Slavery and the Black Country: coming home

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Probably the only known depiction of George Africanus, servant to Benjamin Molineux whose home, now Molineux House, can be seen from the Wolverhampton ring road.

We’ve recently looked at how deeply the trade in human lives was embedded in the financial and industrial creation of the Black Country, with roots running through almost every facet of life in the eighteenth century. But of course, slavery was not solely a distant project, enacted on continents and islands thousands of miles away – in the eighteenth century, people of colour were found throughout Britain as a result of slavery.

Black lives in eighteenth-century Britain

In London, at the centre of the so-called first British Empire, black servants were a fashionable accessory and people of colour – including freed slaves and those still in bondage – were able to mingle and meet, forming a community in the thousands. In the Black Country with, let’s face it, less courtly culture or high society, this was much less the case. Nevertheless it was not unthinkable to see people of colour in the region – James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw lived in Kidderminster with his family and recorded his memoirs, and Francis Barber, manservant to Samuel Johnson, in Lichfield. In Wolverhampton was George John Scipio Africanus – born around 1763 at the heart of African slavery in Sierra Leone, he was brought to England as a child servant by the Molineux family. Sound familiar? They were aristocratic industrialists like Dudley, ironmasters who built a grand house with extensive grounds in the 1720s. The grounds later became a public park and then of course the Molineux stadium; the house a hotel and then the town’s fine City Archives.

Africanus was baptised in 1766 at St Peter’s Collegiate Church in town (like other enslaved people including Richard Crosby Africanus and John Towels were), and grew up in Wolverhampton’s finest Georgian society before moving to Nottingham a free man in 1784. He was able to do this because of a change in social attitudes towards slavery: the 1772 Somerset vs Stewart case, fought by the abolitionist Granville Sharp, marked the beginning of the turning of the tide towards the outright ban on owning slaves on English soil, accomplished in 1807. (It’s worth noting that British owners were still perfectly entitled to own slaves elsewhere in the Empire, such as the Caribbean, until 1833, and the euphemistic apprenticeship scheme which replaced it lasted until 1838).

Black celebrities in the Victorian Black Country.

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The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, an 1850 lithograph by Samuel Rowse

Abolition meant that people of colour were even scarcer in the Black Country during the 19th century. Abolitionist speakers like Frederick Douglass came to Birmingham, where as Catherine Hall has written about extensively, local feelings about slavery, colour, race and empire were deeply complex. The most famous to find his way to the Black Country was Henry ‘Box’ Brown, an American slave who, it was said, had gained his freedom by posting himself in a 3′ x 2′ x 2’6″ box across the USA. He brought his Panorama to the Corn Exchange in 1852 and ended up suing the Wolverhampton Herald for slander. Ira Aldridge, “the African Roscius” performed at the theatre in High Green in 1846 – despite his fame as a Shakespearean actor, playing Othello and King Lear, his appearance in Wolverhampton was in Obi! or Three Fingered Jack. They playbill for this trades on the “Negro Ball,” in which “Quashee” (a crude nickname for black Carribeans) fought the eponymous hero, and the “negro robber” was overthrown, presumably to much cheering. Audrey Fisch’s book is useful on the sight of people of colour in Victorian Britain.

In my own research, I’ve come across people from many, many countries. They include “Jemmy the Black”, who likely suffered from learning difficulties but was permitted to ride in Samuel Griffiths procession into town; “Sambo”, arrested for robbery; “Peter the Black,” assaulted by a boatwoman at the Raven & Bell; and so on. People of colour turn up in all guises across the UK in far higher numbers than most films and books would lead us to expect.

People of colour in Britain after abolition

Even after abolition, the British Caribbean was an essential part of the British Empire – sugar production didn’t stop with abolition, it merely changed industrial structure, and not always with a great deal of difference in everyday life for a worker of African heritage. So much so that the black population of Morant Bay in Jamaica revolted in 1867 (just two years after slavery had finally been abolished in North America) and was put down with utterly brutal reprisals by a colonial governor and militia with seemingly little compunction. This kind of event, like the Indian revolution ten years earlier (as so well described by Catherine Hall), had major impacts on how ordinary British people understood the Empire, race and colour. Racism solidified in this country, so that where small populations of non-white people were found, they often suffered abuse. This stretches forward of course to the post-war period: when this same British Empire called out for workers from its colonies, its subjects with all their rights as full citizens but found hostility that had hardly changed in the preceding century.

The roots of British racism

The racism that met those migrating from the Caribbean, South Asia and other parts was not a new thing, but neither did it exist unchanged from time immemorial. At the time of abolition in 1807, black lives were truly seen to matter: Wedgwood’s iconic “Am I not a man and a brother?” is perhaps the most famous emblem of this revulsion towards the institution of slavery and sympathy with the enslaved people. The image cements the image of the supplication of the black slave to his white masters, a sign of early 19th century power relations. After this though came scientific racism, which held people of other colours to be inferior species, now not even thought to be as fully human as white people; the polemics of intellectuals like Thomas Carlyle and writers like Charles Kingsley, who vehemently held that people of African heritage were inherently weaker, less intelligent, and prone to laziness; then the Social Darwinists and eugenicists of later in the nineteenth century (like Francis Galton, grandson of the gun manufacturer Samuel Galton who we looked at last time); all manner of discourse about the savagery of the African continent as the great powers of Europe carved it up for themselves; the continued rise of anti-semitism and the fascistic white supremacist views of Oswald Mosley (MP for Smethwick for a while), supported by the Daily Mail.

By the time that workers from the Commonwealth began to arrive after World War Two, colour prejudice was absolutely entrenched as a universal truth. “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” signs on vacant rooms; the colour bar from hairdressers, pubs and clubs; the exclusionary treatment of non-white workers by some workers and trade unionists – these were all found locally, in the Black Country, but they represented views that find their roots in the inhuman treatment of enslaved people (among other Imperial subjects) in centuries past. It is essentially a view (conscious or unconscious) that white people are superior to any others: in fact, white supremacy.

If racism had gone away in the last seventy years, this would happily be a purely historical issue, but of course it hasn’t: it has shifted target and tactic from time to time, but the idea that white people, or British people, are somehow inherently better than other people continues to affect the lives of people of colour on the streets here (4wardever provides a good, if shocking example, of this) as well as the national politics of post-colonial states, or even the go-it-alone imperial nostalgia of some Brexiteers. This long history is why it does matter that there are chains on the Black Country flag: this story of slavery is a historical one, but it is not disconnected from the founding finances of Black Country industry; or from the chains we made; or from the long history of racism and colour prejudice in this country; pr from the injustices experienced by people of colour today.

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