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Representing 'Blackness'


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 Glossary - opens new windowBlack 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.

Trade card, Carnaby Market - opens new window
Coffee-house Trade Card
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Troutbeck pedigree - opens new window
Status Symbol (130KB)
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Displaying 'Blackness'

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 of arms.

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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 Devils Ball' - satirical poster  - opens new window
'The Devil's Ball'
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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. Glossary - opens new windowEnlightenment 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.

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Day-to-Day Experience

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.

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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, 1988

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


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