Today, I am delighted to welcome to All Things Georgian, Professor Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina whose new book, ‘Britain’s Black Past‘ (*see end) has just been published by Liverpool University Press and is also available from Amazon. Our paths crossed as a result of our shared interest in the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who features in the book.
Gretchen has been an Honorary Fellow at Exeter University, Eastman Professor at Oxford University, and professor of English at Brunel University. She is Paul Murray Kendall Professor of Biography and Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and amongst her numerous books, she has written ‘Black England: Life Before Emancipation’. With that introduction, I’ll now hand over to Gretchen to tell you more about how her latest book came to be written.
In 2015, I was contacted by a radio producer, Elizabeth Burke, proposing a ten-part series on early black Britain for the BBC. She had read my book Black England: Life Before Emancipation and thought that would like to put together a number of programmes we called “Britain’s Black Past,” exploring what to most Britons was the unfamiliar history. (You can also listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 4 by clicking on this link).
My job, as an author with an extensive history of radio presenting, was to go with her to locations all over Britain to interview those who were making discoveries and bring their work to life in the studio. Together we climbed a hill in Wales, visited an enslaved boy’s grave in Morecombe Bay at low tide with Alan Rice, learned from academics led by Simon Newman in Glasgow who had put together a database of runaway enslaved people in Scotland.
In the studio, Elizabeth and I, with her colleagues, put it all together with further interviews, period music composed by the eighteenth-century shopkeeper and letter-writer Ignatius Sancho, whose letters were read aloud by the actor, Paterson Joseph.
The programmes were such a success when it aired in 2016, that it occurred to me that the finds of those who appeared on-air, and of those we were unable to include at the time, would make a terrific book.
Some of its contributors are academics, but others include independent researchers, a museum curator, an actor, a media specialist, and a lawyer turned biographer. In this book, you will meet an early black trumpeter who is the subject of blogs by Michael Ohajuru, and visit a Georgian house in Bristol where two very different enslaved people lived, explored in chapters by Madge Dresser and Christine Eickelmann.
Readers—even those familiar with some of the figures and history it explores—will find much to surprise them. Nathaniel Wells, the mixed-race son of a plantation owner and an enslaved woman on St Kitts, became his father’s heir. He was sent to England for education, and when he came into his contested inheritance built a grand house on his estate and pleasure gardens in Wales. He married twice to white Englishwomen, had numerous children, and became a magistrate and sheriff. His story is complicated by the fact that his money came from a slave plantation, and the only enslaved people he freed were related to him. His story results from the tireless research of Anne Rainsbury, Curator of the Chepstow Museum.
Francis Barber (the servant of Samuel Johnson), black sailors, and Soubise (the ne’er-do-well protégé of Ignatius Sancho) appear in chapters by Michael Bundock, Charles Foy, and Ashley Cohen. Sue Thomas gives a far more extensive context to the narrative of Mary Prince, whose narrative hugely influenced the British abolitionist movement.
Theresa Saxon follows the actor Ira Aldridge through his lesser-known performances in provincial theatres as well as in London, and the ways they were reported in the press.
Rafael Hoermann analyses the political speeches of the firebrand reformer Robert Wedderburn. Caroline Bressey moves forward into the Victorian period to examine how race made its way into literature and public discourse. And Kathleen Chater, whose important database of black people from Britain’s past has become a valuable resource for researchers, discusses the different ways that academics and genealogists contribute to our knowledge of the black past.
These stories may have taken place in the past, but they also live on in the present. Paterson Joseph was so taken by Sancho’s story of becoming independent and later being the first black man in England to cast a vote, that he wrote and performs in a one-man play that travelled from Britain to America.
My chapter reconsiders an ‘All Things Georgian’ favourite, Dido Elizabeth Belle, filling out more of her story but also looking at the ways it has been retold in television and film.
Ray Costello gives a longer history of race in Liverpool extending to the present day. And Vincent Carretta talks about the sometimes unpleasant aftermath to his discoveries about Olaudah Equiano.
It was a huge learning experience for me, but also tremendously rewarding to discover that all of these people, many of them unknown to each other, and others who knew of the others’ work but had never met them, are continuing to bring to light a past that is not past at all.
* Please be aware that right now Amazon appears to have sold out of copies and are not re-stocking at present due to the current COVID19 situation. However, copies of Gretchen’s book are available directly from her publisher Liverpool University Press. They are currently offering a 50% discount on all of of their ebooks as everything is becoming a little more digital at the moment. The discount code is EBOOKLUP