Home Class Politics There's A Lot More Black History Here Than The Observer Thinks

There’s A Lot More Black History Here Than The Observer Thinks

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That Britain was involved – involved might not be quite a strong enough word – in the slave trade is entirely true. That there were blacks in Britain over the course of history is also true. But that all of black history in Britain is about the salve trade simply is not true.

The way that history is being misunderstood by the Woken SS being rather more interesting than the stories they’re attempting to tell:

The multi-site exhibition, titled Painting Our Past, has been designed to tell the story of historic figures from the African diaspora that have links to English Heritage properties. From Hadrian’s Wall to the Isle of Wight, visitors can learn about black Roman emperor Septimius Severus, the princess orphan Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who became Queen Victoria’s protege, and the life of Dido Belle, a mixed-heritage woman raised in an artistocratic family in Georgian London.

Dido and Sarah, yes, but calling Septimius black is an idiocy. We do actually have statues of the man and sub-Saharan, or even Nilotic, he ain’t:

He had Italian Roman ancestry on his mother’s side, and was descended from Punic forebears on his father’s side.

Out of Africa does not in fact mean black in any useful permutation of the English language.

There’s also this:

“It’s assumed that when it comes to the 17th century and later, people from the African diaspora living in the UK would just be slaves. That’s a huge misconception,” says Samjolly, who completed her piece within a month earlier in the spring.

The actual point is that slavery didn’t exist in England. There were some slaves, this is true, usually attached to someone visitor. But even the legal concept didn’t exist. That idea of chattel for a human being just wasn’t there.

Everyone knew what it meant, knew that it happened elsewhere – lots of fighting and bribing and ransom paying went on to get those enslaved back from the Ottomans and Barbary etc. But inside England it just wasn’t a thing.

The black population of England in 1640 was much as it was in 1740, 1840 and 1940. Some handful of thousands in the old port cities – sailors being sailors – and a smattering elsewhere. None of whom were slaves. The Georgian Navy actually had a mulatto Post-Captain, John Perkins, and many a boatswain, gunner and sailors.

Which brings us to this:

The story of Chappell, a black servant to a 17th-century aristocrat in rural England, itself might have lain forgotten were it not for the efforts of the Northamptonshire Black History Association, whose work has been crucial to helping English Heritage push this history forward.

Chappell “entered the service” of Kirby Hall’s family, the Hattons, in 1663, aged about 15. He saved its owner, Christopher Hatton, from a fire in Guernsey and was able to set up home in the local area with his wife after the viscount’s death, when he was granted a pension of £20 a year.

“I could have painted James Chappell as a servant but there was not enough information to determine the kind of role he had, except he was favoured a great deal, and became a legend for saving Sir Christopher Hatton,” says Samjolly. “I decided to paint him in the latter years of his life, with a more stoic and integral stance, a kind of man who would look back at his life and be proud.”

“Entered the service” is not a euphemism for slavery. To think so is to entirely misunderstand being a servant in England at that time. It was a normal part of life. Closer to an apprenticeship than anything else. An interregnum between childhood and marriage perhaps.

It was entirely normal for a young teen to enter service, stay perhaps 10 years, then leave having acquired the skills necessary to run a life.

To save from a fire, to gain a pension, yes, this was unusual. But a period of service was entirely usual. An alternative to an apprenticeship into a trade or profession. This conveyor belt lasted a long time too – my own grandmother travelled along it in the 20th century (governess since you ask), my wife’s mother did (nanny).

But in the great parlour of this glorious estate rests a striking new portrait of James Chappell, a black man who lived and worked in this grand Elizabethan home before becoming the landlord of his own pub in the village.

Servant boy, servant, marriage, running a pub. An entirely not-unusual course of life at that time.

“People are perfectly entitled to their opinions but we’re not making anything up,” he says. Does the organisation anticipate a backlash? “We are adding to the stories associated with these places in the most positive terms. All I can say is that it is happening.

“Whether people like it, agree with it, believe it or not, this is real. It is based on research and knowledge and scholarship, the sources and evidence show us that this is here. What we’re doing is broadening that story.”

Sure, we just wish you’d get that history right, that’s all.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. They are completely oblivious to how much there were vast armies of servants before domestic mechanisation in the 20th century, even as late as the 1940s. How on earth do they think clothes got washed? Washing machines are a *very* *recent* invention. “Yorkshire was a tropical country on laundry day”. And we laugh at children who can’t conceive that mobile phones didn’t exist before they were born.

    • A quick glance suggests that my energy consumption is the equivalent of about 300 people. In the good old days I’d clearly have needed plenty of servants. Or more likely, I’d have been one.

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