Images of black folks in England, 1600s and 1700s

This goes along with chapter 2 of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams (but is probably also interesting on its own).

Liverpool Town Hall

Before the Beatles, Liverpool was famous as an important port in Britain’s slave trade; it was the slave trade that built Liverpool up from an unimportant town to a thriving metropolis. A bust of a ‘blackamoor’, (a black person) symbolises the slave trade that brought Liverpool wealth and prominence.

A carving on the grey stone exterior of a buildingof a black man wearing an elaborate head dress, necklace and earrings

A business card of a gun maker in Bristol, England

It incorporates an image of a British gentleman (left), an enslaved black man (right) and the coat of arms of the British Empire (top center).

A (photo of a) rectangular card, clearly very old and drawn by hand, with the following text (in very fancy lettering): WM Heard Gunmaker No. 41 Redclift Street Briftol, makes Hunting, Coach and Double Barrel Guns, Blunderbufes, Pistols, etc. etc. on the most approv'd Construction. Merchants supply'd with Guns, & Stores, for the African, West India, & Newfoundland Trade as Cheap as any Warehouse in England.

Reward offered for the return of a runaway boy

A newspaper advertisement offering a reward for the return of a runaway ‘Negro Boy’. The text reads: A Negro Boy, his name Africa, by his growth feeming to be about 12 years old, he had a gray cloth Livery, the Lace mixed with black, white, and orange colors, fomewhat torn, a black large Cap, a Silver Ring in one of his ears, his hair newly clipped very clofe, fpeaks fome Englifh, Dutch, and Blacks. Run away from his Mafter the firft inftant Whofoever fhall fecure him, and give notice to Mr. Arnold (…illegible…) Barner in James Ftreet, Covent Garden, fhall have 20 s. Reward. The ad doesn’t make clear whether the boy is a slave or a free servant, but the fact that there is a reward for his return suggests he is viewed as property.

The boy’s native language is called ‘Blacks’ – apparently the English believed that all Black people spoke the same language. In fact enslaved Africans spoke many different West African languages, such as Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo.

A black and white newspaper ad with a drawing of a young black boy.

A drawing of a group of sailors

A group of sailors, including one who is black, relaxing in a cabin of their ship during their off-duty time. The black sailor doesn’t appear to be treated any different from the others. This image shows that black men sometimes worked the same jobs as white working class men.

A black and white comic drawing of a group of men laughing and talking around a wooden table in  a narrow ship's cabin.

A drawing of a pair of male servants

A satirical drawing of two servants, one black and one white. The white one rudely blocks a lady’s path. This is another image showing black and white working class men working side by side.

A black and white drawing: in a narrow outdoor passageway two servants, one a white man and one a black man, are relaxing; the white servant has his legs stretched out, blocking the path of a lady in a fancy dress who looks annoyed.

Portraits of upper class men and women often included a black child

Having a black child servant was fashionable, and a sign of wealth and privilege. These children were generally called a ‘maid’ or ‘page’ although in fact they were generally slaves. They were often dressed in flamboyant, brightly-coloured outfits, and wore turbans or other items that their English masters would have considered foreign and exotic. In portraits of nobles and the well-to-do; the child is usually placed at the edge of the painting, looking adoringly at their master or mistress. Photos of these paintings often appear in books or on the Internet with the black child cropped out, because it looks so odd to us, although it was considered normal at the time.

When these children got older and less cute they were often freed by their owners, which may not have been an improvement in their lives. Trapped in a foreign land with no family or other connections, they were often unable to find work and ended up homeless.

A (photo of an) oil painting of a young white woman wearing a shiny yellow dress with white lace and a blue cloak, next to a small black boy who seems to be picking flowers from an ornamental tree for her.
Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Noel Wriothesley of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England, 1650s.
A (photo of an) oil painting showing a group four white men, all wearing powdered wigs and fancy-looking coats, posing outdoors in front of some sort of monument. Just to the side is a little black boy, looking at the men. In the background some white children are playing.
Elihu Yale; William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; an unknown adult male and an Enslaved Servant, unknown artist, 1708. The little boy on the right has a silver collar with a padlock around his neck.
Oil painting of a young white woman and a little white girl, both in elaborate dresses. A little black boy in livery is at the right.
Lady Grace Carteret, Countess of Dysart (1713-1755) with a Child (possibly Lady Frances Tollemache [1738 – 1807]), a Black Servant, Cockatoo and Spaniel.
An aristocratic woman holds leashes of several dogs, while a black page boy tends to her horse.
Anne of Denmark, wife of James 1

The Blackbirds of St Giles

The district of St Giles in Camden is now an upmarket address in central London, but in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it was a notorious slum, overcrowded and lacking any sort of sanitation.

The ‘Blackbirds of St Giles’ were black former slaves who lived in the district, many of whom were beggars or sex workers. Some were flamboyant characters who became locally famous, such as the one-legged fiddler Billy Waters, who played outside the Adelphi Theatre, and Joseph Johnson, a former merchant seaman who wore a model of a ship on his hat and sang The Storm by George Alexander Stevens.

The image is of Charles McGee, a one-eyed crossing sweeper. He was originally from Jamaica, and was a devout Methodist. McGee was 71 when this drawing was done by the artist JT Smith.

“The elderly Jamaican Charles McGee (born 1744) occupies his post at the Obelisk in the middle of the crossroads at the bottom of Ludgate Hill. It is a prime location for begging given the thousands of people who walk past him every day. Charles is also hard to miss, with his one eye, his woolly grey hair and smart coat.” – A Pauper’s History of England: 1000 Years of Peasants, Beggars and Guttersnipes by Peter Stubley, 2015.

A black and white drawing of an elderly black man wearing an 18th century style frock coat, leaning on a cane and holding out a hat.

Hogarth

Hogarth was an artist famous for his satirical drawings portraying London life, some of which include depictions of black Londoners. For example, the drawing Noon in the series ‘Four times a day’, and in plate 3 of A Harlot’s Progress.

References and related articles

Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams, 1944, chapter 2.

Early Africans in England at Hoydens & Firebrands.

Broad Quay (Bristol) from On Books, Streets & Migrant Footprints.

African Servants in England at Unusual Historicals.

Black London: Life before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, 1995. (The entire book is available to read for free online.)

In pictures: London’s notorious St Giles at BBC.co.uk

St Giles, London at Wikipedia.

Tudor, English and black – and not a slave in sight at the Guardian.

A Pauper’s History of England: 1000 Years of Peasants, Beggars and Guttersnipes by Peter Stubley, 2015.

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