Writer of the month: Researching untold histories
Dr Kathleen Chater discusses her book Researching Untold Histories: Black people in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade, c1660-1807.
Kathleen worked for the BBC until 1994. One of her interests was family history so when she left she became self-employed as a writer of books and articles on aspects of history and also as a trainer in research skills for the media and for family historians.
This talk was part of the Writer of the Month – a series of free talks, in which each month a high profile author shared their experiences of using original records in their writing.
Well now, I got into this in rather an odd way. I am not an academic, my background is…I worked in television as I say and I did television research. I did training for the television companies. I’ve written books about doing research for television which is very, very different from academic research. What we are mainly interested in, in television, is finding people who illustrate some problem or some issue, but academics work from formulating an issue and then finding people to illustrate it.
So my way of approaching things is really slightly different. I am not terribly interested in formulating theories, because I think theories should grow from the research you do. So that’s my sort of background and I actually came to this subject through family history. As well as researching for television, I did family history. You know I’m like a stick of rock, cut me anywhere and ‘researcher’ is written there!
So when I was doing some work on parts of my family history, I discovered this census return 1851. I knew that one of my ancestors had been a publican, Jonathan Bell; he is the guy on top [shows an image]. I knew he was a publican and when finally London Metropolitan Archives got around to cataloguing some publicans’ licenses, I could look up where he kept the pub and find him in the census.
I have to say before I go any further, all this was before all those wonderful online things! I did all this on film with some printed indexes; not many. Computers in those days were large, clunky and there was just so little, I can’t tell you how little there was online for us family historians.
So finally I tracked him down using film, in keeping a pub near the Elephant and Castle. And I wanted to find out where he was born and what did I find? All he managed to say was that he was a British subject. He and his wife and his children were all British subjects. I can’t tell you how annoying that is to a family historian! [laughs with audience] But as I sat there, and as you do, I swung the film backwards and forwards, going backwards and forwards in the hope that I’d go back to him and find he’d written something different, it doesn’t happen like that!
What I did notice though was, this was a very poor part of London; there were a lot of people very nearby who were born in the West Indies, been born in the Caribbean, and I wondered, I thought, ‘could he have been black?’ because that was why he had put British subject. Usually the Irish were quite happy to put ‘Irish’ and things like that.
He is in a poor area, so his neighbours are not you know, rich plantation owners retired on the ill-gotten gains. Was he, I wondered, keeping a pub that black people, particularly, frequented? So I thought I’d have a look about this and there wasn’t very much in those days about tracing Caribbean ancestry. So I read the various books on the subject, books written by academics, and I’m not here to slag off academics, although that’s always fun to do! [laughs]
I was really rather horrified by them. They would take, you know, one example of a person who had had a bad time and then say that everybody had a bad time. Most of the books were written in the early 1970s and those of you who remember that period will know Marxism was really, really fashionable. Everybody had a very hard time!
So I read these books and they were talking of black people as slaves in Britain, as stigmatised outsiders, as hated, as victims and they were mainly depending for examples of this, on America; saying that lynching happened in America, so it probably happened here. I don’t think anybody actually said that, but the assumption was that people were stigmatised because of their colour.
Now because I have been a family historian and I have been tracing my own ancestry for about thirty years, I had seen black people come up fairly frequently in the ordinary records. In fact, as it happens, my London ancestors, about half of my ancestors are London; one of them is buried in the same pauper’s grave as a black person. So there was no separation, there was no distinction between the two. And although this was actually something that a lot of academics recognised, they did mention, that you can’t always tell colour or origin from a record. They didn’t have any curiosity as to why, and I realised why later.
So that’s the background. I thought actually, there might be a little newspaper article or magazine article in this, the fact that the academics had in fact I realised not done anything like enough research. They had I just thought actually I’d really better sort of clarify this.
The English slave trade theoretically started in 1562 when John Hawkins started to make slave trading journeys to Africa. But they weren’t very successful and it all died down. Between 1618 and 1672, various companies were formed to trade with Africa mainly in respectable goods but we suspect that a few people, you know, bought slaves from Africa; that was how some of them came back to England, you know. In fact a friend of mine is working on that period. She does the Tudors and Stuarts and I do from about 1660 when serious slave trading started or at least it started in a more systematic way. And then of course in 1672 founding the Royal African Company to regulate the English trade started and they ended their monopoly in 1698.
So that’s really the sort of background to this. And again the assumption that black people in England were slaves was always made. There was also another source of course. There is very little distinction in the records between people from the East; people from India and people from Africa they are both called black or blackamoor in records. So some of the people of course, would have been from the East Indies rather than Africa and that started in 1600 with the Charter to the East India Company which had trade with all of not just India but China the whole of East Asia, Asia and East Asia. And that was until 1858. So those are the sort of dates and the sort of outline that I saw, I discovered.
What we did see actually, what I did see in all the books that I read were the sort of stereotypes, the assumption that all the black people were servants, for example [shows an image]. These page boys, this kind of painting, gets a lot of publicity. Here we have one of the mistresses of Charles II with the page boy. We know from Pepys’ diary that various people had black page boys; they were a symbol, a status symbol. And interestingly, he is offering her a bowl of pearls, which were a symbol of purity. So I think the artist here is having a bit of a joke, as she is something else, she is his mistress.
Alternatively, the academics thought they were beggars.[shows an image] This is a fairly famous beggar. He was a merchant seaman; he had been injured and therefore couldn’t work. He was a sailor and he made his money, he’s got a model of Nelson’s ship on his head and he went around singing patriotic songs. So as I say though, mainly servants: servants to the upper classes or page boys, the sweet little lads, you know, decorated, and also the faithful servant.
This is a gravestone in Bristol. [shows an image]
‘Here lies the body of Scipio Africanus, negro servant of the Rt Hon Charles William, Earl of Suffolk…da di da di da. So all these again were given great emphasis in academic works- the assumption that all black people here were you know servants or sailors.
And the other one who got a lot of prominence was of course, Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African. And he of course wrote his famous, his interesting narrative, his autobiography which is really, really good. I do advise you just to read it because it is actually brilliant! It’s also nobody ever uses it for this: when I read it I realised that it’s really fascinating about the condition for everybody on board English ships at that time. He is a really, really interesting writer. I do recommend it. Now he is of course, the hero of the academics, because he wrote against the slave trade because he was you know he was very, very politically concerned.
And of course and the others who do get around to that fairly regularly were Ignatius Sancho. Again his letters are worth reading because they are good fun. He was a greengrocer in Whitehall after he’d been a butler to the Duke of somewhere or other. And then Francis Barber of course got a lot of prominence because he was Dr Johnson’s servant and then his heir. The other ones who again got mentioned all the time were Robert Wedderburn and William Cuffay who were political figures.
As I say all these books that I read were written in the 1970s so there was a kind of assumption that if you weren’t politically involved you weren’t of any interest at all. The emphasis was always on the exceptional and on published sources. Very, very little research was done on original sources, apart from Peter Fryer’s book ‘Staying Power’ which is still you know very good.
As I say I thought I would write a little article about this, about ordinary black people, like my ancestor. I’m still I’m not sure about his origin, but this was what actually started me off. So I started to collect references and in six months I had several hundred. I collected them on index cards. This is the typical index card.
[Exhibit] It’s got the guy’s name, Thomas Williams. It’s got his baptism, 5th May 1638, St Olave, Hart Street and it says blackamoor. And that is as much as a majority of things give you; the name, the date, the event, the place and the description. And so I started to collect them and I was astonished really to find that no one had actually done this before, that all these books were making these very, very confident statements about black people in England: they were this, they were that, they were the other.
But nobody had actually thought to do any proper research on this and as I say, in about six months I had several hundred references. I got these mainly from the Library of the Society of Genealogists in London. I went in whenever I had a couple of hours or on Saturdays when it’s open and things like that. And I found them very, very quickly because I started with the obvious parishes where the rich lived. So I was influenced by the books to a large extent, thinking that they were all going to be servants. So I started with Richmond, loads in Richmond, Twickenham all that sort of you know sort of places. And then I moved on, a bit more systematically. I went through every county. I went through different sizes and types of settlements; the cities, the towns, market towns, villages.
And I think I had by the end of six months, I had six hundred. And I had started to see a pattern. I wrote an article for the Genealogist Magazine about this, because I had realised why some people are labelled, mentioned as black and some weren’t. And this was to do with the Poor Laws.
The Poor Laws were an incredibly complicated system of deciding who was entitled to what would now be called benefits, who had the responsibility of supporting someone who was old or ill or could not work in some way. And you gained settlement, the right to benefit in a parish, because it was administered at the local level, by the local parishes, through being born there, through working there and being paid for a year or through completing an apprenticeship there or through fulfilling various parish offices, parish duties. And I realised in fact, that the minute people got settlement, they had worked for a year, they had been paid for a year, colour wasn’t mentioned. That was the point at which it dropped out.
And I wrote this article for the Genealogist Magazine because, and I do think this is my great contribution to English History writing [said with humour], I realised it had such implications for not just black people but for all migrant groups. I have got Huguenot ancestry and I tested this on my Huguenot ancestors and that was exactly the same. The records stopped mentioning it at the point where they’d been in England and been employed and been paid and could support themselves for a year.
So that was as I say, the article I wrote. And I was astonished how many people, then family historians, wrote back to me. One, they said they realised it was true because of their own German, Italian, Russian, whatever ancestors. But loads of others sent me references from all sorts of places, and there were people who’d been saving these for years, ‘cause they were interested but didn’t know what to do with them. So there I was, sat there, and I thought I’ve got to do something about this, in a vague way.
And then I decided to widen my search having realised why, the births you know the parish registers, the limitations of them with the settlement laws. I then moved on to look in other records. I looked in newspapers. I looked in diaries. I looked in the IGI, the Mormon’s International Genealogical Index; adult baptisms in there are usually quite a good clue. And I also fed in key words into catalogues. If you put ‘black’ into the average catalogue you will get too many, too confusing responses to be any use. So I put in ‘negro’ and I put in some of the names that I had found – ‘Caesar’, ‘Scipio’, that sort of thing.
And what that produced, I looked it up in what was then a printed index; was the will of a John Scipio at St Dunstan’s, Stepney. And here it is [shows an image]. This was in the days again, when you had to go through them on film in the National Archives as it was then, no it wasn’t, it was the Public Record Office then!
Anyway I found this will and he left a serious amount of money. He was a servant, he was working. He was the servant of Elizabeth Snelgrave and William Snelgrave. Now actually, I already knew from reading that William Snelgrave was a slave trader. So what we have here is the will of the black slave of a slave trader who seemed perfectly happy with his lot and who left a serious amount of money; a lot more than my contemporary ancestor, at that time, was an upholsterer and he left considerably less money.
So he left a lot here to various people and he seemed perfectly happy with his lot. However I thought, from his name, John Scipio, I thought he has to be black, but I couldn’t prove it. There is no mention of it in the will. There is no mention of him in William Snelgrave’s published work about you know his voyages in the slave trade. So I looked up William Snelgrave’s will again – lots and lots of sort of turning the wheels (!), and I found it, I found the word in there.
William Snelgrave, in fact the William Snelgrave that John Scipio mentions, is his son. William Snelgrave the elder, the slave trader, had died about sixteen years before John Scipio, and he wrote in his will, William Snelgrave, ‘I have had for many years a black man named Scipio whom I bought at Joaquin on the coast of Guinea’. And at that point I went ‘Yes!’ very quietly and the chap next to me turned round and went [mimics something, laughs], because you know, we researchers! Anyway and at that point I thought, I have found someone the servant of a slave trader, who had money, who was happy with his lot as a servant. I thought, ‘I’ve got more’.
I actually wrote an article about it for History Today and got a fair amount of correspondence following that as well. And I knew at that point that I had a thesis or at least I had a book. And the best way to do that was to write a thesis. So that was the point at which I signed up. I mainly wanted to write the book, but I knew that I wouldn’t get it published without some sort of backing; and I needed help to write it.
So I signed on with Goldsmiths and the first thing I did, was to with my several hundred, set up a database. And these were the fields that I ended up with: [shows an image]
the name, the date of the event, the type of the event – you know birth, baptism, marriage, inquest, newspaper reports, all sorts of things, age of the person, the place where it took, the event happened, the description of the person which is quite interesting, and their occupation and the place of origin so I could you know separate them out. And this was a sort of beginning of this.
And after some thought and a lot of consideration, I decided that my thesis would answer this question. [shows a slide here with the title?] I knew from working in television, I know, a television programme you have to formulate the question to be answered, because then all the research that doesn’t relate to it falls away and it becomes much, much easier. You can change the question later on if it’s worth it, but if you just sit there and sort of faff around you know, you don’t go anywhere and your research just goes off in lots of different directions. So that was my question.
I also decided to limit to the period. As you see from the card I got from 1638, I was actually looking at everything to start with and it was just too huge. There were just far too many periods to examine and because the society changes over the years, I decided to limit it to the period of the slave trade, because I was still quite interested then on the attitudes of the British population to people of African origin, people of Asian origin, whilst slavery was such an important component of the economy; and it was such political, of such political importance. So I thought I wanted to see what peoples’ attitude to people was at that time.
Now, when I was doing this as well, I started to examine in some detail with some care the actual wording of items that I found [shows an image]. This one’s particularly interesting, because here we have a child called Hannah Norbrook being baptised in Suffolk. This is rural Suffolk. This is miles from the slave trade. How did the family pitch up here? We don’t know. But this is the thing – ‘daughter of Henry Norbrook, a negro, and Hannah his wife’. And there was a note at the bottom of the page – ‘the registry of Henry Norbrook as a negro may assist some future person observing, how long time, the colour wears out by marrying with white men or women, Hannah being his first child’. I thought that was rather sweet and rural, they were just …astonished! And I noted later on, that there were other children of the same parents, baptised, and I don’t think they mention colour at all. That’s the only reason that it was put in, because the guy was interested in seeing. I mean, this just seems to us now, so ridiculous, because we are all so used to a multiracial, multicultural society. But if you look at a place like Suffolk in 1761, I mean the roads weren’t very good, people didn’t go there. It was just a very small rural area.
So I did this and I got interested at this point as well in … I started a children’s database because I realised fairly quickly, when I tried to put them into my main database that what is interesting here is that the colour of the child is not mentioned. The colour of the child is only once mentioned in – that I have found, it is always the parent, usually the father and sometimes the mother.
Now that has all sorts of implications; because of course, in a society where it matters legally whether you are black, white, brown, what your racial origin is and what proportion of it is from which area, then it is important to label the child. But this never happened, except in one instance I can think of. And in fact most of the time, children are simply baptised with no mention at all. All Ignatius Sancho’s six children, there is no mention of his colour. If he hadn’t published his book we would simply think that he was, actually we would probably think he was Spanish and living in Westminster, because there is no mention of colour in any of the baptism or in fact of his marriage.
And so I started to reconstruct family trees because I was quite interested to see at what point you stopped mentioning that the person was black or white or whatever. And here is the Norbrook family tree. [shows an image] But you see all of those I found through baptism records, through census returns and things like that and after Henry nothing is mentioned. And that again is pretty standard; it’s only the first generation where colour or ethnic origin is mentioned. I should add actually that this is what I was always interested in doing. But my supervisor said I had to do a lot of statistical analysis from my database, so I did, about where people came from and all the rest of it.
[shows an image] But this was what I really enjoyed, the sort of reconstructing it to see what peoples’ lives were like. Here is a marriage actually. This is the marriage in the middle here, of John Cranbrook and Anne Wallace. This was in the city of London. As you see, no mention of colour. I found this quite a long time after. What I first of all found John Cranbrook is baptised as a child in Rochester in Kent. And then I find him, I found his burial in Clapham in Surrey and I knew it was the same person because the dates matched up you know. And I already had him on the database; this was very useful being able to compare people. And so then I could look to the marriage. And here I find it and here he is, with his lovely flourishing signature. He’s put that in there; he was literate, he was you know his wife was also literate. And then I reconstructed his family tree. You can see how many descendants he left. And it’s only in his burial that mentions he’s mulatto. His baptism says he was black, his burial says mulatto.
He was a greengrocer. He died at forty-two in Clapham. Now, those of you who have done some work on this will know the Clapham sect who were very active in the abolition of the slave trade at this period. I just like the idea that they were buying their fruit and veg from John, that they were showing a bit of solidarity and support!
Anyway this is the more formally the sort of drawn up one. That’s an example of the kind of thing that I would work from. Now as you see there are descendants, various ones descendants. Also what I haven’t got here; Rebecca married a man named William Gregory and she has left an enormous number of descendants, some of whom are in the audience today.
It gives you an idea, I think of just how much a part of everyday life people were at this time. I’m pretty certain actually, that all of these I’m assuming, I haven’t found their baptisms, but I have found various children being registered in non-conformist church, registered in Dr Williams’ Library. So I suspect that although they married in the Church of England, John and Anne were non-conformist and probably attended a church whose records unfortunately haven’t survived.
But I have found the others in Clapham, so I’m not quite sure of the background to this. This one, William, he left an enormous number of children and I can trace them down to the 1871 census. But there were just so many of them and they were all calling their children by the same name, so I got a bit lost there. I’m going to need someone to do something about it. But Rebecca who married William Gregory, she left a number of children; as I say some are here today, some are in Australia. So they spread all over the world. Oh yes! And there is a small branch who wound up in Hong Kong but then came back to England.
[shows an image] Here is the will of John’s wife, born Anne Wallace, and she left everything to her daughter Rebecca, and I don’t know why particularly she was such a favourite. There are some interesting things there. And then we have one of the sons, John, who left money and all the rest of it. And he calls himself a gentleman. So I suspect that John Cranbrook did quite well out of his business, because his children, his descendants did quite well for themselves.
The youngest one, James, I don’t know what he did for a living, but this one, this James became a minister. He was a Presbyterian, well, an independent minister and he had a really, really fascinating career. I’m not going to go on about it, but I’m just going to give you some sort of background. It’s the kind of story that interests me, about people, about how they came to do this; about how he came to be, the grandchild of what [‘what’ refers to career] was obviously started out as a servant and then a shopkeeper. He became an independent minister. He was also Professor of English Literature at Queen’s College in Liverpool at one stage. In the 1861 census, that’s where he’s mentioned. His children the first three were born in Suffolk then there were one or two in Ireland, then back to Staffordshire and then Cheshire.
He started out his career in Stratford upon Avon as an independent minister. He then became a pastor in Edinburgh, the Albany Street Congregational Church. There were questions about his beliefs. He resigned in 1867 and he asked Thomas Henry Huxley, who’s an agnostic to preach to his congregation. This caused an enormous uproar; you can find a huge amount about it on the internet you know, because it was such a big, an important issue for people at that time. Anyway, I’m not going to go on any more about that, although as I say that is really what I do find interesting.
[shows an image] Here is a burial. Buried in St George in the East, which is Wapping; a black man by Coroner’s warrant. And again that was something that surprised me; that you would have a Coroner’s inquest on someone, treated exactly the same as everyone else. I don’t know why it surprised me when I started up this, but you did find that black people were treated exactly the same as the general population. And I am deliberately using the word ‘black’ here because there is no differentiation made between people of African origin and people of Indian origin. That was the term that was used at the time; that was what people understood.
[shows an image] Here is an adult baptism – John Williams. I discovered actually that ‘John Williams’ is the most common name for a black person in England during the 18th century. This is a nightmare for us family historians [laughs]. It’s really, really difficult to find them. But this is rather nice, because it says, it gives you his place of birth, it tells you his age, ‘He was baptised at his own earnest request and in the presence of George England, David Jones and Mary Berry, his chosen witnesses’, his sponsors, his Godparents. And then I noted, identical wording to later adult baptism of what I presume was a white man, because there is no difference in the wording.
And that was one of the things I found very, very, important, to see what was normal for everybody at that time; not just to cherry pick a mention of a black person and assume it applied to everybody. You had to see what the individual quirks were of the person making the record. So going through these things, it took me actually about two and a half years to set up the actual database that I used and it took me a long time and it was only after that I could start to see the significance of what I …of what it was showing.
Anyway, so that was, this was interesting because you often found people assuming that black people had been forcibly baptised, you know that they were dragged kicking and screaming to the font. [laughs] Now this is just not true. It is quite interesting though that there is a difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In Roman Catholicism at that period, people were baptised even before they knew what they were doing. This is why there were all these mass baptisms in South America; for example, because you became a member of the Roman Catholic Church by being baptised and then agreeing to do all the things you know acceding towards the sort of the tenets of the religion, of learning about them after you were baptised.
However in Protestantism, you had to know what you were signing up for. You had to know what you were agreeing to do. So this was quite an important thing, the difference between, you know, baptism, for Roman Catholics. And it was often assumed you see, that Roman Catholics baptised people of African and Indian origin much more readily than the Protestants did.
You occasionally find mention in again of these saying ‘after being instructed in the faith’. This is all the sort of Church of England things. So I just, again this is another thing that I think was quite important thing in looking again at the status of people and their position at this time.
The other thing I mean I had seen the sort of, early visual representations, which I showed you. I did start but I didn’t go on because it didn’t really hang in to the sort of question that I was answering. But I did start to look at ordinary black people in prints.
[shows an image] This is Hogarth. It is ‘Noon’. Actually what he is doing there, he is satirising these people who are French. This is the French Church, here he uses… David Dabydeen makes a very good case for Hogarth’s use, his book is called ‘Hogarth’s blacks’, his use of them as ‘natural’, you know the early sort of ‘noble’, not noble savages actually but natural people unconstrained by the trammels of civilisation and things like that.
[shows an image] But much more interesting, I think, are the ones where you simply…if you look at almost any 18th century print of London, you will see black faces in the crowd. Here we have the Westminster pit. What is obviously going on is some kind of illegal dog fight ‘cause there’s the guy looking at the, you know through the door, keeping watch. And yet you have here two people who are definitely of African Origin, representation. And yet what do you see? They are not sort of, they’re not there out of any sense of political correctness because the concept didn’t exist at that time. That is what a London crowd looks like.
[shows an image] And here we are in the East End of London. This is the ‘Adventures of Tom and Jerry’, slightly outside my period, it’s a bit later. ‘Tom and Jerry’ was a really, really popular book, I can’t tell you how popular it was! But it described the peregrinations of this couple Tom and Jerry being shown around London, the high life and the low life.
[shows an image] And here we have, it’s called ‘All-Max in the East’ which is obviously a pun on ‘All Max’ the great sort of club for upper class people in the West End of London. This is All-Max in the East, and these characters [Tom and Jerry] were so popular, there was a stage play, there were little china objects made of them. And if you can find any of these china ornaments now, they are worth a fortune! So keep an eye out for them; but as you see, simply part of the crowd, generally.
[shows an image] And in this one again, part of the crowd: ‘The Piccadilly Nuisance’, satirising traffic conditions in Piccadilly which shows you, some things never change! But right in the left hand corner, there is a man who is obviously a butler and the small child next to him, the errand boy, is probably black as well. They are simply part of a crowd. So as I say, I started to look at those because I thought that was quite an interesting thing, the representation, but it didn’t really relate to the question that I was asking about people, the average person’s experience. Where I did find the most interesting thing that shows you so much about everyday life, was oddly enough in the crimes.
I went through the, you know, the Old Bailey Online, if you haven’t discovered this, you have to discover it now! It is the most riveting thing. It is transcripts of all the trials at the Old Bailey from, I can’t remember, 16 something or other up to about 1913. And they are transcripts, what people actually said, most of them; the early ones aren’t. Anyway as I say, this was before they had put this online. I had started my thesis in 2000, it was about the point at which they were thinking about putting it online, so I did it the hard way! I went through 10,000 trials on film, in the Guildhall. It took me; I mean obviously I didn’t read every one, every word of every one. It took me about three months and quite hard work, and I missed some which I have been able to pick up from the online database now. There were benefits to that though. Instead of just going through and picking people out, because I was reading or at least glancing at everyone, I saw what was normal for everyone else. I saw how the Irish were treated, how Jews were treated, how the various Italians, French, Germans, Swedish [!] who pitched up there, were treated. And so that was quite, you know, that was very salutary, and it was deeply fascinating.
Anyway as I say, I pulled out, I did my own crime database:
the name, the dates of the event, the trial, the crime, what role the black person played in this– were they the defendant, the prosecutor, the witness, were they mentioned as being present or what it was, what was the verdict, were they recommended to mercy or were they [recommended to] what was called discretion.
The jury could actually minimise the crime; over 40 shillings was a felony and you could be… the most severe punishment, you could be transported for that. Below that it was a misdemeanour and very often the jury would undervalue something. They would say that you were guilty of the crime but it was not worth as much as the person said, they would reduce it. That‘s called exercising discretion. So I looked at that, and then the sentence and what the outcome was.
If they were sentenced to death, were they hanged? If they were sentenced to be transported, were they transported? And things like that. I couldn’t always sort of fill that in. But that was quite interesting. Two things came out of that.
Remarkably few black people showed up at the Old Bailey, it was really sad! You know, I went through 10,000 trials and only 130 max involved black people in some way. Mind you, it was an interesting thing to do; I enjoyed doing it. And I entered all these people on the main database as well. But what did come out of it, even the thing that I could then do, once the Old Bailey Online was there –you can extract statistical information from it.
So I could see how compared to the main body of people, it was the black people were hanged for example, how likely they were to be…have their sentence reduced and things like that. And I actually found, that broadly speaking, they were treated exactly the same as everybody else, all the verdicts were the, you know…I think 24 or 25 were sentenced to death; I haven’t been able to find out about a couple of them. The generally accepted figure is that a third of the people who were sentenced to death were actually executed. And that is precisely what happened. Eight black people were executed out of the 24 or 25. So that is precisely the same number. I was quite interested in that. Anyway, so that was the other thing I did.
But of course, crime then lent…Oh, let me just tell you about the crimes, because again the statistical stuff is pretty boring, but actually the details of what they did. Now this is probably the commonest crime committed both by black people and against black people. These two ladies of, how shall we put this, negotiable virtue [laughter] are going to take that sailor to a pub. They are going to make him pay for a lot of drink. He is going to get very, very drunk and then they are going to rob him. And that is the most common crime! It’s you know.
There’s a woman, if you want to look her up, there’s a woman called Anne Duck. I’ve written about her for the ODNB, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She is online, because she is the black person who makes the most appearances at the Old Bailey. She makes six or seven appearances, she’s let off every time [laughs, laughter from audience], except for the last one and she is hanged; mind you, they probably thought she’s just not going to learn her lesson, is she? Anyway this was her crime, this was what she did. She got away with a lot of others as well. One of the girls she worked with, they always worked in pairs or threes, actually it was on her conscience that one of the people they robbed died and they just dragged the body away and left it somewhere to be discovered. So you know… anyway that is the most common committed one.
Another interesting one was the Gordon riots. We know of three black people who were involved in the Gordon riots. A girl called Charlotte Gardner and two men called Benjamin Bosie and I’ve forgotten the other one, it’ll come to me in a minute, anyway they were all sentenced to death for their part in this, the Gordon riots, a bit like Tottenham [riots of 2011] actually. You know Tottenham recently, although it was actually an anti-Catholic thing set off by Lord Gordon. Anyway it was an anti-Catholic thing but people just took advantage of it to loot and to steal and all the rest of it. Anyway, three of them were sentenced to death. Charlotte Gardner actually was hanged, because she didn’t have anyone to speak up for her.
The other two had been servants and their ex-masters…they contacted their ex-masters, who went to an enormous amount of trouble and effort to get them pardoned. You will see sometimes, that they were hanged in books because people haven’t followed this up. But someone that, in the Black and Asian Studies Association, that I know followed this up and an article was published in History Today about this showing the efforts that they made. Again I thought that was interesting, because they were by this time, they had left service; they weren’t working for these people anymore. But they still had an obligation towards them. One of them said that ‘he’s just a silly lad, he’s just easily led’, you know. And so I thought that was quite nice, that they would actually you know stand up for them.
[shows an image] And another case, that’s another thing, there you can actually see someone black in the crowd; this is a close-up of one of the prints from the Gordon riots. And there’s another one outside London, just to show that they weren’t just Londoners. This is one of my um…, a guy called Richard Small, I need to find out about him, but there’s just so many to follow up! Um, yup. As you see he was acquitted at the August Societies, it’s going to be in, this was PRO [Public Records Office] when I was doing this; it’s now The National Archives. It’s going to be somewhere on the Oxford circuit to follow up the trial. It’s just in my big file of things I need to do something about sometime, you know. [laughs]
[shows an image] And there is a print of the jail. You can see this online, but it isn’t, I’m afraid, the reproduction isn’t good enough to show you. You can actually see him; that he was actually in jail when someone took a sketch of an escape that was made by someone else, someone did a sketch of it and he actually happened to be in there at the same time.
And there we come on again, not to the criminals but to those giving evidence. In the colonies, in America and in the Caribbean, people could, black people could not give evidence against white. But here we have, this is quite a famous case. This is the case of Captain John Sutherland who stabbed his cabin boy, killed him, and the major witness against him; in fact, the witness in the trial against him on whose evidence he was hanged is Jack Thompson the mate who happens to be black, of African origin. And I mean that’s quite a significant thing that he was; that John Sullivan was hanged on his evidence, effectively.
I moved on there to the sort of, the legal cases because of the consideration of slavery in England. The assumption was in most places and in fact still is to some people that the black people in England were slaves. There was a lot of misunderstanding about this.
Granville Sharp wrote the first case ‘Jonathan Strong’. I’ve written this up for the DNB as well, so you can check out the Jonathan Strong case there. He brought the first case to challenge the rights of slave owners from the colonies. Jonathan Strong was brought to England by an American. He was his slave. And there were several other cases. That one wasn’t settled properly. The Granville Sharp case wasn’t settled very well, the first case, Jonathan Strong’s case wasn’t settled very well.
And then 1772, the Mansfield judgement in the case of Jane Somerset was really the, you know, the clinching thing. Now this one is still sort of argued over. On the National Archives website there is the actual judgement in the case. At the time it wasn’t considered terribly important. No one was actually in the court taking it down! It had to be reconstructed later from you know, Mansfield’s notes, effectively. There are several versions of it; and so, the one that’s generally accepted is English law, it’s still English law is on The National Archives website. And when I looked at this, I read it properly, and it was always assumed that people had just, you know, let Jane Somerset go you know and that it ended slavery in Britain.
But if you actually read it, you find that Mansfield says that slavery never existed in Britain, there is no law against it and without law against it, there can you know, there wasn’t a case for it. And I discussed this to make sure I got it right with a friend of mine who is a solicitor and she had done it as part of her legal training, the Mansfield judgement. Because she said it’s nothing to do with slavery. What it is to do with is the limit of English law? English law did not apply in the colonies, the colonies formulated their own. But when people from the colonies came to England, then English law applied to them. This was actually different, I’ve since discovered, in France. France had the same law in metropolitan France as overseas. And they had special arrangements for slaves being brought to France and to remain slaves. This was never necessary in England, because we allowed…each colony made its own laws. But when you moved between them, it was, you didn’t retain the sort of laws. If you came from Americas, as it was then a British Colony, the laws that applied to you in America did not apply to you in England, which was the cause of the confusion.
Anyway so I had a look at this. As I say I did it with a friend of mine, and again it questions the assumption that so many academics have made without actually reading the judgement or looking at it properly as to what it actually said.
[shows an image] And there of course just to show you is the sort of the famous ‘Dido and Elizabeth’, who were Lord Mansfield’s great nieces. This is the picture from Kenwood House where he lived in England. Now, recently, loads of other people have started to do this. We have, we’ve started to get away from the sort of assumption that, you know, black people were stigmatised outsiders; they were slaves and all the rest of it.
And here we have some work. This chap wasn’t discovered until fairly recently: Nathaniel Wells of Piercefield was the Under Sheriff of Monmouthshire. And so no one had thought he was going to be anything other than white and upper class. In fact he was the son of a plantation owner by a slave mother who had been given an enormous amount of money as a young man. He came to England, he bought Piercefield House which he loved. There was an article about it in the Telegraph recently, it’s a really, really beautiful house, it was admired at the time. People loved it. He married twice, had umpteen children. He was, as I say, Under Sheriff of Monmouthshire, he was a JP, and what I think is actually slightly more important to show his status in the community – he was master of the fox hounds. You know [laughs], the local upper class were letting him run the local hunt! Which was I think actually slightly more important than being a JP in many ways, or at least locally.
[shows an image of family tree?] And there he is…all his descendants. I’m in touch with a collateral branch of this lot. But you see, he wasn’t discovered because his colour is nowhere mentioned, except in a private diary. And it was someone who actually saw this in a private diary who then did all this work on him. So, more and more people are being discovered.
[shows an image] Here is Joseph Emedee. He was a musician who was brought from Cornwall…brought from Portugal to Cornwall, where he became really, really important in Cornish musical life. And he was discovered by somebody who was writing a book about music in Cornwall, you see. He was interested in you know, the local, the music society in Cornwall and he discovered Emedee while he was doing this.
So this is an interesting shift of focus, of looking at black people within their society; not as outsiders, as you know exceptional or in some way stigmatised.
And of course, we’ve got the rest of us, you know, the descendants of black people. [image] This is Dennis Barber, with a portrait of his ancestor Francis Barber. So this is a great, sort of, discovery I think that we are making, that so many of us today may well have black ancestors that we know nothing about, because they’re not regarded as any way exceptional in their area and their sort of, status isn’t passed down.
As I think there is a great, great deal more to do. I have now got a database of some 5,000 people which is probably about a third of the total number who were in you know Britain up to the beginning of the 19th century. And there is such a huge amount to do. Each individual person takes about a week to research, to reconstruct their lives, to reconstruct their descendants and things. So you do the maths, as they say. I’ve got 5000 on there. I need some help.
Once we’ve done this, we will be able, we should be able to discover. We will be able to do a lot of, sort of, statistical stuff; I am quite heavily influenced by the Cambridge Group for Population and whatever, social structure; to see how different their age at marriage was, how different their age at death was and the number of children they have and I’m particularly interested in mobility – both geographic mobility and social mobility. Because of the comparison, I think, that we can then make with other societies. I’m getting quite interested in Europe, in France and to see what, the sort of differences and the similarities are, to do with the slave trades.
Thank you very much.
Transcribed by Jay Ramesh as part of a volunteer project, January 2015.