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