Racial Diversity in early nineteenth century London

Very tempting to say, London was a port city at the centre of international trade and a global empire: it was ethnically diverse. Get over it.

It’s not as though this is some new millennial ‘politically-correct’ whim. Peter Fryer’s classic work Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain was published in 1984 and is still considered the definitive study of the Black presence in Britain since Roman times. More specifically on the Georgian era, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s Black London: Life Before Emancipation came out in 1995, reissued September 2022 in a revised edition as Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History and shows that there were identifiable Black individuals with agency in their own lives, living in London at this period. More recently, David Olosuga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) covered similar territory. See also the Digital Exhibitions at the Black Cultural Archives and the helpful Community History: Black Communities at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey online site. See also this British Library article on African writers and Black thought in 18th-century Britain on four individuals, previously enslaved, who published works challenging British ideas about race, called for African brotherhood and demanded the abolition of the slave trade, and Helen Thomas, Black Agents Provocateurs, 250 Years of Black British Writing, History and the Law, 1770-2020 (2020). Because qualification for the Parliamentary franchise was based on property ownership, even in the eighteenth century a few Black individuals were able to vote.

The Black Londoner Experience: Exploring Black Life through Records of the Court, 1720-1840.

The slave trade had been abolished in 1807 and slavery was illegal on English soil. However it was still legal in most other parts of the British Empire, in other European countries and their colonies, and in the Americas. It was hoped that abolishing the trade in African slaves would cause the institution itself to wither. This was an over-optimistic idealistic belief. A thriving illicit maritime trade in slaves continued, against which the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy was set up in 1808, following the abolition of the slave trade, in order to suppress the trade by patrolling the West African coast, and continued until 1856. Slavery in the British Empire was not abolished until 1833. An Anti-Slavery Society with the aim of mitigating and finally abolishing slavery was set up in 1823 when it became apparent that abolishing the trade had not ameliorated conditions on plantations. Slavery in the British Empire was only finally abolished in 1833 and only then at the immense cost of massive compensation to slave-owners.

Gypsies, or Romani - Romanichal Travellers - have existed as a itinerant community in Britain since the early 16th century, but weresubject to anti-Romani laws and popular discrimination. The penal laws began to be repealed from the later eighteenth century but prejudice remained (and still does). There was a tendency in literature and art to romanticise them during the nineteenth century (and the traditional ballad ‘The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies’ suggests an older tradition of allure).

Jews had been readmitted to England under Cromwell, and were able to become naturalised citizens by an act of 1753, but constituted a relatively small community which, however, continued to grow during the later eighteenth and the nineteenth century: London’s Jewish Community in the 19th century and see also Community History: Jewish Communities at the Old Bailey Online site. Although a number of restrictions upon their holding numerous public offices were removed, it was not until 1858 that the Jews Relief Act permitted them to sit in Parliament.

There was also, particularly around the docks, a more or less transient population of lascars: East Indian seamen. A number of Indians were also brought to the metropolis as servants and then abandoned: particularly ayahs - maidservants and children’s nursemaids. A refuge for these unfortunate women was founded in Aldgate in 1825.

There was a small Chinese community in London from the late 18th century.

The Irish were considered ‘other’ and fell outside existing social welfare structures based on the Established Church because they were Catholics, which also put them at legal disadvantage. There had been a substantial Irish immigrant population in London for quite some time.

The French: there had been communities of French Protestant Huguenot refugees in Soho and Spitalfields since the suppression of Protestantism in France in the late seventeenth century. They were associated with skilled trades such as silk weaving and watchmaking. Following the French Revolution there was an influx of a very different cohort of French refugees.

Soho and Fitzrovia in particular became a haven for German, Italian and French refugees or emigres on political grounds.

Tuesday 7th February 2023

L.A. Hall, FRHistS