Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the 18th Century
How diverse might a London ballroom be during the Season? Would we see a young lady of East Indian descent? What about a hero from the West Indies?
For this research discussion, I'd like to focus on celebrating Black lives in the late 18th and early 19th century England and visualizing the diversified tapestry that made up the English population. Have you ever wondered if England was as diverse then as it is now? Have you wondered in what capacity a hero or heroine might encounter other races and how those races would have been socially perceived? Let's answer these questions!
While there was not a demographic survey at the time that recorded race, there were enough diaries, letters, legal cases, and exceptional people of color to offer a keen perspective of the diverse tapestry that made up the English population. It's important to note first that written references to "Black" at the time meant any skin color other than white, which primarily included the people from Africa, the West Indies, and South Asia (including East India and Arabia primarily). While I'll discuss the races within the historical use of the term Black, I will only use the term to refer to the individuals of African and West Indies origin.
An overview of the landscape looks a little like this: 40,000 people from South Asia (East India and Arabia primarily) populated England. It is said that at least one Indian family lived in every town across the country. As for people of African and West Indies origins, there were approximately 15,000-20,000 in England by the end of the 18th century, and of those, 10,000 lived in London.
With those numbers in mind, it would be foolish to think there was not a diverse population or that within the daily interactions of our heroes and heroines in historical romance novels they would not encounter the various shades of that diverse tapestry or even be part of those shades. Should they live in a remote country village and rarely travel, it's entirely possible they would only ever meet the Anglo British, but not as likely as we might think. Now, in what capacity they would have encountered peoples of other ethnicities is really the focus of this research post.
Let's start our discussion with the Indians living and working in England. Because of the integral role of the East India Company, Indians were more often than not in positions of power in England. They were respected and earned a solid living. While many did work for the East India Company, others were diplomats, businessmen, university professors, gentlemen, soldiers, sailors, scholars, and students. The few that went into the workforce as laborers or as household servants were able to demand high wages, surpassing those of their Anglo peers. This respect came at two costs: (a) they had to assimilate to British culture, and (b) once the East India Company came to a close in the later 19th century (out of the scope of our exploration here), that high social standing began to diminish. Until the close of the company, they enjoyed a high social standing because of their background. At the height of the company's power, it would have been an honor for a family to marry their daughter to a gentleman of Indian heritage and a brilliant alliance to marry a British son to an Indian daughter.
A book you might consider in order to explore this topic further is: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain. This link is to the review of the book rather than the book on Amazon so you can get a solid sense of what the book covers before checking it out for purchase. It should be made clear, of course, that Indian presence was not solely to do with the East India Company, for the people of South Asia had been living successfully in England for centuries. There are even, if you'll recall, references within Shakespeare's works. Check out this website for some of the literary and art inclusions: The Elizabethan Indian.
So what does this mean for historical romance books? It means that we should be seeing a visible presence of the peoples from South Asia, including Indian, Armenian, Persian, Sudanese, etc. The late 18th century and early 19th century was a period of empowerment for South Asians. While 40,000 is not even 1% of the population at the time, it's still enough to be seen in the daily comings and goings, be the life of our heroes and heroines in London or in a remote country town, and especially considering the high social standing of South Asians that would have brought invitations, alliances, friendships, and political ties.
Let's now move this discussion to the population from Africa and the West Indies. In the 18th century, the global slave trade was at its peak with the British being the leading traders in human lives, specifically taking Africans to the West Indies to work on the sugarcane plantations or to America to sell. Although the slave trade is the primary reason we see a significant rise in the Black population in England during the 18th century, it's the experience after stepping foot on England's soil that I want to discuss for this Research Interests post.
The human cargo trade was, irrefutably, a nasty business that took far too long to come to an end. It took atrocities like the Zong Massacre to awaken heroes such as William Wilberforce who would enlighten a new generation of thinkers. Not until 1807 did the Slave Trade Act pass, enforced by the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron. It was thanks to the Royal Navy that Britain was then able to persuade other countries to abolish the slave trade. The slave trade is why there was an increase in the population of Africans in the West Indies, followed then by an increase in the population in England. To read specifically about the movement from Africa to the West Indies, as well as the areas of settlement, check out these two articles: (1) Caribbean Empire and Slavery. (2) British Migration to West Indies. This podcast is also a brief but important resource to help better understand the slave trade, which was an international issue, not exclusive to England.
While the slave trade abolition bill did not pass until 1807, it was the landmark case of Somerset v Stewart in 1772 that ended slavery in England (or at least the selling and transporting of Black slaves, for not only did some Black slaves remain enslaved and unpaid, but the Scottish remained enslaved until 1799). The Lord Chief Justice ruled in favor of a slave's freedom and declared that slavery had no place in England. This ruling meant that the buying, selling, and transporting of slaves was no longer legal in England. Check out the case here. It was the same Lord Chief Justice that made the ruling in the Zong Massacre a decade later, a monumental moment for the future abolition of the slave trade. This is where we see a significant change of culture.
Following the 1772 ruling, the Navy saw a heavy increase of Black sailors as slaves fled the West Indies and America for England. Not only did English soil promise freedom, but the British Army promised international freedom to any who joined the ranks. Joining the ranks meant having the protection of the Crown. Records show the increase of not only Black soldiers and sailors, but also Black officers--the rise in power of a race that had been subjected to unspeakable horrors. People of African descent or mixed African and English descent, like Captain John Perkins, made their mark in notable ways, inspiring a future generation and demanding the respect of their societal peers.
Immediately following the gaining of freedom in 1772, many Black men and women sought work as household servants. As household servants, they became a status symbol. They were found in the wealthiest of households and could demand the highest of wages. The families who could afford to pay the high wages would ensure their hire had a visible role in the house, a symbol that the family could afford to pay such high wages. The good part? Those in service were able to save money to gain financial independence and be well cared for in the process, far and above their Anglo coworkers. The bad part? No one wants or deserves to be objectified. A great example of the good part is John Rippon, who worked for the Earl of Powis. Through his work, he earned the status of gentleman and left sizable donations in his will to the parish and those who had worked with him. A number of folks like Rippon rose beyond servitude in wealthy households and went on to live independent lives, such as Ignatius Sancho, Cesar Picton, George Africanus, etc., each who became businessmen and independent homeowners.
Not all people of color sought work as servants. Many became businessmen, clergymen, musicians, writers, public house owners, preachers, even gentlemen. This is a great, brief article that offers some specific examples of the varied employment people of color found. Social perceptions had much to do with the successes of people like Ignatius Sancho, a man born on a slave ship but who took his future into his own hands by becoming the protege of the Duke of Montagu, educating himself, and becoming one of the most celebrated men of his time--writer, composer, playwright, shopkeeper, and abolitionist. So successful was he that he became a financially independent householder, thus enabling him to vote in parliamentary elections. His letters and memoirs are published and available for reading. The cast system, rather than skin color or familial origin, was the means of judging and discriminating. A mixed-race woman born of an aristocrat, for example, would live the life of an aristocrat's daughter. A mixed-race son born as an heir to a title would live the life of an heir.
There are a number of notable individuals who give us hints to the lives Black people led in England following the 1772 ruling. One such individual is Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, a mixed-race aristocrat born in the West Indies but brought to England by her father Sir John Lindsay, Navy Captain. She was raised by her uncle, the Earl of Mansfield (yes, the same one who ruled in both the Somerset v Stewart and the Zong Massacre cases), in equal standing to her cousin Elizabeth Murray. She conducted the life expected of a lady of her station. The only impediment in her life, according to the histories, was not to do with her heritage but her illegitimacy. Despite this, she lived the life of a lady and became an heiress.
Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Elizabeth Murray
by David Martin
Jane Austen readers might appreciate the parallels between Dido and Miss Lambe in Austen's unfinished Sanditon. The inspiration for Miss Lambe may have come from several real-life sources, one such inspiration possibly being Dido. Another possibility could be the wife of Austen's former suitor. It's been posited that the inspiration for Miss Lambe was not Dido but a Miss Susannah Mary Lewis. Jane Austen's suitor and love interest, the Reverend Samuel Blackall, caused quite a rift between Austen and her sister Cassandra, enough of a rift that we only have a few remaining letters from Austen regarding Blackall and his new bride. After the relationship between Blackall and Austen soured, Dr. Blackall married Miss Lewis from the West Indies. Although Miss Lewis hailed from Jamaica, Austen writes in her letters that Miss Lewis is from Antigua, which is, coincidentally, where Miss Lambe in Sanditon hails. This is an excellent article about Miss Lambe, as well as a brief look at the lives of Black people in Georgian England, highlighting the status symbol mentality that while lining the pockets of those in service, objectified them in the process.
Paintings of the time portray quite the mixture of roles, depicting Black men and women as gentlemen at coffeehouses or public houses, ladies, sailors, friends, family, servants, governesses, etc. The landscape of diversity presented in the paintings not only depicts the sentiments of society but the prevalence of people of color, be they from South Asia, Africa, or West Indies. A few artists you might recognize that captured such diversity include Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruickshank, Joshua Reynolds, and William Hogarth. Two sites you might find interesting and informative include: (1) Cultural Diversity in London and (2) English Heritage.
Interracial marriages rose in popularity, an alliance between the races becoming as sought after as with the British and Indians of South Asia. Although a brief example, this document marks the mixed marriages of those aboard a ship headed for Sierra Leone. A must-read book is by Daniel Livesay. His studies showcase that the social caste system of the time differentiated people not by race or biology, but by "considerations of class, kinship, and upbringing" (p. 42). An example mentioned would be an elite Jamaican of color migrating to England to see no alteration of their status in British society. Social acceptance was more to do with the acceptance by relatives, friends, and business partners, that acceptance being the determining factor of their social place, which makes a great deal of sense when you think it was no different than the lives of the families we read about so often in Austen novels or historical romance novels. The letters, diaries, court cases, paintings, and historical studies point to different experiences. The children of mixed couples, perhaps of a West Indies' slave and a British Navy officer, who were openly accepted as equals by the family were accepted by society; whereas, the children who were received with reluctance or not received by relations had a more difficult time adjusting.
While acceptance peaked during the 18th century after the 1772 ruling, acceptance encountered hesitancy in the early 19th century when the slave trade abolition bill was on the table from Wilberforce and his companions, not because of racism but because of the growing dissatisfaction of the working class who were being ignored--workhouse slaves, child laborers, slaves of Barbary pirates, the Scottish, indentured servants, transported prisoners, etc. They resented that the attention was on other countries, attempting to cease slavery abroad when the in-country citizens were poverty stricken, extorted, and enslaved in a multitude of ways. The situation of women being property was another point of contention that received no attention. Have you heard of wife selling, for example? While not technically legal, it occurred fairly often, that is the collaring of a wife's neck and arms and selling her to the highest bidder at auction. Give it a Google search, eh? While we're mentioning women at the time, this is a must read on the roles of Black women of the era.
With attention on international matters rather than the national issues of not-quite-legal slavery of the poor, the Scottish, and the women, racial tensions began to rise. As explored in this article,
"whether beggars or businessmen, seamen or soldiers, publicans or poets, writers or runaways, the Black population's fortunes were subject not only to the ups and downs of British commerce but also to the spread of new ideas."
There were operas and literature at the time that explored the multiracial tapestry. Some were written by people of color to discuss their lives and experiences, and others were written about people of color, typically anti-slavery pieces depicting life in the West Indies. If you've ever taken one of my literature classes, you'll recognize these prolific Black British authors: African Writers in 18th Century Britain.
In my novels, my aim is to present a realistic and accurate portrayal of the times. The inclusivity and diversity represented is varied and in keeping with what our heroes and heroines might have encountered, be it being a person of color, befriending a person of color, working on an anti-slavery bill, or otherwise. In one novel, we might find there's a peer of mixed race while in another novel we encounter a butler formerly of the West Indies. In A Dash of Romance, we'll meet one of the heroine's best friends who happens to be mixed-race, the daughter of a British gentleman and an Indian heiress. You'll likely remember mentions of Wilberforce and the slave trade abolition bill from both The Earl and The Enchantress as well as The Baron and The Enchantress, for we see the Earl of Roddam knee-deep in working on the first drafts of the bill. I hope, in my world building, to paint an accurately inclusive England.
I've seen any number of discussions on this topic from doggedly sticking to historical accuracy to creating a fantasy world adapted to modern norms. In my humble opinion as a writer, researcher, and reader, I believe presenting the history accurately does represent diversity and inclusivity. The trouble with so many historical fiction books is that writers (and readers) struggle with what the reality of the landscape looked like, so what they think is a portrayal of accurate history ends up being inaccurate white- and hetero-washing. With a little research, such as this Research Interests section offers, the past will no longer be a mystery, and we can represent it as people like Jane Austen would have lived it (perhaps without the unwashed body odor though, eh?). My cautionary statement is for writers to avoid creating caricatures or even whitewashed people of color (did you just read that twice?). An understanding of the culture is just as important as understanding the diverse population. For example, the people from South Asia gained respect by assimilating to British culture, but what about the former slaves who came from the West Indies, America, or Africa? Did they bring their culture and dialect with them or assimilate? Here's a great article to consider when answering those questions.
This blog presents some food for thought on the topic and is, in my opinion, a must read. The late 18th century and early 19th century was a time of empowerment for non-Anglo races. For the purposes of historical accuracy, should we be seeing main, secondary, or tertiary characters of color? Yes. Without them, it's not historically accurate. Were all people of color slaves or laborers? No. Would it be accurate for the hero's best friend to be, perhaps, a homosexual Black man running for election as an MP? YES. And as an aside, know that when we get to the Research Interests for The Heir and The Enchantress, we'll have a blog regarding homosexuality during the time. I think the research findings will surprise you.
A little bit of research can go a long way in helping us understand what the social status of underrepresented peoples would have been and how we can all be represented accurately and inclusively in historical fiction. As a final hurrah to this Research Interests post, enjoy this delightful clip from Mr. Malcom's List.