Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina | Official Website
Mr. and Mrs. Prince
Black London: Life Before Emancipation

Black London: Life Before Emancipation

  • (Entitled Black England in the U.K.)
  • ISBN: 978-0719552519 (Hardcover)
  • October 1995
  • John Murray Publishers
  • Also available in paperback.

By the eighteenth century the work of all kinds of artists—Hogarth, Reynolds, Gillray, Rowlandson—as well as work by poets, playwrights and novelists, reveals to sharp eyes that not everyone in that elegant, vigorous, earthy world was white. In fact there were black pubs and clubs, balls for blacks only, black churches, and organizations for helping blacks out of work or in trouble. Many blacks were prosperous and respected: George Bridgtower was a concert violinist who knew Beethoven; Ignatius Sancho corresponded with Laurence Sterne; Francis Williams studied at Cambridge. Others, like Jack Beef, were successful stewards or men of business. But many more were servants or beggars, some turning to prostitution or theft.

Alongside the free black world was slavery, from which many of these people escaped. In particular, it was the business of kidnapping blacks for export to the West Indies that made Granville Sharp an abolitionist and brought the celebrated Somerset case before Lord Justice Mansfield. Those men are now heroes of human rights, yet Sharp probably did not believe in racial equality; and Mansfield, whose own much-loved great-niece was black, was so worried about property rights that he did all he could to avoid a judgment that would set blacks free. The ties and conflicts of black and white in England, often cruel, often moving, were also complex and surprising. This book presents a fascinating chapter of history and one long in need of exploration.

Reviews

"Gerzina has written a fascinating account of London blacks, focusing on the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Because of a paucity of sources from blacks themselves, Gerzina had to rely primarily on glimpses through white eyes, especially those of antislavery advocate Granville Sharp. Gerzina is quite adept at culling evidence of a rich, complex black life, with significant interaction (and intermarriage) with the white community. Although subjected to much discrimination, London blacks never suffered as much as their American counterparts. The author rightly concludes that blacks have played an important role in the life of London for much of its history. A very valuable work; highly recommended for major libraries." — Anthony O. Edmonds, Ball State University, Muncie, IN, for Library Journal