Slavery, trade, the shipping industries and war brought Africans to London in increasing numbers over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the end of the American War in 1783 there was a population of between 5,000 and 10,000 black men and women living in the capital, a central ingredient to the ragout of cultures and lives that made this a world city. From its high-point at the end of the eighteenth century the West Indian and African communities of London went into relative decline. Following the abolition of the slave trade and a generation later, of slavery itself within the British Empire, there remained fewer new recruits to this population. Nevertheless, London remained the centre of a worldwide empire that both attracted black men and women from the colonies and ensured the city would form the nexus for an evolving anti-imperialist politics.
Contents of this Article
- Patterns of Migration
- Housing and Communities
- Legal Contexts
- Search Strategies
- Introductory Reading
By the third quarter of the seventeenth century the British slave trade was fully established, forcibly transporting black Africans to the recently established colonies of the West Indies and North America. In the process huge fortunes were amassed by both traders and plantation owners. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, many wealthy and successful plantation owners began to return to London with their fortunes and frequently with their personal slaves. Young and "exotic" black servants dressed in a metal collar and extravagant Oriental costume became a fashion accessory for London's powerful elites. As a result, by mid-century black men and women were a relatively familiar sight on the streets of London.
Large numbers of black Londoners also arrived as a result of their involvement as sailors in the merchant navy and as soldiers and sailors in Britain's military. Following the cessation of hostilities at the conclusions of the Seven Years War in 1763 and the American War in 1783 many black men, among them a large group of Loyalists from North America, were discharged onto the streets of Britain's ports forming the country's first coherent black communities. This community probably reached its greatest size in London in the mid-1780s, but was then reduced by the creation of the ill-conceived Sierra Leone Settlement in 1786-7 and the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
During the last half of the eighteenth century a small number of East Indians could also be found in London. The first use of the term "Lascar" (an Indian sailor) in the Proceedings was in 1765. By the early nineteenth century a more substantial community, along with a community of Chinese emigrants, was established. These communities were predominantly located in the poorer neighbourhoods of the East End and around the docks. During the nineteenth century new forms of labour contract increasingly racialised the wages and labour conditions of non-white sailors, and in 1823 the East India Company brought in a new "Asiatic" contract for seamen, ensuring that Indian and African sailors both experienced harsher conditions than their white contemporaries and were largely prevented from settling in London. This contributed to the gradual decline of the black community from the second quarter of the nineteenth century.
Throughout this period black men far outnumbered black women.
During the eighteenth century domestic service and the pauper professions of the capital formed the main areas of employment for black Londoners. Slaves brought to London as servants were in a particularly ambiguous position, as the law neither clearly recognised the legality of slavery, nor granted them freedom from it. As a result many black domestic servants were left to the limited mercies of their employers. It was only towards the end of the century with a series of landmark, but much misunderstood, legal judgements that the situation began to change.
But, if black domestic servants were in a difficult legal position, this was equally true of Loyalists and discharged soldiers and sailors. These did not have access to the comprehensive system of poor relief established under the Old Poor Law, but unlike other migrants they could not be removed back to their place of birth either. As a result, a highly visible group of black men were forced into beggary, and the "black poor" became a much-discussed social phenomenon in the final quarter of the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, black men and women could be found working in the whole range of urban occupations, and in particular among the city's porters, watermen, basket women, hawkers, and chairmen. Some, the author Ignatius Sancho for instance, were able to establish themselves more firmly in the London economy, but opportunities like this came to a very small number.
In the nineteenth century, as the overall size of the black community declined, a higher proportion came to be associated with the port and employment as seamen, though a small number of black men and women continued to be found in other trades. In the latter half of the century, figures such as Mary Seacole, the author and nurse, made her home in London; while the lecturer and editor, Celestine Edwards, originally from Dominica, used London as a base for his contributions to the creation of a newly anti-imperialist, global and pan-African politics. The location of the first Pan-African Conference at Westminster Hall in 1900 reflects the extent to which London was both the centre of the British Empire and the natural place to organise opposition to it.
Most blacks in London lived in the relatively poor parishes of the East End, while several writers have associated black beggars with the parish of St Giles in the Fields. It is reasonably clear, however, that during the eighteenth century black men and women were found throughout the plebeian and working-class communities of London. There is some evidence of alehouses with a predominantly black clientele, and of the existence of black social events. It is also clear that blacks participated fully in the plebeian culture of the capital. In part because of the gender imbalance in the black community, but also because of its social and geographical diffusion, many black men married local women and in the process entered more fully into the pre-existing plebeian world.
In the nineteenth century the geographical concentration of the black community grew even more centred on the East End and riverside parishes. A small, well defined community continued to exist at Canning Town just north of the docks, and the establishment of institutions such as "The Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders" in West India Dock Road in 1856 simply reinforced this settlement pattern.
The legal context, both in relation to the Old Poor Law and to the status of slavery in Britain, was ambiguous throughout the eighteenth century. In the 1772 case of James Somerset, it was determined that slaves could not be removed from England against their will, while in 1796, when a merchant was denied financial compensation for "his" slaves who perished on their journey to the West Indies, the legal fiction that black men and women represented "property" was overturned. The role of Britain in both the slave trade and in its abolition is reflected in trials for kidnapping brought against slave traders after the abolition of the trade in 1807. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, in particular, regular trials of those involved in the now illegal slave trade provide some of the best evidence we have for the organisation of the trade, and conditions in the slaving ports of the West Coast of Africa and on the ships during the "Middle Passage". See, for example, the 1843 trial of Pedro De Zulueta.
Within the Proceedings black men and women can be found in reasonably large numbers for the eighteenth century, and to a lesser extent in the nineteenth. There are numerous trials involving black defendants, often cases of grand larceny or housebreaking. Black men and women also appear as victims and witnesses in many trials, and do not seem to have been treated differently from other participants, although typically their skin colour is specifically mentioned. However, the eighteenth century did witness the rise of new types of scientific racism, which were popularised through newspaper reports and exhibitions, and this racism became ever more entrenched in the popular imagination over the course of the nineteenth century (reinforced by highly stereotyped depictions in both literature and on the stage in the form of "minstrels"). There is also evidence that black men and women were occasionally disadvantaged in their dealings with the law by their skin colour. When in 1737 George Scipio was accused of stealing Anne Godfrey's washing, the case rested entirely on whether or not Scipio was the only black man in Hackney at the time. [Ruth Paley, ed., Justice in Eighteenth-Century Hackney: The Justicing Notebook of Henry Norris and the Hackney Petty Sessions Book (London Record Society, vol. 28, 1991), item 218.]
Identifying black men and women in the Proceedings is difficult and does not lend itself to searches on specific categories of information. Black people can be found in a wide range of criminal trials as victims, witnesses and perpetrators. They were also subject to the whole range of punishments.
Keyword searches are more productive. In most instances black people are identified with a descriptive phrase. The most common of these include black man, black woman, blackamoor and blackmoor, black boy, and black girl. The term Negro also produces a number of trials and becomes more commonplace in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, while mulatto and swarthy can also be used to locate relevant cases. Coloured man and coloured woman also produce a fair number of results. The first use of the word coloured in this context was in , and the phrase becomes commonplace from the 1820s. Please remember to enclose all words in double quotation marks if you are searching for a phrase like black man. All of these search strategies are more or less frustrated by the use of these same terms in commonplace names such as Black Boy Alley, alehouse and shop names such as The Blackamoor's Head, and descriptive brand names such as Negro-Head Tobacco. Keyword search phrases such as the West Indies also produce some results, although the term West Indian is used predominantly to refer to returned white settlers. For the nineteenth century, searches on the names of institutions such as the Strangers’ Home produce good results.
For sailors, East Indian, African and West Indian seamen can be found by searching on terms such as Lascar and East Indian. Muslims can frequently be located by searching on words such as Alcoran and Mahometan, with appropriate variations in spelling to account for the regularisation of these words over the course of the nineteenth century. The first instance of the term Lascar in these records dates from 1765 in the . In this instance the prosecutor James Morgan, who was born in Bengal, was allowed to swear on the Koran, named in this and several other trials as the Alcoran. The term Lascar, however, only becomes commonplace from the 1820s.
Smaller communities from around the world can also be located in the Proceedings. Searching for Malay, Mauritius and Chinese all produce a small number of relevant trials. See The Chinese Community in London.
The heavily racialised material and public cultures of nineteenth-century London can also be traced through the Proceedings. Theatrical representations of black men and women in the form of blackface minstrelsy, which were particularly popular from the 1860s, are reflected in the Proceedings.
Searching on the word interpreter or translator will bring up large numbers of trials involving foreign witnesses and defendants whose first language was not English.
- Braidwood, Stephen J., Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London's Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement, 1786-1791 (Liverpool, 1994)
- Gerzina, Gretchen, Black London: Life Before Emancipation (New Jersey, 1995)
- Myers, Norma, 'The Black Presence Through Criminal Records, 1780-1830', Immigrants and Minorities, 7 (1988), 292-307
- Gerzina, Gretchen, (ed.), Black Victorians/Black Victoriana (New Brunswick, NJ, 2003).
For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.