Images of Black people became common in British art and culture
from the early days of the slave trade. In the 16th century,
masks of Black faces were worn in court society at fashionable
functions and pageants, and members of the aristocracy were
known to paint themselves black, as 'nigrost' or 'black
Mores'. The character of the Black
Moor featured in plays, including those of Shakespeare,
and also in London street names, such as Black Boy Court,
off Long Acre, and Blackamoor's Alley in Wapping.
Coffee-house Trade Card
Status Symbol (130KB)
By the 18th century, images of Black people were being used
to denote prosperity and high fashion. For example, trade
cards picturing Africans advertised commodities such as tobacco,
spices, tea and coffee.
Black children were bought and treated like pampered 'pets' by
wealthy White families. Black servants and soldiers became
symbols of social status; and wealthy families, such as the
Troutbeck family, used images of Black people in their coat
|What did all this mean? Many of the earliest
White travellers to Africa had been open-minded about people
different from themselves, and did not necessarily see Black
people as inferior. But by the time of Elizabeth I and the advent
of the slave trade, some writers were portraying 'blackness'
as satanic and sinful, while 'whiteness' was purity and
virginity, as (supposedly) embodied by the queen. At the same
time, however, images of Black people had become trophies -
a means of displaying one's wealth and power, based on
ideas of racial superiority.
Cartoons and Caricatures
In the 18th century attitudes hardened further. Although
many artists painted realistic portraits, in the caricatures
of this time a more extreme manifestation of racism emerged.
The cartoonist Robert Cruikshank, among others, was responsible
for disseminating distorted and grotesque images of Black
people. The physical attributes and skin colour of Black people
were used in these cartoons as symbols of their supposed mental
inferiority and laziness.
'The Devil's Ball'
Racism and the Slave Trade
In the 18th century, with the slave trade at its height,
these ideas were expanded by writers, such as Edward Long,
who denied the humanity of Black people. Hundreds of books
and tracts described 'the Negro' in absurd and uncomplimentary
ways, and proclaimed that White people were 'civilised'
and that their (supposed) intellectual superiority gave them
the right to rule over others. By this period much of the
wealth in Britain was based on the profits of the slave trade
and the plantation economy, and on the accompanying racial
hierarchy. Caricatures and racist writings denied the enslaved
their humanity, thus providing an ideological bulwark for
the trade in human beings.
At the same time, however, anti-slavery campaigners - not
least, former slaves who became writers
- were intent on combating this form of racism. Enlightenment
ideas and the popular uprisings of the time led more and more
people to recognise the humanity of the enslaved.
The abolition movement had a tendency to be romantic about
enslaved Africans. But the victory of the anti-slavers meant
that, in the mid-19th century, ideas
about Black people were less negative than they had been.
This interlude was short-lived, however, as scientific racism
- the idea that Black people were less evolved than Whites
- took hold towards the end of the century.
By the 18th century, racism was deeply embedded in British
culture and politics. But we simply do not know how far this
affected the day-to-day experience of Black people living
in a range of circumstances throughout Britain. Since a large
part of the population was still unable to read or write,
the literature of the pro-slavery movement would not have
been readily accessible to them and they may not have been
significantly influenced by it.
What little we do know suggests that the experiences of Black
people were varied. Some servants
and other workers enjoyed good relationships with their
employers. In other situations, Black and White people also
developed relationships with each other.
Others, however, like the actor Ira
Aldridge, faced constant discrimination.
Ignatius Sancho, a distinguished man of letters more accepted
in educated society than most Black people, acknowledged in
1780 'the national antipathy and prejudice…towards [the
British people's] woolly headed brethren'. He complained that,
to Whites, 'we are either foolish - or mulish - all - all
without a single exception'. At this time conditions were
hard for the working classes in most occupations. It may be
that most Black people also experienced discrimination and
insult - but as yet there is not the evidence to prove this.
References and Further Reading
Dabydeen, D., Hogarth's Blacks: Images of Blacks
in Eighteenth Century English Art, Kingston-upon-Thames,1985
Fryer, P., Black People in the British Empire, London,
Stepan, N.,The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain
1800-1960, London, 1982
Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society,
1555-1945, London, 1973