Black people were an integral part of 18th-century British
society. They worked in a wide variety of occupations, reacted
to atrocities, campaigned to end slavery, became political
activists, and had a lively social life.
A strong support network existed among the Black population.
For example, in June 1772 the Public Advertiser reported
that 'a great number of Negroes, in and about the Metropolis',
had raised a subscription to thank Lord Mansfield, believing
that slaves in Britain had been emancipated by his ruling
in the Somerset
case. This legal victory was celebrated by a ball held
at a Westminster pub, which attracted nearly 200 Black revellers.
Mixed Marriages in
the Eighteenth Century (133KB)
There was also, apparently, a Black-only
pub in Fleet Street, where in 1764 some 57 people 'supped,
drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music'.
Generally, Black people appear to have been free to go to
pubs and late-night parties, and to travel around inner cities
and the countryside.
If planters in the colonies readily denigrated 'the Negro',
the relationship between Black people and their masters/employers
in England appeared more complex. Some employers willed money
to their Black and Asian workers. One master elevated his
servant, Mingo, to the
position of lighthouse keeper in his will. But these were
exceptional relationships. Life was hard and opportunities
limited for all members of the labouring classes at this period
- Black or White, male or female.
Given time, Black and White people began to make relationships.
Some of the first connections were made between servants.
We can read of Mary
Prince, an elderly Black maid, who in 1830, fell ill and
was unable to work in the wash house. An empathetic English
washerwoman did Prince's duties, saving her job in the process.
Relationships were not limited to the workplace
either: Magistrate Baker's Black servant, Jack
Beef, sat in the gallery seats with several White maids
to watch actor David Garrick
Black and White people were also getting married. A report
in 1578 declared 'I myself have seene an Ethiopian as black
as cole...taking a faire English woman as wife [they] begat
a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father.' James Albert
Gronniosaw (an African prince, enslaved at 15, who served
in the British army and later wrote his memoirs) married an
English weaver and settled in Colchester. Equiano
himself married a Cambridgeshire woman, Susanna Cullen, from
Soham, in 1792; and we know that in 1731 Englishman Warren
Hull married Maria Sambo in Earls Colne.
However, 'mixed' marriages were not accepted by all. In 1773,
one outraged correspondent wrote to the London Chronicle
begging the public to 'save the natural beauty of Britons'
Noon by William Hogarth
One of the most complex areas of social interaction was Christianity.
Elizabeth I's 1596 proclamation declared that 'blackamoors
have no understanding of Christ or His Gospel', but by the
17th century more references to Black people can be found
in church records. One example of a good Christian was reported
by the Bristol Journal, when a 'blackamoor' maid
named Frances joined the Baptist church in Broadmead in the
1640s. As time passed, baptisms occurred all over the country,
from the remotest local parish churches to the great cathedrals.
In 1687, John Moore, a black man, was christened in York Minster.
From the late 18th century, parish records contain numerous
references to 'black', 'negro' and 'blackamoor'.
Ordination of the
First Black British Preacher?
'Blacks Only' Party
Document | Transcript
There was a perception
among Black people that conversion automatically gave full
freedom. While this was not the case, Christianity certainly
provided Black people a new kind of acceptance in English
society. After conversion, Africans were generally given an
English Christian name. Bible names such as John Baptist were
popular, and in 1759 Equiano
was baptised Gustavus Vassa at St Margaret's, Westminster.
In 1765, the Gentleman's Magazine reported on a
Black man being ordained in Exeter, suggesting that some may
have been preachers. In 1787, while collecting evidence in
Manchester for the anti-slavery campaign, Thomas
Clarkson was astonished to find a 'great crowd of black
people standing round the pulpit. There might be forty or
fifty of them.'
But parish registers do not always reflect the true picture.
Indian people were commonly referred to as 'black'. Also,
many Asians had strong ties to the Hindu and Muslim faiths,
as did some Africans. As a result, they appear less frequently
in the records, although they may well have been present in
large numbers in Britain.
References and Further Reading
Gerzina, G. H., Black London: Life before Emancipation,
New Jersey, 1995
Myers, N., Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain
1780-1830, London, 1996
Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, London,
New York and Ibadan, 1977
Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society
1555-1945, London, 1973
For more about James Albert Gronniosaw, see: