History is an Unknown Country

Sake Dean Mahomed, Shampooing Surgeon to George IV and William IV

History is made up of stories.  About people.  Often about people behaving miserably, or heroically, or foolishly; people thinking they were smarter than they were, people who wanted to be important, people who were unexpectedly kind or cruel.  The tricky thing about history is that it tends to belong to the people who wrote it, or to the people who got the best press or yelled the loudest or wrote the best version.

I once almost got into a fight with a Beefeater in the Tower of London when I dared suggest that Shakespeare might have been wrong about Richard III killing off his nephews.  Shakespeare’s version of the story has become enshrined as something “everybody knows.”  And “everybody knows” is almost always a problem if you want to get something right.

I was thinking about this because I’m reading Black London, a terrific and fascinating book by Gretchen Gerzina about the history of Africans in England.  Early in the book Gerzina tells of going into a bookstore looking for material about people of color in London.  The saleswoman told her, with a touch of asperity, that everyone knew that there were no blacks in England prior to the end of WW II.  

In fact, there were so many blacks in England during the reign of Elizabeth I that she issued an edict ordering them to leave the country (it was mostly ignored).  And slavery, which we in America tend to think of as our own “peculiar institution,” was legal in England until as late as 1772.  Or rather, there were African slaves in England–most of them domestics–because there was no specific law against slavery.

What changed? A slave named James Somersett, brought by his owner to England from the Massachusetts colony, was beaten and left to die by his owner, Charles Stewart.  Instead, he was rescued, taken to the hospital, and when he was well, apprenticed as a free man.  By chance, a year or so later, Stewart saw his erstwhile slave, hale and productive, and demanded that the man be returned to him. A huge legal battle ensued, with public opinion vocally divided. The judiciary was forced to make case law, finding that, while colonial laws might explicitly permit slavery, there was no Parliamentary act or common law that made slavery in England legal, and that it was therefore illegal.

Somersett was freed, as were the 10,000 or so African slaves in England. The slave trade continued, making port cities like Bristol and Plymouth into centers of commerce;  slavery in the British colonies flourished. But the abolitionist movement, stirred to life by the Somersett case, struggled against economic interests, and in 1807 the slave trade was abolished. It took almost thirty more years (1834) for the institution itself to be banned throughout the Empire.

All this is contemporary, give or take, to Miss Tolerance’s London. She would be familiar with William Wilberforce’s Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and the discourse surrounding the trade itself. The mystery writer in me says that an economic endeavor such as the slave trade would not necessarily cease with the passage of a law; I’m not sure what I’m thinking in terms of plot; only that I’m thinking.

What about Miss Tolerance herself? Would she have encountered people of color? Had she remained Sarah Brereton, daughter of the gentry, it’s possible she might not. But living in London–and moving through pretty much every level of society–I should think she’d have encountered Africans (and Asians and Indians). How would she deal with them? Honestly? Miss Tolerance is a woman of her time and place and upbringing. She’s not temperamentally a radical. But she is a fairminded, fairly open-minded person who understands, better than most, that life is more than the limited world she was raised to inhabit. How a person handles encountering The Other says a lot about her; and people, more than abstract arguments, have always been most persuasive for Miss Tolerance. I don’t see her becoming an abolitionist, any more than I see her becoming a feminist (a term I think would baffle her). I do see her attempting to treat fairly with people, whatever her upbringing (or theirs).

Suddenly I’ve got lots and lots of research cut out for me, because I don’t want to go with what Everybody Knows.  If you don’t hear from me for a while, look for me at the library, or buried under the internet somewhere.

*the picture above is of a Bengali entrepreneur who introduced the word “shampoo”–meaning head massage–to the English language.  He had a spa–Mahomed’s Steam and Vapour Sea Water Medicated Baths–which combined the benefits of a Turkish bath with massage.  Sounds great.

About madeleinerobins

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