Posts Tagged ‘occupations of black people in Austen's England’

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,

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.


  • 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.

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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