Friday, 28 June 2019

Review: Black Americans in Victorian Britain

I'm sure a good number of you own the catalogue from the 2005 exhibition Black Victorians and have marvelled at the number of people of colour that populate nineteenth century art, from the lovely Fanny Eaton...

Fanny Eaton (1860) Simeon Solomon little Prince Dejatch Alamayou...

Basha Felika and Dejatch Alamayou (1868) Julia Margaret Cameron
...and much like women's history, our appreciation of black history is getting the long overdue attention that is needed. I was delighted and intrigued therefore to be sent a copy of Black Americans in Victorian Britain by Jeffrey Green.

Recently, my daughter asked me when slavery ended in the UK, and we spent rather along time saying 'well, that's a complicated question...' but on the face of it, within the UK, slavery had ended by the time Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 (with the caveat of the Indian Slavery Act of 1843). American slaves had to wait until 1865 before they saw any change in their position (again, even then it is very complicated).  Maybe then it isn't surprising that escaped slaves such as Moses Roper travelled to the UK to lecture on their experiences and publish books on the subject. 

The extraordinary Ellen Craft
The story of Ellen Craft is remarkable - she and her husband, fellow slave William, escaped Georgia in 1848, with her dressed as a white man and her husband pretending to be her servant.  They finally settled in England in 1869.  These true stories of heroism and survival make Green's book both harrowing but also heartwarming that the brave and resourceful Crafts could share their stories where so many were denied the chance.

Uncle Tom and Little Eva (1866) Edwin Longsden Long
Of course, black American narratives were not unknown to the British reader (after a fashion), with the massive popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin of 1852 and the resultant paintings, plays, and even ornaments celebrating the wise and patient Tom often with the cherubic Eva. The full pervasiveness of the novel can be seen in Rossetti's nickname for William Morris, 'Topsy', a character in the novel.

One of my favourite things about the book is that Green  makes you look at something that you thought you knew from a different angle.  I spend a fair amount of time reading about Merton Russell-Cotes, founder of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth, but at the same time as Merton was being a somewhat colourful character in Bournemouth, in Boscombe (now a part of Bournemouth) a gentleman called Thomas Lewis Johnson wrote and published Twenty-Eight Years a Slave.  He died the same year as Merton and was apparently as well known as the Russell-Cotes family.  Previously when I thought of the Bournemouth of the turn of the twentieth century, I had never considered that it would include such an important figure, and now have to find out if he and Merton ever met.  That is a pretty decent book that makes me want to do more research.

The American Slave (1862) John Bell
Like most Pen & Sword publications, this is an eminently readable and detailed book, with some good illustrations and further reading suggestions.  While I have written about the Victorian imagery surrounding slavery (often a bit dubious and featuring a lot of bosoms), it is refreshing and sobering to read accounts of people who escaped to our country to educate us, then become an important and appreciated part of our society. It was also interesting to read how the Victorians greeted such refugees from slavery and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the levels of respect paid, and quite rightly so.  It is a pleasure to end the week on such an enlightening note.

Black Americans in Victorian Britain by Jeffrey Green is available from Pen and Sword Books and all good books shops.

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