Etherington on Gerzina, 'Black Victorians/Black Victoriana'

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, ed.
Norman A. Etherington

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, ed. Black Victorians/Black Victoriana. New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 2003. x + 222 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-3215-8; $62.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-3214-1.

Reviewed by Norman A. Etherington (Department of History, School of Humanities, University of Western Australia) Published on H-SAfrica (January, 2004)

Contrasts in the Lived Experience of Race in the Nineteenth-Century United States and Victorian Britain

Contrasts in the Lived Experience of Race in the Nineteenth-Century United States and Victorian Britain

Any attempt to recover the "black experience" of Victorian Britain faces formidable obstacles. Who was "black" in the nineteenth century? To what extent can such a racial identification be assigned to people from diverse cultures and nationalities? Racial epithets such as "nigger" certainly existed in the nineteenth century but were applied to a much larger portion of humanity than those who had African ancestors. The term "black" had a wide currency in the Victorian era but carried little of the intellectual resonance the word acquired when certain Americans cast aside self-identification as "Negroes" in the 1960s in favor of a more assertive posture associated with "Black Power." It denoted neither an oppressed group, nor a collective adjective for "people of color," nor a self-conscious community.

"Blacks" in the British Isles are difficult to count because the nineteenth-century census lacked ethnic and racial categories. As Douglas Lorimer trenchantly observes in Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, scholars who go in search of a collective black experience in the nineteenth century "colonize the Victorians" (p. 187). They are made "to stand for the racist Other in binary opposition to our implicit nonracist Self." As no self-identified black communities emerge from archival records, scholars who look for blacks in Victorian Britain inevitably end up studying individuals.

David Killingray's quest for "persons of African descent and origin in Victorian Kent" focuses on newspapers and photographs. People identified as "Negro" in newspaper reports get included in his survey; people who may have African ancestors but who cannot be specifically identified are inevitably ignored. People in photographs who "look black" get mentioned; there is no way of telling whether others may also have shared an African gene pool. A remarkable example of the former is "a photograph of a black Metropolitan policeman at Chislehurst, taken in September 1910, when all the conventional history states that black men were denied entry to the force on the grounds of race until the first appointment in 1968" (p. 56).

John Turner takes a different tack, following the ups and downs of one man, William Darby, who was both a circus performer and a proprietor of a traveling company. Darby excellently illustrates the problems of writing about blackness. Born in Norwich in 1796, Darby was by any cultural measure an Englishman. Turner merely guesses that "it is possible that his father was African born and had been brought to the port of Norwich and trained as a house servant" (p. 21). By taking the stage name "Pablo Fanque," Darby positioned himself as an exotic--Pablo being Spanish and Fanque vaguely suggesting a West African connection (if pronounced "Fankwa"). He married Susannah Marlaw, the daughter of a Birmingham buttonmaker, and produced a son who also joined the circus, performing as "Ted Pablo." Turner finds difficulty in spotting any aspect of Darby's life that reflects a Victorian "black experience." His material fortunes rose and fell like anyone else's in his uncertain profession. Some reports refer to him as "a man of colour" or "a coloured gentleman" or "an artiste of colour" (pp. 24, 32, 34). That is all, except for an arresting anecdote told by a friend who used to fish with Darby on the River Isis. Noticing Darby's extraordinary success as an angler, an Oxford student turned up with his fishing rod on the river one morning "with his face blacked after the most approved style of the Christy Minstrels" (p. 35). A final comment made in 1905 by a chaplain of the Showman's Guild claims that "in the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour-line" (p. 36).

A great deal hangs on what we make of the contrast between the statement of the clergyman and the calculated mockery performed by the Oxford student: circus lowlife and educated highbrow. Lorimer puts his finger on the problem by criticizing those who try to reconstruct the lived experience of racial difference in Victorian times by relying "on a limited selection of sources wherein extreme racist views are presented as representative opinion" while ignoring "altogether those Victorians who were critical of the prevailing racist orthodoxy of the time" (p. 187). We know that certain abstract lines of scholarship developed scientific theories of racial difference in the course of the nineteenth century. Some of them derived from physical anthropology, some from the bizarre blood theories of Gobineau, and some from the polygenesists of the United States.[1] How far these theories infected the general populace in Britain during the Victorian era is still a matter of conjecture. They clearly reached the Canterbury newspaper reporter who observed of the African-American actor, Ira Aldridge, in 1847 that:

"Mr. Aldridge is a man of no common intellect--he is one instance at least that the distinction drawn by Blumenthal, Gail, Coombe, and other physiologists, between the cerebral development of the European and African head, may admit of very important exceptions." (p. 61)

On the other hand, there was a vigorous Evangelical counter-culture that had no time for those theories or what was then known as "colour prejudice." Kenan Malik has argued convincingly that racial theory must be related to the social and cultural contexts in which it emerged.[2] Theories devised for the reactionary purpose of racializing social class in Europe should not be indiscriminately applied to black-white relations in Jamaica or Australia.

A case in point is another man of the circus, West Indian-born Arthur Williams, who performed "as a wild man in skins and feathers" under the name "Macomo" (p. 21). Though John Turner does not mention it, the name strongly suggests Maqoma, a Xhosa chief who fought the British in a number of South African frontier wars and who was often referred to as Macomo in books and periodicals of the time. This was a kind of black more like American Indian chiefs than slaves in the Old South. Britain's South African frontier generated ideas about African capacities and character quite different from those that obtained in Baltimore or Mississippi. Even Robert Knox, the pre-eminent British medical proponent of racial science in the early Victorian era, who had formed his early opinions about Africans as an army surgeon in South Africa, made them something of an exception. Based on his experience of African warriors, he predicted that they would not melt away before the advance of white settlement. "Macomo," the wildman of Manders' Menagerie, prefigures the image of blackness that Rider Haggard would celebrate in his late-Victorian tales of Shaka and "Umslopogaas."

Neil Parsons's excellent chapter on chiefly visitors to England from Southern Africa reminds us that this was a kind of African that the British public knew well and the American public not at all. Although the Zulu king Cetshwayo had been defeated in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879-80, Queen Victoria received him at court in top hat and frock coat. London crowds cheered his progress through the city. This is all the more remarkable because Cetshwayo had been demonized in the lead-up to the conflict. ("Britain's quarrel is not with the Zulu people but with their tyrannical king" was the kind of comment often made in official dispatches.) Our distance from that time can be measured by the impossibility of any such reception being accorded to Saddam Hussein after the second Gulf War.

Not only were there contrasting experiences of blackness in Britain and the United States, but there was also a lively trans-Atlantic debate. It is a pity that the contributors to this anthology on Black Victorians did not do more to explore the nuances and dimensions of that ongoing conversation about race. The book offers ample evidence that contemporary African-Americans were well aware of the transatlantic gulf in attitudes. The delightful Mary Seacole, who challenged the prim, starched nursing style of Florence Nightingale with ministrations of rum and home remedies to British troops in the Crimean War, is a case in point. Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert's chapter on Mrs. Seacole's book about her experience, Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands, describes her curious progress from West Indian healer to anti-Nightingale on the battlefield. Paravisini-Gebert argues that Seacole "assumes her place in a British society--and history--from which she is initially rejected, by finding in the Crimea a substitute for 'England,' a war zone where the expected barriers to someone of her class, race, and colonial origins can be temporarily lifted." Some such barriers may well have existed, but as Mary Seacole knew only too well from her experience with Americans in Panama, they were far less formidable than those to be found in Atlanta or New York City. When she was rejected as a volunteer for Florence Nightingale's effort, Mrs. Seacole wonders: "Doubts and suspicions arose in my heart for the first and last time, thank Heaven. Was it possible that American prejudices against colour [that she had found so offensive in ... Panama] had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?" (p. 74). The answer, Mary Seacole found, was no. Nightingale's class prejudice in favor of English "ladies" caused the rebuff, not her color.

Ida Wells, of Memphis, Tennessee, who toured England to gain support for an anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s, noted the same distinction between American color-consciousness and British attitudes to difference. It was precisely because a sympathetic audience could be found there that Wells went to Britain. That was why the first Pan-African Congress of 1900, described in this volume by Jonathan Schneer, was held in London rather than in any of the increasingly segregated cities of the United States. While the Evangelical pressure group Exeter Hall lacked the power it had wielded in Parliament in the 1830s and 1840s, it was not dead. Harriette Colenso traveled from South Africa to London in the same era, to get in touch with philanthropic networks that might be expected to show sympathy for exiled king Dinizulu (son of Cetshwayo).[3] For that reason I doubt Nicole King's assertion that for Ida Wells in England "presenting herself as respectable was a doubly difficult task because Wells was black, and thus easily misread as anything but respectable" (p. 93). That would certainly have been true in Memphis and probably in New York, but it was not true for many sections of respectable British society in the late-Victorian era.

A similar problem afflicts Michael Pickering, who takes a cultural studies approach to explaining the figure of "the Blackface Clown." He dismisses all previous studies that have tried to place the blackface figure and Victorian clowning in a deeper historical context. Eric Lott is a particular target for Pickering:

"Yet while Lott attends carefully to the polysemous qualities of blackface and the variety of purposes the minstrel mask could serve, he dubiously lumps early minstrel types together at an unspecified intersection of slave culture and the harlequin of the commedia dell'arte and the 'blackman' of English folk drama. For Lott, this intersection 'establishes the political and emotional range within which minstrel songs characteristically worked.' It does no such thing. All it establishes is the exact danger of generalization in clowning analysis that I have noted." (p. 162)

As an historian, I would expect Pickering's counter-argument, that "blackface then operated as nothing other than comic racial mockery" (p. 172), to be backed up by some empirical evidence, yet he offers nothing but his own reading of representations. This is not a good advertisement for the cultural studies method.

There is much more to be said for Lorimer's argument that attention to "the language of race relations" will reveal "more clearly the discontinuities in the history of racism" and demonstrate "how forms of racism were both deconstructed and reconstructed over time" (pp. 188-189). However many similarities might be found in racial theory and social practice in the nineteenth century, the United States and Britain were different places. Future scholars would be well advised to be attentive to the differences as well as the likenesses.


[1]. Philip D. Curtin, The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850 (London: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 363-72; and William Stanton, The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815-59 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 24-43.

[2]. Kenan Malik, Race, History and Culture in Western Society (London: Macmillan, 1996).

[3]. Jeff Guy, The View across the River: Harriette Colenso and the Zulu Struggle against Imperialism (Oxford: James Currey, 2002), especially pp. 298-348.

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