Kicking off my crazy February schedule, this week is Beyond Victoriana’s small contribution toward Black History Month. In the United States and Canada, this is celebrated in February, but in England, this month is in October, so I guess I’m giving away my biases a bit, eh? Now, a linkspam about African/African-American history would be easy to do. And there are many great black figures who lived during the Victorian Era who should be mentioned right now.
But instead, I’ll review an interesting book about a view of black history that I don’t hear about as often: a series of essays about the lives of both extraordinary and everyday Black Brits in Victorian England called Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina.
Black Victorians/Black Victoriana is a welcome attempt to correct the historical record. Although scholarship has given us a clear view of nineteenth-century imperialism, colonialism, and later immigration from the colonies, there has for far too long been a gap in our understanding of the lives of blacks in Victorian England. Without that understanding, it remains impossible to assess adequately the state of the black population in Britain today. Using a transatlantic lens, the contributors to this book restore black Victorians to the British national picture. They look not just at the ways blacks were represented in popular culture but also at their lives as they experienced them-as workers, travelers, lecturers, performers, and professionals. Dozens of period photographs bring these stories alive and literally give a face to the individual stories the book tells.
The essays taken as a whole also highlight prevailing Victorian attitudes toward race by focusing on the ways in which empire building spawned a “subculture of blackness” consisting of caricature, exhibition, representation, and scientific racism absorbed by society at large. This misrepresentation made it difficult to be both black and British while at the same time it helped to construct British identity as a whole. Covering many topics that detail the life of blacks during this period, Black Victorians/Black Victoriana will be a landmark contribution to the emergent field of black history in England.
Also check out her book Black London as well.
The essays in Black Victorians/Black Victoriana are varied and fascinating, ranging from the everyday lives of African Brits to the portrayal of blackness by the British, and, in turn, how the British defined themselves by their whiteness. The topics of these essays are divided into three general areas: the black experience in Britain, the interaction between Africans, African-Americans, British, and African-Brits, and representations of being black in Victorian culture. I enjoyed the essays that focused on aspects of the black experience–nevermind Victorian– that I had never even considered before. Joan Anim-Addo’s “Queen Victoria’s ‘Black Daughter’, examines the life and circumstances surrounding Sally Bonetta Forbes, a young orphaned West African child whom the King of Dohomey presents to Queen Victoria as a “gift” in 1850. Sally was the first of a long line of Empire adoptees who entered the Queen’s household as “properties of the crown” and were raised as the Queen’s proteges. Other interesting essays included about the black experience is a profile on Pablo Fanque, a black circus proprietor who ran the most successful circus in England for 30 years, and the biracial classical composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
The conclusions each of these essays make about race relations during Victorian England vary, even contradict each other. Fanque, for instance, is widely respected and defended by the general public as a performer, and Coleridge-Taylor’s historical biographers skid more about his white mother’s illegitimate parentage and servant class than his Nigerian father’s background. On the other hand, other pieces such as “Mrs. Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands and the Consciousness of Transit” (titled after her memoir of the same name), focuses on the prejudice the Crimean War heroine and nurse Mary Seacole faced from the British medical establishment –and from Florence Nightingale’s all-white company of nurses–when on the front lines. And the essay “The Blackface Clown” explains the roots of blackface in England, framed around the concept of “blackness” as the racial Other onto which white Brits transposed everything they considered “unBritish.”
The most interesting essay in the collection is Neil Parsons’ “No Longer Rare Birds in London,” a record about the travels of four different African envoys to England. Representatives from these African kingdoms visited England in order to petition for various reasons, from protesting British occupation to appealing for protection against other European powers. Parsons gives a detailed itinerary account of what each group experienced. Some incidents during their journey were very telling of the conflicting views of black and Africans in Victorian England. For instance, when King Cetshwayo of the Zulu visited in 1882, he was whisked away in a special train because the colonial ministers didn’t want the public–who were only familiar with “Zulu warriors” as depicted by mostly African and African-American circus performers and from the news of the crushing British defeat by the Zulu nation in 1879–”to make a spectacle of him.” The king, however, was unexpectedly received by cheering crowds and enjoyed being recognized in the streets as the leader of the battle. The envoys reactions to England are also intriguing. Many compared the packed urban sprawl of London to locusts and the Ndebele envoys remarked how the British “worshiped the god of money while they spoke of the God of Love” and how “the hands of the European never tire of making things. It is for this reason that white men’s faces are often so fatigued and sad. They wage war with each other not for virile glory or to test their strength, but for things.”
Overall, a fascinating book and highly recommended for scholars and history buffs alike.
Another treasure came at the suggestion of Miriavas from the Steampunk Empire: Okinawa Soba’s collection of nineteenth-century photos. He features three collections portraying different perspectives on the black experience during this time period. Below is a sampling from each collection, but I encourage you to go through his galleries yourself.
Excerpt from Okinawa Soba’s description:
The old photos of Africa in this set have been sitting in a box for many years. There are actually MORE, but these were the most interesting to me. The last time I dug them out was in 1988 — 20 years ago….for a roving 3-D Display of Old Africa held in Okinawa, Japan. It is estimated that over 10,000 Okinawan school kids saw these (and views of many other countries and continents) in large banks of “Roto Viewers” that allowed then to jump right into the photos in real 3-D.
“SWAHILI GIRLS of ZANZIBAR”
“KAVIRONDO WOMEN of NYANZA Near LAKE VICTORIA in EAST AFRICA”
“THE ZULU BRIDE and her COIFFURE”
Excerpt from Okinawa Soba’s description:
I’m as “white” as they come, but hope that those whose roots are in Africa or “Zulu Land” will enjoy seeing some of their “great great grandparents” hamming it up, or just posing for the camera while having fun. I have seen plenty of pictures of Old Africa in my time, but none quite like these.
They are from a rare series of 1903 images showing culture clash and changes in certain areas of old “Zulu Land” (so called by the White settlers).
It is possible (some will say probable) that these images were taken to “spoof” or “mock” the Zulu. After 100 years, the photographer is gone, and his intent has died with him. Regardless of how or why the images were photographed, they are valuable for showing true native Zulu costume, accessories, hairstyles, home construction…..and cross-over moments into some “white” pastimes. The honesty expressed in the faces of the subjects has, in the end, triumphed over any ignorance or prejudice on the part of the photographer.
The Zulu win.
“RIDING INTO THE FUTURE — The Zulu Motor Cab”
“THE GRAMOPHONE COMES TO ZULU LAND”
“EBONY AND EBONY ON THE IVORIES — Making Music in Zulu Land, Old Africa”