children giving evidence or being cross-examined but in many historical cases where young people appear at the Old Bailey the court asks them to declare that they understand the consequences of lying on oath. This was not something that adult witnesses were asked to affirm.

Today child witnesses are protected in court and often give their testimony behind a screen or via a video link. The latter was not available in the 1800s of course, but in this case we do get a sense of the courts recognising the need to shield young victims and witnesses from the harsh reality of the operation of the criminal law, or at least a recognition that any testimony they gave might be suspect.

In May 1839 William Henry Browning, a child of 11 years of age, was brought up again at the Guildhall Police Court. He had appeared there at least one before in the past few days, on a charge of trying to kill an infant boy.

Two smaller boys appeared to give evidence against him. One was the victim, a three year-old, the other his older brother who was 5 or 6. They made a statement to the effect that William had placed a rope around the younger boy’s neck, ‘pulled him down, and then loosened the cord and ran away’.

The child still bore the marks of the attack, which revealed that ‘some force’ had been used and the court was told that ‘the little fellow had been in considerable danger of being choked’.

No adult seemed to have witnessed the event but a couple of women (including the victim’s mother, a Mrs Birbeck) turned up to testify that William was a naughty child. He had apparently been ‘saucy’ to Mrs Birbeck and her servant, and threatened to break her windows. She also accused him attempting to steal her chickens.

The boy’s father appeared to make a counter complaint about Mrs Birbeck for accusing his child of theft and attempted murder, and picking on him unfairly. He added that his family were in desperate circumstances, which may have affected the boy’s mental health, and this may explain his son’s erratic behaviour:

Mr Browning, a shoemaker, was ‘in very ill-health’. His son had ‘not been out of his sight for above half an hour, and he complained of Mrs Birbeck having given the boy into custody. instead of bringing him home to be corrected. A reverse of fortune, and the loss of his wife, obliged him to live in this low neighbourhood, and he should be glad if the alderman would get the boy into some asylum’.

Alderman White, the presiding magistrate at Guildhall Police Court, rather unnecessarily conceded that ‘the mother very naturally felt some exasperation’ when she saw that her little boy had nearly been strangled, but it was going to be hard to prove it in court. Mr White told her that he had to consider the ‘tender age of the accused as well as the two witnesses’. Turning to Mr Browning however, he added that the boy could not be let off scot free. Instead of sending him to an ‘asylum’ (whether the shoemaker meant this literally or not) he was going to send him to prison for a short, sharp, shock.

William was sent down for 14 days ‘lest impunity should encourage repetition’.

At 11 years of age William Browning was just a year older than Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger (who was 2).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 23, 1839]