#30 Anti-Racism in 19th Century Britain–Guest Blog by Evangeline Holland

Editor’s Note: This article was initially published under the pseudonym Sandrine Thomas. Since then, the author has requested to change the authorship to her original name Evangeline Holland.

Ida B. Wells-Bennett. African-American activist who worked with anti-racist British Quaker Catherine Impey. Image courtesy of eqadams63. Click for source.

The concept of the British Empire arouses pride, pomp, and nationalism, but the darker side of the spread of English customs and mores across the globe was the specter of racism. Though British society focused more on class than race as their home-grown minority population remained small, and the relationship between the ruled and the rulers ran more towards paternalistic respect, racism and race prejudice cannot be denied. Much of the conditioning to promote and advance Imperialism had the tinge of social Darwinism, and the growing interest in eugenics (1890s-1900s) further enhanced the notion that race was biological, and whites were biologically superior to “savage blacks and yellow.” Since post-colonial studies are more interested in breaking through the influence (bad or good) the British had on their colonial possessions, it ignores the existence of people who actively fought not only slavery but racism.

As with the abolitionist movements in the United States, British Quakers led the movement for greater understanding between the races and fighting racial inequality, and one woman stood above the rest in her fight: Catherine Impey. Impey was born in 1847 to ardently abolitionist parents who boycotted slave-grown sugar and cotton and hosted William Wells Brown as a guest when the latter escaped to England. Impey was an extraordinary woman for her time; her interests spanned anti-slavery, environmentalism, racism, the humane treatment of animals, etc. Her career against racism and lynching began when she visited the United States in 1886 to attend a national convention of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and was disgusted by its practice of segregation. Her stance attracted notice, and when African-American activists visited England to drum up support against America’s racist laws and the horrors of lynching, Impey was a must-see on that side of the Atlantic. Impey’s meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1887 inspired her to launch Anti-Caste, a magazine “devoted to the interests of the coloured race.” She contributed heavily to this magazine, but found articles written by people of color around the world who supplied her with first-hand accounts of racism against non-whites as practiced by whites.

Impey’s visit to the United States in 1892, as the guest of Frederick Douglass, cemented her involvement with anti-lynching activists when she met Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an outspoken critic of the inhumane and violent “law” tactic. When she put a photo of a lynched man surrounded by white children on the cover of Anti-Caste, she aroused a storm of horror and criticism, not the least because discussing lynching pushed the topic of rape to the forefront. Wells and Impey, along with Isabelle Fyvie Mayo, became fierce opponents of lynching and racism, and Wells’s first speaking tour in England inspired Mayo and Impey to organize the Society for the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man, and the even more successful speaking tour Wells made in 1894 prompted the formation of the Anti-Lynching Committee, headed by MP Sir John Gorst. Accordingly, the widespread condemnation of the barbaric American practice in Britain humiliated the United States–unfortunately, this embarrassment did not spur laws to suppress the practice. Nonetheless, the anti-racist movement, though small in Britain, did exist and it did give a voice to people of the color oppressed and marginalized beneath the system of Imperialism.

Further Reading:
London 1900: the imperial metropolis by Jonathan Schneer
Feminist postcolonial theory: a reader by Reina Lewis, Sara Mills
Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia, v2 Ed. David M. Fahey
To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay
Better day coming: Blacks and equality, 1890-2000 by Adam Fairclough

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Evangeline Holland is a writer of edgy, innovative historical romance and contemporary romance and blogs at Edwardian Promenade.

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5 responses to “#30 Anti-Racism in 19th Century Britain–Guest Blog by Evangeline Holland

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  3. Interesting post, another side of anti-racism in 19th century Britain though is the dual struggles of both white ‘British’ workers and black slaves and workers. The San Domningo revolution in Haiti at the end of the 17th century inspired slave revolts throughout not only the Americas but in Britain during the 18th as well. While there are also stories of white workers showing solidarity with slaves for instance reports of workers freeing slaves from the docks in London and hiding them in working class slums or linking up with black workers in common struggles- particularly in the navy.
    One figure which symbolizes these two treads is Robert Wedderburn a Scottish-Jamaican “mulatto” radical preacher and leader of working class movements in 19th century London. There is a brilliant article on him by Michael Morris here: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=763&issue=132#132morris15 . He is also discussed in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, which also has some good stuff on what they call the ‘red and black Atlantic’ i.e the radical anti-racist proletarian elements in the 19th century.
    I think both of these are important as the struggle of the oppressed themselves, the slaves and non-white workers is important, no middle class reformers- no matter how moral- can save them, it is there own struggle for liberation, linking in with the rest of the poor and oppressed which will. However it is also important not to write off the mass of white workers, while racist views did have influence, they were often in flux and could be broken down in periods when the working class movement as a whole was going forward.
    The common enemies of the black slaves, non white workers and white workers obviously saw the threat that both posed and the connection between the two:
    ”Every manufactor lives in his factory like the colonial planters in the midst of their slaves, one against a hundred, and the subversion of Lyon is a sort of insurection of San Domingo… The barbarians who menace society are neither in the Caucasus nor in the steppes of Tartary; they are in the suburbs of our industrial cities. …The middle class must clearly recognize the nature of the situation; it must know where it stands.’
    Saint-Marc Girardin in Journal des Debats, Decermber 8, 1931
    Saint-Marc is here exaggerated a bit, one would think, what he and the rest of respectable society thinks of as ‘barbarians’ are the masses of both the Global North and South.

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