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Archive for the ‘Black People in Austen’s England’ Category

By Brenda S. Cox

“”By our sufferings, since ye brought us 

To the man-degrading mart,— 

All sustain’d by patience, 

taught us Only by a broken heart,— 

Deem our nation brutes no longer . . .” – Quote opening The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. The quote is from William Cowper, Austen’s beloved poet. Such narratives at this time often began with quotes from Cowper’s anti-slavery poems, or from the Bible.

We’ve been looking at the situation of black people in Jane Austen’s England. We started with “‘Women of Colour’ in Literature of Jane Austen’s England,” considering Miss Lambe of Sanditon, Olivia of The Woman of Colour, and other fictional women of the time. Next, we learned a little about black people in general in Austen’s England, based on statistics and records, in “Black England: No Wall of Separation?” 

What about the lives of individual black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England? Most of those people were in the lowest “ranks” of society and didn’t leave journals or diaries. Scholars are trying to piece together some of their lives. For an example, listen to Gretchen Gerzina’s talk on Pero Jones and Fanny Coker, an enslaved man and a free woman working as servants in a 1780s Bristol household. 

Today I’ll introduce you to some of the most well-known black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England; people that Jane Austen may have heard of or read about. I can only give you a brief taste of their fascinating stories. For each one, I’ll give you links so you can explore further if you wish. For some, you can read their stories in their own words.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825) by David Martin (1737-1797). Public Domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dido_Elizabeth_Belle.jpg

Dido Belle

Austen must have known about one real mixed-race woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804). Dido’s father was a British naval captain, Sir John Lindsay, and her mother was a black enslaved woman named Maria. Lindsay was the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, who became Chief Justice of England and made several rulings benefiting black people in England. Lindsay asked his childless uncle and aunt to raise Dido, and she grew up in the Mansfield household.

When another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, lost her mother at the age of six, the earl and his wife took her in and raised her along with Dido; they were around the same age. A portrait of the two girls as young ladies shows an apparently close relationship, though the white girl takes the central place in the picture. It is unclear exactly what Dido’s position was in the household. One guest noted that she did not eat dinner with the family and their guests, but joined them afterwards. She then walked arm-in-arm in the garden with her cousin.

The earl became very attached to Dido. In his will he confirmed her freedom and left her money. Dido married a white French servant, John Davinier. Her money enabled him to rise to the status of “gentleman.”

Dido’s white cousin Elizabeth Murray married wealthy George Finch-Hatton, a friend of Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. On a visit to her brother in 1805, Jane visited the Finch-Hattons. She was not impressed with Lady Elizabeth, writing on Aug. 24, 1805, “Lady Elizabeth for a woman in her age & situation, has astonishingly little to say for herself.”

It seems likely that Austen would have known about Elizabeth’s adoptive sister. She might conceivably have met her if Dido visited while Jane was at Godmersham, though we have no record of a meeting. Perhaps Austen was imagining how Dido Belle became a beloved member of the Earl of Mansfield’s family when she wrote Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is a little like Dido in that she arrives as a marginalized member of the household, but eventually becomes a valued family member.

For more on Dido Belle, you can listen to “Dido Belle and Francis Barber” or read Paula Byrne’s Belle.  (Byrne also has a chapter (12) on Dido in The Real Jane Austen.) The movie Belle  gives an imaginative portrayal of what Dido Belle’s life might have been like, based on the few facts that we have. Etienne Daly has been researching Dido and her family, and you can find his posts on All Things Georgian

Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729-1780) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), 1768. Public domain. commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IgnatiusSancho.jpg

Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), born on a slave ship, ended up in England. The Duke of Montague took an interest him, educated him, and made him his valet, then his butler. Sancho eventually owned a grocer’s shop in Westminster. He was also a composer and art critic. He mixed with people like Thomas Gainsborough, who painted his portrait. Sancho married a black woman and had six children. He owned enough property that he could vote; he is the first known African-background person in England to have voted in a general election.

Sancho’s letters were published in 1782, after his death. Sancho supported the abolition movement; one letter condemns “the Christians’ abominable traffic in slaves” as “uniformly wicked.” In another he expresses his faith by looking forward to heaven, “the promise of never, never-ending existence and felicity.” He also wrote to encourage a young man who had recently gone to India to stay firm in his faith: “Read your Bible—As day follows night, God’s blessing follows virtue—honor and riches bring up the rear—and the end is peace—Courage, my boy—I have done preaching.”

You can read the original Letters of Ignatius Sancho (1784), with a memoir of his life. Modernized paperback versions with more commentary are also available, as well as Dr. Gerzina’s talk on Sancho

Samuel Johnson, one of Austen’s favorite authors, left most of his possessions to his black manservant, Francis Barber. Samuel Johnson, from a portrait attributed to John Opie R.A., 1911.

Francis Barber

Samuel Johnson, whose writings Jane Austen appreciated, thought highly of his black manservant, Francis Barber (1745-1801). Born enslaved in Jamaica, Barber was brought to England as a child by his master Richard Bathurst. Bathurst had him baptized him and named him. When Bathurst died, his will freed the boy.

Barber worked as Johnson’s servant. Johnson, who was against slavery, educated Barber and treated him like a son. Barber’s black friends came to visit him in Johnson’s home. Barber left Johnson for a few years, working for an apothecary, and then in the navy. Johnson got him out of the navy and brought him back. Barber married a white wife, Elizabeth, and had five children. They all lived in Johnson’s home.

When Johnson died, he left money, an annuity (yearly income of £70), and most of his possessions to Barber: property, books and papers, and other items. Barber and his wife moved to Lichfield, where he eventually ran a village school. 

Barber’s children and grandchildren married white people. Most became manual laborers, blending in with the poorer population of London. Barber’s son Samuel grew up to become a Methodist lay-minister (a preacher who was not ordained).⁠

For more on Francis Barber, you can check out Dr. Gerzina’s talk, or this biography.

Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography went through multiple editions and was published in multiple languages. archive.org/details/lifeofolaudahequ00equi_0

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) was the most famous formerly-enslaved person in Austen’s England. From the Igbo people group in Nigeria, he was enslaved as a child, owned by a series of people and traveled the world. Through trade, he earned enough to buy his freedom from a Quaker master when he was about 21. After several people in Georgia and the West Indies attempted to kidnap Equiano and re-enslave him, he decided to move to England. From there he worked as a seaman on long voyages.

Equiano became a leader of the movement for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. His autobiography was published in 1789. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself  ran through nine editions in England, and was widely read in the US and translated into Dutch, German, and Russian. (Equiano’s owners gave him several names when he was young; Gustavus Vassa was one that he continued using in England.) Equiano traveled around the country promoting his book and campaigning against slavery.

Equiano vividly describes his African childhood and his experiences on a slave ship and as an enslaved man. (Some scholars believe he was actually born in South Carolina rather than in Africa, but his autobiography describes his childhood in Africa.) He tells of the abuses suffered by slaves, and the challenges he faced as a free black man.

In 1774, Equiano was dramatically converted to Christianity. More than 20 pages of his autobiography describe the various people who shared passages from the Bible with him, his own conviction of sin, and finally his vision of “bright beams of heavenly light” coming into a “dark place” as he accepted Jesus’s death for his sins. He became a member of the Church of England. Equiano often tried to persuade others to become Christians. He attempted to get ordained and go as a missionary to Africa, but the bishop chose not to ordain him.

In 1786, Equiano was asked to help with a new project. At first he was enthusiastic about the idea. The government was planning to send a group of black people to Sierra Leone in Africa to set up a colony there. Equiano was to supervise the provisioning of the ships. However, he complained of corruption and poor, insufficient supplies, and was dismissed from his position. The expedition did take place, but the colony faced huge difficulties and many died.

Equiano closed his autobiography with a plea to end slavery, and instead to trade with Africa for goods like indigo and cotton. He went on to explain that he had included many seemingly small details of his life, since he had learned to see the hand of God in all those details, and to learn lessons “of morality and religion” from all that happened; he hoped his readers would also learn from his experiences.

For more on Equiano’s life, I recommend his autobiography. It was very popular in the eighteenth century, though we don’t know if Jane Austen ever read it. Modern versions with additional material are also available. For a briefer survey, listen to Dr. Gerzina’s talk.

Like many black writers of the time, Gronniosaw included his Christian testimony in his memoir.

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw

Ukawsaw Gronniosaw (c. 1705-1775), an African prince from Nigeria, became a Christian while he was enslaved in America. Like many of the formerly-enslaved people who wrote their stories at this time, he includes his faith experiences. His owner was a Reformed Dutch minister who sent him to school. Gronniosaw was converted when he read Richard Baxter’s A Call to the Unconverted, so he was obviously very literate. He wrote, “I was so drawn out of myself, and so fill’d and awed by the Presence of God that I saw (or thought I saw) light inexpressible dart down from heaven upon me . . . I seemed to possess a full assurance that my sins were forgiven me. I went home all my way rejoicing . . .”.

Gronniosaw was eventually freed and settled in England. He was influenced by multiple denominations there. He became friends with the famous Methodist preacher George Whitefield, joined a Baptist church, shared his testimony with Dutch Calvinists, and received help from Quakers. When he wanted to marry a white English woman who had helped him grow in his faith, the leaders of his church objected: not because of race, but because she was poor. He paid off her debts and married her anyway. She was a weaver; he worked at whatever jobs he could find.

 Gronniosaw, like most black people in Britain, was not born in a British parish and therefore not eligible for parish help when he was in need. In his memoir he describes one severe winter when he and his wife were both unemployed and “reduc’d to the greatest distress imaginable.” He did not want to beg, but when their “last bit of bread was gone” he had to ask for help. They moved elsewhere and his wife found work again as a weaver, but the situation was still difficult. He thanks God for the “charitable assistance” of others and looks forward to relief in heaven.

You can read Gronniosaw’s story in his own words in A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw.

Mary Prince’s autobiography increased public outrage over the abuses experienced by enslaved people in the West Indies.

Mary Prince

The only autobiography of a black woman in England that we have from this time is the story of Mary Prince (1788-183?). Mary was born into slavery in Bermuda. She later lived in Antigua, where Moravian missionaries taught her to read and write in a Bible class. She joined the Moravian church, which helped many enslaved people in Antigua. Mary married a freeman in the church, though the Church of England there apparently did not allow slaves to marry. A Moravian missionary attempted to buy Mary’s freedom, but her owner, John Wood, refused to let her go. He took her away from her husband and brought her to England.

In England she fled from the Wood family’s cruelty. The Anti-Slavery Society took her in. She worked as a servant for the secretary of the society, and the society helped her published her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince, in 1831. At the end of her story, she is enjoying the kindness and hospitality of Christians in the Anti-Slavery Society, and appreciates going to church three times on Sunday. But she longs for her husband and her home, and cannot return because that would mean returning to slavery.

Gretchen Gerzina shares some of Mary’s story on Britain’s Black Past,  using some of Mary’s own words. You can read Mary Prince’s autobiography in various editions, and on google books. The Moravians also record information about Mary.

Black Clergy

We also know of a few black or mixed-race clergymen in Austen’s England. Brian Mackey, the son of a white father and a black West Indian woman, held two church livings in 1805.  We only know about his racial background because one of his contemporaries, clergyman William Holland, was his parents’ neighbor and wrote about Mackey in his diary. Nathaniel Wells, mentioned in last month’s post, had two sons who became clergymen. Philip Quaque (or Kwekwe) was a black African who studied in England, was ordained, and married an English wife. In 1766 he returned to Cape Coast, Africa, as the Church of England’s first African missionary. For more on black people in the Church of England, I recommend Black Voices: The Shaping of Our Christian Experience by David Killingray and Joel Edwards, which includes extensive quotes from black people in England over the centuries.

These are only a few of the many black people who lived at least part of their lives in Austen’s England. I hope you will have a chance to read some of their stories in more detail. And please tell us about others you are familiar with!

Note: Last month when I talked about mixed-race Nathaniel Wells and his wealth and position in society, I should also have said that Wells, as his slave-owning father’s heir, owned slave plantations, and the enslaved people apparently were not treated well. Gretchen Gerzina tells more of his troubling story in Britain’s Black Past

© Brenda S. Cox 2021, excerpted from the upcoming book Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox

Other Sources

  • William Holland, Paupers and Pig Killers, 106. Jan. 25, 1805. (On Brian Mackey)
  • Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1995)
  • Dr. Johnson’s portrait is from commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samuel_Johnson_(1911)_Frontispiece.png
  • You can find further resources here.

For more on individual black lives in Austen’s England, check out Professor Gretchen Gerzina’s series, “Britain’s Black Past,” on BBC radio.

I also recommend recordings of this year’s excellent Race and the Regency series from Jane Austen and Co.

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By Brenda S. Cox

“Well! I am really haunted by black shadows. Men of colour in the rank of gentleman, a black Lady cover’d with finery, in the Pit at the Opera, and tawny children playing in . . . the gardens of the squares . . . afford ample proofs of Hannah More and Mr. Wilberforce’s success towards breaking down the wall of separation.” –Letter from Hester Thrale to Mrs. Pennington, June 19, 1802 (Hannah More and William Wilberforce were leaders in the campaign to abolish the slave trade.)

Last month we looked at what fiction like The Woman of Colour can show us about the lives of black people in Jane Austen’s England. This week let’s consider what we can learn from records of the time.

Kathleen Chater, author of Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the British Slave Trade, c. 1660-1807, researched the lives of black people in eighteenth century England. She searched parish records, newspaper accounts, trial accounts, and private diaries and letters. She found that the term black was often used for any darker-skinned people, including immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and China. In official records, those from Africa might be identified as Negro, black, or many other terms. (Jane Austen seems to use the word black for people with dark hair and eyes and tanned skin, but it’s not likely that official records would use that definition.) So it’s not always easy to tell which people group records refer to.

Kathleen Chater examined a wide variety of records, including parish records, trial records, newspaper articles, and private diaries and letters, researching the situation of black people in eighteenth century England.

Based on Chater’s data, Jane Austen likely saw black African people in London. Chater writes, “Wherever they went, upper- and middle-class people must have seen Blacks, because many were the servants of the upper classes, employed in highly visible positions. They opened doors to visitors, they served meals, they drove coaches in the streets.” Wealthy women liked to have a black page boy or footman serving them. Black musicians played in Army bands and led the Guards through London to Hyde Park. Other black Londoners were soldiers, sailors, shopkeepers, or a variety of other occupations.

An estimated three to five thousand black people lived in Austen’s London, with smaller numbers in the slave ports of Liverpool and Bristol. (Another estimate is that there were around 15,000 black people in 18th century England, but Chater doubts that number, which is not reflected in records of the time.) Many black people in the port cities were transient; they were mariners who were only in England for short periods of time. Some were fugitives from America. An estimated ten thousand black people were spread out through the rest of England (0.1 % of the population).

Black sailors were treated as equals on board ship. Public domain image by George Cruikshank and Lieut. John Sheringham, R.N., 1822,
http://www.loc.gov/item/2006690787/.

Despite an intensive search, Chater did not find evidence of any specifically black communities or black churches at that time. About 80% of the black people in England were men. Many of them married white people, and they and their children became part of the English spouse’s community.

The situation for black people in England was different than it was in the Americas. Their numbers were much smaller in England, so people may not have perceived them as a threat to their society as countries with large numbers of enslaved people did. Slavery as an institution was not practiced in England. Enslaved people were sometimes brought to England, though, from America or the West Indies. The Mansfield judgment in 1772 implied that they were free in England, but it wasn’t totally clear. Enslaved visitors sometimes escaped or were freed, and settled in England. Others were taken back to the overseas colonies. Britain had a self-contradictory position on black people. They treated them as property to be exploited on the plantations of the West Indies, yet gave them human rights in England.

Lord Mansfield, whose name may have inspired the title of Mansfield Park, raised his mixed-race great-niece Dido Belle. He also made several rulings opposing slavery and the slave trade, but could not abolish either. Portrait by Jean-Baptiste Van Loo, about 1737, public domain.

Chater found little evidence of institutionalized racial discrimination, though there were individual racist incidents. It appears that black people in England generally had the same rights as white people. Black people were allowed to testify in court just as white people were, as long as they had been baptized. (Baptism was required to make sure that they acknowledged God’s authority and so would tell the truth. A Muslim was allowed to swear on the Quran, so this was not a matter of religious prejudice.) Some black servants received wages, and others did not; the same was true of white servants. Black people could hold parish offices: Chater lists a black churchwarden, a black parish constable, and a black sexton. There were limitations on apprenticeships for black people, but similar restrictions applied to all “foreigners”; most black people in England at this time came from outside the country. 

In Austen’s England, a person’s social class, or rank (as Austen calls it), was the most important factor of their identity, not skin color. Black working-class people were treated more or less like white working-class people. Mixed-race children of middle- or upper-class people were treated much like their white fathers.

For example, Nathaniel Wells was the son of a white plantation owner in St. Kitts and a black enslaved woman. He inherited great wealth, moved to England, and bought an estate in Monmouthshire. One visitor described him as “a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro.” However, his color did not bar him from the life of a country gentleman. Wells married the daughter of George II’s former chaplain. He served as a justice of the peace, a county sheriff, and deputy lieutenant for the county. He was also a churchwarden from 1804 to 1843. Two of his sons became clergymen, holding church livings.

For worship, black servants generally attended parish churches along with others in their households. Black people were baptized, married, and buried at Anglican churches, like most people in Britain. They were often baptized as adolescents or adults rather than as babies, since most were not born in England. Enslaved Africans brought into the country sometimes sought baptism under the mistaken idea that baptism would make them free. Others sought baptism because of a genuine religious conversion experience. Some were baptized and took “Christian names” in order to become a full part of the community or to get married. Cather found records that black people were part of all the religious groups of the time, except for the Jews and Quakers. (It is possible, however, that the Quakers simply did not record the race of their adherents.)

According to Chater, most people in England who had black servants “seem to have felt accountable for their Black servants’ spiritual welfare. Not only did servants attend church with them, they also took part in family prayers at home, a practice which reinforced the bonds between members of the family and their household.” This was also true of white servants, of course. In English society, those in higher positions were responsible for dependents in lower positions.

Memorials in churches around England show the esteem that some families felt for their black servants. One in Lancashire, dated 1793, describes “Augustin Leonard, A Black Man” as “a faithful servant And affectionate husband And sincere friend And Beautiful companion.” Another in Cornwall, dated 1700, says Philip Scipio was “an African whose Quality might have done Honour To any Nation or Climate And Give us to See that Virtue is Confined to no Country or Complexion Here Weep Uncorrupted Fidelity And Plain Honesty.” Some today may look on such inscriptions, for black or white servants, as patronizing. However, within the social structure that was taken for granted at that time, they seem to have been meant sincerely. 

Black and white servants appear to have had equal status “below stairs.” Thomas Rowlandson, 1810, public domain. http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/811400

In London, however, many black people were not attached to white households. Some had difficulty finding work and became beggars. In about a month’s time in 1786, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor gave financial help to almost 2,000 black people in London. This was not necessarily 2,000 different individuals, of course. Some were probably repeat visitors, and some may have been from outside London.

Far fewer black people lived in the English countryside. Austen may not have known any in the country villages where she lived, unless a local squire had a black servant. In the town of Moreton in Devon, a black man caused great excitement. One witness wrote that “Peter the black servant to General Rochambeau” was the first black person to get married in Moreton. For this great event, “The Bells rang merely all day. . . . a great number assembled in the Church yard, and paraded down the street with them.”⁠

It appears black and mixed-race people in England were accepted as part of society, though such people did face some prejudices. Sadly, the people of England seemed to be blind to the suffering of enslaved people on their overseas plantations. Long campaigns had to take place before the slave trade, and then slavery, were outlawed in the British Empire. As Hester Thrale wrote in the letter quoted at the beginning of this article, Christian leaders like William Wilberforce and Hannah More led those campaigns. Two writers Austen loved, Thomas Clarkson and William Cowper, also contributed. Women supported the campaigns greatly by boycotting West Indian sugar. Free black people in England made major contributions as well. Many such men and women helped white Britons see enslaved people as human beings like themselves who deserved freedom.

Next month we’ll look at the stories of some individual black people at various levels of society who lived in Jane Austen’s England.

© Brenda S. Cox 2021, excerpted from the upcoming book Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England by Brenda S. Cox

This Tuesday, April 27, Professor Gretchen Gerzina will be speaking on “The Black Woman in Nineteenth Century Studies” at 5 PM EST. The announcement says, “Black and mixed-race women in nineteenth-century Britain were represented in fiction, drama and high and low art. However the reality of their actual presence couldn’t be more different from these exaggerated representations.” Sign up and attend to learn what Dr. Gerzina has to add to this discussion!

Yesterday Chawton House and the Newton and Cowper Museum hosted a study day about William Cowper, Austen’s beloved poet. Videos, which are still available, include a fascinating talk on Cowper and Abolition. Cowper’s poems not only contributed to the fight for abolition in England, but also to the fight against slavery in the United States. For links to the other talks, which were also excellent, click here.

Sources

  • Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater (Manchester University Press, 2009)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Silvester Treleaven, Oct. 17, 1808. 
  • Black London: Life Before Emancipation by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1995)

You can find further resources here.

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by Brenda S. Cox

Last week I started a series about people of color in Austen’s England, looking through different lenses of history. We began with Sanditon, The Woman of Colour, and other literature. We’ll be continuing with a post each month. 

If you want to do some of your own exploring, the following are resources that I have found helpful. (These are also listed under the History tab above.) If you know of other good resources that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments section so I can add them. Or if you’ve read any of these and want to comment on them, please do!

Black History, Black People in Austen’s England

Books

 
Untold Histories by Kathleen Chater examines the records of churches, courts, newspapers, and other sources to see what they show about black people in England, 1660-1807.

Individual Black People in Austen’s England

Black Clergy 
  • Clergy of African Descent in England,” Church Times, Oct. 23, 2015. 
  • Barber, Samuel. My Primitive Methodists. Mixed-race Methodist lay minister. Son of Francis Barber (see previous section).
  • Philip Quaque, black Anglican priest and missionary
  • John Jea, The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher. Black African minister who visited England. 
  • John Marrant, The Journal of John Marrant, 3. Black African minister who visited England.
  • Boston King, “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher,” from The Methodist Magazine, March-June 1798, 264. Black African minister who visited England.
Paula Byrne’s Belle explores what we know of Dido Belle, the mixed-race great-niece of Lord Mansfield.

Slavery and Abolition

Gretchen Gerzina’s Black London explores the lives of black people in London through art, individual stories, and other lenses.

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by Brenda S. Cox

“Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.” – Sanditon

This is the only time Jane Austen clearly introduces a black or mixed-race character in her fiction. And we don’t know what direction she was going to go with this young lady. (Though obviously the producers of Sanditon have made their own speculations, as have the authors of completions of the novel. My favorite completion, by the way, is here.)

My favorite completion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon is by Jane Austen and “Another Lady.”

Austen’s inclusion of a mixed-race character raises questions for us today:

  • How many black and mixed-race people were there in Austen’s England?
  • Is she likely to have known any of them?
  • What were their lives like?
  • How did Austen’s society view them and treat them?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic, and it’s hard to find solid answers. However, the series of posts that I’m starting today will look at the question from different angles. We’ll start today with some indications from fiction of Austen’s time. Then we’ll look at statistics from official records, using Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories.  We’ll also look at what art of the time can tell us, and consider the lives of some individual black and mixed-race people. Each of these lenses will give us a little clearer picture of black people’s lives in Austen’s England.

Miss Lambe

Miss Lambe is “half mulatto.” Nowadays “mulatto” is an offensive term, as it is based on the word “mule”; mixed-race people were believed to be sterile like mules. (Though there must have been plenty of evidence to the contrary!) But I don’t think Austen is using it pejoratively. She is simply describing Miss Lambe’s background. It sounds like Miss Lambe had a parent who was half-black and half-white, most likely her mother, and a white parent. Such pairings were quite common in the West Indies. A plantation owner might well leave his wealth to a mixed-race child.

Austen calls Miss Lambe “chilly and tender.” “Chilly” probably meant that the weather of England was too cold for her, compared to the West Indies where she grew up. “Tender” probably meant that she was delicate, easily becoming ill. Though as I imagine Miss Lambe, I like to think that “tender” also meant she was kind and gentle.

Austen sometimes describes people, such as Marianne Dashwood and Henry Tilney, as having a “brown” complexion. There’s been some speculation that she may mean to imply mixed racial backgrounds. That’s possible, but it seems a little unlikely to me. It sounds like Austen is just describing minor variations in skin tones. She usually pairs “brown” skin with dark eyes and dark hair. In one other reference, Miss Bingley says Elizabeth Bennet has become “brown and coarse.” Darcy says she is tanned from traveling in the summer.

The Woman of Colour is an anonymous novel published in 1808 about an heiress like Miss Lambe. The modern version edited by Lyndon J. Dominique includes much helpful background information and excerpts from other fiction and nonfiction of the time.

Back to Miss Lambe. We can get some idea of what her life might have been like from a novel of the time. The Woman of Colour: A Tale  was published anonymously in London in 1808, nine years before Austen began writing Sanditon. Professor Lyndon J. Dominique has edited a modern version, full of helpful background information.

Modern scholars speculate that the writer was herself a “woman of colour,” the mixed-race daughter of a West Indies planter, but we don’t know for sure who wrote the book. “People of color” may be used today to describe people of various races. However, eighteenth-century British people used it to refer to certain groups of free people in the Americas. Some included free black people, but others used the term only for those of mixed race (p. 21 in The Woman of Colour).

The novel is a series of letters from Olivia Fairfield to her former governess in Jamaica. Olivia, the daughter of a white plantation owner and a black slave, is on her way to England. Her loving father knows that because of her skin color she will never be treated as an equal by the planters of Jamaica. So he arranges that after his death she will travel to England. In England, laws and attitudes toward mixed-race people were less harsh, and tender-hearted Olivia wouldn’t have to see the suffering of the black people she identifies with. Her father, in his will, has arranged for her to marry her cousin, who will then inherit her fortune.

Already we find an interesting contrast. While black people were often treated horrifically in the West Indies, they found more acceptance in England itself.

Prejudices

The story shows some examples of prejudices that black and mixed-race people experienced in England at this time. Olivia and her black maid are called names, and yet they earn a place in society.

At her first English ball, Olivia is “an object of pretty general curiosity” (84). She says, “My colour, you know, renders me remarkable” (84). People stare at her “as if they had been invited purposely to see the untamed savage at a shilling a piece!” However, one gentleman, who calls her a “native,” adds, “In native elegance unrivalled! . . . More grace, more expression, more characteristic dignity, I never yet beheld in one female figure!” His friend calls her a “sable goddess.” Olivia enjoys the dancing, but complains that rather than rational people, she finds only “folly and dissimulation” (88).

Olivia’s maid Dido is a black woman. Though not enslaved, she seems the stereotype of the faithful black slave. She speaks in “half-broken language” (57), presumably a Jamaican dialect. She loves Olivia dearly and serves her faithfully. Olivia also loves Dido. In town, Dido says she is called names like “blacky” and “wowsky” and “squabby” and “guashy,” “and all because she has a skin not quite so white,–God Almighty help them all.” (“Wowski” was the name of an American Indian woman in a novel of 1787; “Quasheba” was the name of dark-skinned characters in novels of 1767 and 1798.) Dido says even a maid treats her like a slave. But she looks forward to their home in the countryside, where she will be the housekeeper and be in charge. Once in the country, she wins the affection of the “peasants” with her warm heart (105).

Olivia’s husband’s young nephew George thinks Olivia’s skin is “dirty” and Dido’s even dirtier. Olivia explains to him, “The same God that made you made me . . . the poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of the world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine. God chose it should be so, and we cannot make our skins white, any more than you can make yours black” (79).

They go on to discuss the evils of slavery. The child has heard the coachman saying that “black slaves are no better than horses over there,” and Olivia explains, “Those black slaves are, by some cruel masters, obliged to work like horses . . . but God Almighty created them men, equal with their masters, if they had the same advantages, and the same blessings of education.” Olivia says that human feelings and religious principles, as well as “kindred claims,” impel her to pray for the end of slavery, the emancipation of her brethren (80-81).

Once Olivia is married and living in the countryside, she meets “East Indian Nabobs,” a family who made their fortune in India, and finds them proud and selfish. However, she is completely accepted into the social circles of her area. The most prejudice she experiences is from her sister-in-law, who is a conniving, selfish woman.

The Woman of Colour: A Tale  shows some of the prejudices against black and mixed-race people in England. Nevertheless, it also implies that people of color were fully accepted in English society, particularly if they had wealth, like Austen’s Miss Lambe.

Jane Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy made the earliest attempt to complete Sanditon.

Religious Themes

The novel has many Christian themes. At this time, Christians in England, led by William Wilberforce’s “Clapham Sect,” were pushing strongly to abolish the slave trade and then slavery. Literature was one of their most important means of raising public awareness and calling for compassion for oppressed people. Evangelical Hannah More was writing tracts like “The Sorrows of Yamba: or, The Negro Woman’s Lament,” a story about an enslaved woman whose baby died in her arms on a slave ship. William Cowper, Jane Austen’s beloved poet, wrote poems condemning slavery. Cowper wrote, “We have no slaves at home – then why abroad? . . . 
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.” (This wasn’t strictly true, in legal terms, but was widely believed. It does point out the radical difference, though, between British colonies where slavery was part of the economy, and Britain itself.) While we don’t know who wrote The Woman of Colour, the book seems to fit with other such literature that put a human face on enslaved peoples and called for Christian compassion toward them.

Olivia’s mother was her father’s slave and his mistress. He taught her Christian faith, which she accepted eagerly. But she also learned from the church that her relationship with him was wrong, since they weren’t married. She confronted him, but he was too proud and too prejudiced to marry her. She died in childbirth. Olivia’s father raised her, gave her a good education, then sent her to England.

Her cousin Augustus, a good man, is at first repelled by Olivia’s dark complexion. However, he soon realizes that she has “a noble and dignified soul.”

Olivia is “a stranger in a strange land, where she is more likely to receive contumely [contempt] than consideration . . . a superior being, and . . . the child of humanity, the citizen of the world, with a heart teeming with benevolence and mercy towards every living creature!—She is accomplished and elegant; but her accomplishments are not the superficial acquirements of the day,–they are the result of application and genius in unison” (102-3).

In fact, Augustus and Olivia, both epitomes of beauty, intelligence, and virtue, seem to be made for each other. They marry and live happily. But—I won’t spoil it—something happens to destroy their happiness. Interestingly, the person who destroys their marriage is motivated by greed, jealousy, and class prejudices, not racial prejudices.

Olivia ends up alone, but she bears it well and peacefully. Throughout the story, she turns to God in all her trials and fears. The story ends by spelling out the moral: In times of calamity, we should seek God. Faith in God can enable us to become resigned to any hard situation.

The original editor adds that if the book can “teach [even] one skeptical European to look with a compassionate eye towards the despised native of Africa—then, whether Olivia Fairfield’s be a real or an imaginary character, I shall not regret that I have edited the Letters of a Woman of Colour!” (189)

Another cover for Sanditon completed by “Another Lady”; other completions are also available by other authors.

Other Fiction of Austen’s Time

Lyndon J. Dominique, who edited the modern version of The Woman of Colour: A Tale, provides a timeline of “Women of Color in Drama and Long Prose Fiction” from 1605 to 1861. He lists 37 publications during Austen’s lifetime with black or mixed-race characters, including Sanditon. It seems likely that as an avid reader, Austen was probably familiar with some of these, or earlier ones.

Dominique includes excerpts from a few of these works, including:

Lucy Peacock’s “The Creole” (1786). A creole heiress (who may be white or mixed-race) loses her fortune to an unscrupulous husband. Only her “honest negroes” console her (196). Again there is a Christian message. The creole lady writes, “Surely . . . we have no right to tyrannize over, and treat as brutes, those who will doubtless one day be made partakers with us of an immortality. Have they not the same faculties, the same passions, and the same innate sense of good and evil? Should we, then, who are enlightened by the holy precepts of Christianity, refuse to stretch forth the friendly hand, to point these human affections to the most laudable purposes, the glory of God, and the real advantage of society?” (196) She frees her slaves.

Agnes Musgrave’s Solemn Injunctions (1798).  At a boarding school, a girl is jealous of a talented, amiable young lady from the West Indies. So she “insinuates” that the girl has black ancestry and should be rejected. The other West Indian girls bring the prejudices of the islands with them to school. “In the West Indies the distinction is kept up by the women with so scrupulous an exactness, as never to mix, on equal terms, with people so descended”: they would not mix with any “child of mixed blood whose ancestors within the fourth degree of descent were negroes” (215). Here again the prejudices of the West Indies are much stronger than the prejudices of England.

Other stories include mixed-race heiresses like Olivia who are beautiful, well-educated, and virtuous Christians. They also include people who condemn “vulgar” black people. It appears that some of these stories, like The Woman of Colour, were written at least partly to help counteract prejudices and support anti-slavery causes.

I suspect Jane Austen’s Miss Lambe would have been a more balanced character then those we find in other novels of the time. Austen did not write stereotypes. However, Austen was strongly opposed to slavery* and probably would have presented Miss Lambe positively.

The Woman of Colour also includes nonfiction excerpts of the time which confirm some of the attitudes and situations represented in the novel. For example, a copy of a Jamaican planter’s will, leaving his fortune to his “reputed daughters” born of his black mistress, shows that there were mixed-race West Indian heiresses.

Next month we’ll look at who the black people in England were at this time, how they got there, and what social classes they belonged to. Scholar Kathleen Chater searched through a huge number of primary sources to find that information, so I’ll share some of that with you, from her book Untold Histories.

 

If you are familiar with other fiction of Austen’s era that includes black characters, tell us about those characters! Or, if you’ve read The Woman of Colour, what did you learn from it or think about it?

 

Learning More

On Friday, April 9, from 5:00 – 6:30 PM EDT, Professor Dominique will be giving an online seminar on “Political Blackness in The Woman of Colour,” discussing the novel he edited. You can sign up at Jane Austen & Co. The recorded talk is now available there.

 

If you want to start exploring more on this topic on your own, in the tabs above, under History, scroll down until you find the section I’ve added on Black History, or see Resources. It will give you a wide variety of resources to start investigating.

*I don’t intend to look at slavery in the British colonies, or abolition, in this series, but you’ll also find sources addressing those areas among the resources listed. “Austen and Antigua—Slavery in Her Time”  is a good discussion of Jane Austen’s comments on slavery and her family’s connections with slave plantations.

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