Why British history isn’t the story of a white country

A new BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has set off (heavy sigh) yet another conversation about whether British history is the story of a white country. 

Why? Because either the show’s casting was color blind, where actors are chosen without regard to their skin color, or because (and my bet’s on this) the directors deliberately placed Black actors in major roles. 

Cue the predictable emails/phone calls/howls of outrage. Cue mentions of wokeness and political correctness. Sadly, I doubt we can cue any repetitions of that glorious confection of manufactured outrage, “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.” The workerati had too much fun with it and the sleeperati had to retire it. But if you want to do your bit to keep the phrase alive, for £12.99 plus shipping and handling, you can buy a tee shirt announcing your reading and eating preferences.

It comes in a variety of designs, which says (a) it’s popular, (b) someone had too much fun to stop at one, or (c) it wasn’t all that popular and they’ve still got stock left. 

But forget the shirts. The assumption behind the complaints is that having a Black lawyer in a Dickens story is historically inaccurate and can only be explained by someone’s desire to rewrite history into something tofu flavored. 


Brief interruption for the sake of complete accuracy

I don’t like tofu. I can eat it–it’s not liver, after all–but I haven’t found a way to enjoy it and I’ve stopped searching for one. I do like the shirts, although I won’t be eating any. I probably won’t be wearing one either. I’ve stopped thinking people want to hear from my clothing.

Irrelevant photo: Cuckoo flowers–also called lady’s smocks, milkmaids, and mayflower. It’s a member of the Brassicaceae family, and yes, it will be on the test.


Meanwhile, back at the Complaints Department…

…the question we’re considering is, How likely would it have been in the Victorian (and slightly pre-Victorian) era, which is when Great Expectations takes place, to find a Black lawyer and an Indian law clerk? And would Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella, be–um, it’s not immediately apparent from watching the series what her ethnicity is. I was going for someplace in Asia (it’s a big continent; surely it has a likely spot somewhere), but it turns out the actor playing her is of Mauritian and Thai heritage. She’s also described as an English-born Australian actor. That last bit isn’t relevant to the flap at hand but does remind us how complicated a person’s background can be. She has brown skin, though, and I’m assuming that does its bit to stir up the complainers.

To answer the question I’ve wandered away from, though: It’s quite accurate. English history is not all white, even if it’s often presented as if it were.


Georgian Britain

Let’s start with Georgian Britain, since that’s when Great Expectations begins (it then crosses into the Victorian era without needing to present a passport). The Georgian era ran from 1714 to 1830. Yes, I had to look it up, and I learned that it took four back-to-back Georges to cover that many years. 

At least 5,000 Black people lived in Georgian London, although that’s a minimum estimate, not a complete count. Data is (sorry: are) sparse–not just about Black people in London but about lots of people and things of the era. We have to work with what we’ve got. Many of them arrived as slaves and lived on in Britain as enslaved servants–it was quite the fashion among the upper class to have a Black servant in the household. Many of them escaped, though, disappearing into the general population. We know about them from newspaper ads calling for their capture and return. They’re often identified by the metal collars fastened onto their necks and by their scars.

Slavery within Britain itself was abolished in 1807, although the country continued to accumulate wealth from slavery in its colonies and trading relationships. Anyone who presents history as a simple picture is lying to you or themselves or both. So however ironically, British soil itself was free, and so were the people who stood on it.

Who, then, were these Black Britons? Most were poor and not lawyers in Dickens novels, but then so were most white Britons and you won’t find anyone offering that as an argument against casting a white actor as the lawyer. 

A few did become part of the middle and upper classes. 

How upper is upper?As far as I know, none of them inherited titles, but Queen Victoria  (you don’t get much higher in the class structure than that) had a ward and goddaughter, Sara Forbes Bonetta, who was Yoruba. 

So a Black lawyer? Entirely possible. 

As for the Indian law clerk and Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, when a country conquers an empire,it will be changed by the countries it conquers. The British Empire didn’t  just bring back money, textiles, tea, spices, opium, and new recipes to break up the same-old same-old of British cooking. People came as well, some by choice and some not. They came to work, to study, to live, to do all the assorted things humans do. Some stayed a while and went home. Others put down roots and became British. Communities formed.

That’s not to say there was no racism. 



British racism was (and, I think, still is) different from the American brand. For one thing, intermarriage wasn’t uncommon in Britain, whereas during large parts of US history it wasn’t just uncommon, it was illegal in many states. I mention that in part because a lot of readers here at Notes are American and also because culturally speaking I’m more American than British. I do know the US isn’t the world’s focal point, but I can’t help using it as mine a lot of the time. 

In the Victorian era, science was dragged in, kicking and screaming, to explain why racism and empire were natural and whites–and especially whites of the British persuasion–were superior to whoever else you had in mind. They measured heads and found that–surprise, surprise–the heads that happened to be shaped like their own had more brain power than anyone else’s, proving that their little twig of the human tree was by far superior to the other little twigs. They catalogued humanity into races, and no matter how many times later scientists have demonstrated that science provides no basis for the divisions, we’re still fighting our way out of that paper bag.

So again, we’re looking at a complicated picture. Racism, yes, but also Black people distributed–however unequally–throughout society.

And for the benefit of American readers, who see the word Black and understand it to mean someone of African heritage, in Britain it often includes Asians, although I think that’s shifting.

The Victorians didn’t invent racism, though. As soon as the country dove into slave-holding and the slave trade, it began to tell itself that the people it was enslaving were a lower grade of human. All the Victorians did was sprinkle a bit of pseudo-scientific glitter over it.


Moving backwards

Historians have relatively recently begun tracing Black British history in the Tudor era, picking individuals out of the sparse records that are available, and again the picture isn’t simple. Miranda Kaufman writes about a weaver, a sailor, a porter, travelers, a salvage diver, and an assortment of others. Onyeka Nubia combed through marriage and baptism records and found Black people who often married whites and over several generations disappeared into the gene pool. As he put it when I heard him speak to an almost all-white crowd, “This is not my history [he’s of African extraction]. This is  your history.”

Peter Fryer covers some of the same territory, but he starts with Roman legionnaires. 

Most of the stories they give us are, of necessity, limited. The written records mark  brief moments in people’s lives, then they disappear. But they were here. They lived, they worked, they died. They’ve been written out of British history. If someone writes them back in, it’s an act of restitution, not tofu addiction.

Does racism go back as far as the Tudor era? I’m not sure, but if it does it was probably different from the racism we know today. 

As early as the Elizabethan era (1558-1603, and yes, I had to look it up) we can find Liz issuing two separate orders to expell Black people from Britain because they were eating food that should have gone to her people, and besides, most of them were heathens. Or some of them were heathens. Or, well, never mind, they ate, and getting rid of them was easier than wrestling with inequality and famine.

Except that she didn’t get rid of them. She issued a couple of proclamations and there (give or take a bit of historical running back and forth, which we’ll skip) it ended. You can find the full tale here. 

Does it matter whether Black people were targets because they were Black, because some of them weren’t Christian, or because they were an immigrant community (with some  descendants of immigrants added in)? I’m not sure. None of those positions are comfortable. 

Onyeka Nubia argues that the Tudor era was more open and it wasn’t until later that the contributions of Black Britons were written out of the official history. I’d give you details but I haven’t gotten my hands on his books yet. Expect me to come back to the subject.

50 thoughts on “Why British history isn’t the story of a white country

    • Aha. Sake and tofu, to the best of my knowledge, are not interchangeable. Which argues for the sake.

      The Guardian’s a good paper–not perfect, and there’s a lot I could argue with–but still a good one. And for reasons best known to themselves, they started a US edition–online, at least; I’m not sure it’s on paper–as well as a US one. Exactly why it seemed like a good idea to go up against the NY Times and the Washington Post (because that’d be their natural competition) I don’t know. But never mind that. Enjoy your sake.

      Liked by 1 person

        • They don’t–or at least I’ve never run into it. I link to the Guardian regularly, which involves opening and reading a lot of their articles, and they’re always reminding me how many I’ve read and asking me to support them (I do–I read the print edition), but they don’t lock me out. What are you running into?


            • Could be. But they have a US edition, which I’ve also been able to open as well. Just found this on their website:

              “Since December 2019, we’ve been running trials with some readers on the Guardian website asking them to register their email address and name in order to continue reading. This helps us learn more about how readers use the site and how data might help us to generate more revenue to support quality, independent Guardian journalism.

              “In March 2021, we ran a two-week mandatory sign in trial to a very small percentage of our UK audience, and in June 2021 we carried this out with our Australian and US readers.

              “From October 2022, we will begin a new mandatory sign in trial to a small percentage of readers to help understand any impact over a longer time period (approximately six weeks) and across different devices (desktop and mobile). The trial will include a small number of our UK, Australian and US audience, and some readers in the EU, Canada and New Zealand.

              “All of our readers will still be free to read everything we publish: this is not a paywall, nor a step to creating one. We believe that everyone should have access to fair and factual reporting.”


  1. Older friends of mine have complained about the darkness of Great Expectations. They’re not referring to the colour of people’s skins, though. That doesn’t bother them in the least. What does bother them is that the lighting is so poor that they can’t read the actors’ lips and they don’t want to switch on the subtitles, as that detracts from the action.

    I like tofu and eat it fairly often. I’m surprised that you don’t, as it’s very versatile and takes up any flavours that you add to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting observation, about not being able to read lips, and one that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I’ve started to appreciate subtitles, although once they’re on (usually by accident, not choice) I can’t not read them. I expect someone decided to be historically accurate there and capture the darkness of pre-electric life.

      I’ve tried marinating tofu, and even pressing the liquid out of it so I could marinate it more effectively. Somewhere along the line I decided it wasn’t worth the effort. I manage enough protein from other sources.


          • A vegetarian friend recommended him to me and I have one of his books. I’ve made a few things out of them, one of which took several hours and tasted a lot like spicy beans on toast. One of the salads was very useful, though, when I made it for a friend who has lots of food intolerances. It’s very hearty and fairly straightforward, although it might have had pomegranate seeds or something similar that I left out.


            • I see his recipes in the Guardian’s Saturday food section. There’s always at least one ingredient I couldn’t get anywhere in a 100-mile radius of where I live. The spicy beans on toast one–I’ve wondered whether a few wouldn’t be something like that, although some do sound good–if only I had access to ingredients and the oomph it would take to try them.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. If you write more about this, I’ll look forward to reading it. Even leaving the various invasions aside, we’ve always had a lot of to-and-fro in Britain – much like any other country, really – and I strongly suspect a number of people of all hues have come here throughout history.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Claiming the insults is the way to go. I will have both T shirts. Are there mugs and fridge magnets available? My friend Steve Unwin and I want Libtard T Shirts. Partly this is because we are so annoyed by people using the R-word, and related ones like idiot, moron and imbecile to describe political opponents. Terms that until recently were technical categories used to segregate people with intellectual disability/ies (UK usage Learning Disability/ies) from their fellow citizens.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It has been years since I read Great Expectations (as a sophomore in high school, back before JFK was assassinated) but nothing since- (including seeing the previews of the current version) has convinced me it isn’t just a very creepy story. I prefer Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”


    • I can see describing it that way, but it’s also an interesting–and unflattering–look at class in Britain. A hundred years ago, when my brother was in high school, he had to read Silas Marner and he hated every word of it. By the time I got to whatever grade it was, we read something else instead (no memory of what it would’ve been), so I didn’t read it till I was grown and found it pretty amazing. (Another book with interesting things to say about class, as it happens.) I began to think we should be told we’re not allowed to read the classics till we’re in our twenties. We may not like them by then. Hell, we may not even read them. But at least we won’t hate them in the way we do when we have to read them in high school.

      That’s not an argument against your take on Great Expectations, just a riff on assigned reading in high school.


      • Good point – as a sophomore I was not mature (I don’t dare say “worldly” !”) enough to grasp subtleties. I read Silas Marner in college and didn’t mind that. (Don’t get me started on reading Fenimore Cooper though !)
        I also read “Digging Up Britain” (as you discussed in an earlier post) and found it fascinating. As per the discussion above, there seems evidence that some of the earliest residents of your isles might have been decidedly dark-skinned.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know that the existence of a Black lawyer or law student in the 18th or 19th century would have survived in the records. Most of the history of Black Britain that I’ve read so far is from earlier periods, starting in the Tudor era, but what the historians have been doing is digging through patchy records and finding mentions of someone being Black, a moor, a blackemoor, etc. But records of the era weren’t standardized, so we don’t know that a person’s color was always mentioned, and just to confuse the issue, people with dark hair were sometimes called black.

      The gods of history are laughing their incorporeal asses off.

      And at this point I might as well admit that the significance of George’s second wife is going right over my all-too-corporeal head.


  5. Too dumb to write hyperlinks – I am sorry.
    Would you correct my nonsense please ?

    The article I linked is Here :

    The reference to my blog – vanitas ! vanitas vanitatum ! – is here :

    I am sorry for the inconvenience, please accept my excuses.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fine one to talk, Elizabeth I. Her mother’s polydactylism and “sallow and swarthy” complexion could so easily have come from African genes.

    Though perhaps, as when black-haired Hitler ranted about “the black-haired Jews and Slavs,” spitting on the memory of the absent parent was the point.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “I’ve stopped thinking people want to hear from my clothing.” I love your turns of phrase. I want that one on a teeshirt.

    Rather than the presence of black actors in Great Expectations, what struck me was the explicit raunchiness and swearing. It may have been one of those interpretive decisions aimed at making the production more historically representative at the cost of faithfulness to the author’s work (not that I’ve read it, but I can’t see it going down well at the time with descriptions of orgies and sado-masochism, and littered with f-bombs, especially as Dickens regularly read his works out to gatherings of his fans). I suppose people may have shouted, “Fuck!” when things didn’t go their way back then, but it sounds incongruous, modern, like Pip might get his mobile out any minute and say, “You’ll never guess what some pillock just did!”

    It does say in the credits something like “based on a novel by Charles Dickens,” (and it’s not a play, after all) but it irked me, because I suspect a truer motive, rather than historical accuracy, was to sex it up for bigger viewing figures. But then I guess they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. If Dickens treated such matters with discretion and vague insinuation, as I imagine he must have, but they’re kind of central to the tale, how could a film-maker deal with it – blur out the implicit sex scenes and bleep the unsaid expletives, maybe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read Dickens in a while, but my memory is that he doesn’t really even insinuate. He was writing in the Victorian era, after all. As he wrote the raunchy underside of society–and credit to him that he made it visible to people who protected themselves from any exposure to it–it was about theft and poverty and desperation, but not about sex.

      Okay, the faintest of hints. Nancy and What’sHisName in Oliver Twist were a couple but nothing said they were married. Nothing said they weren’t, though.

      It’s an interesting dilemma for a modern adaptation. Victorian society was at least as raunchy as ours, and deeply sexually exploitative, something men were free to explore. What mattered was to hide the evidence in polite society. Men, I believe, could and did swear. Ladies couldn’t. Women, though, probably could if they were tough enough and had thrown convention out the window–or if convention had thrown them out the window so that they lived outside that set of rules.

      What I’m trying to say is that although I think you’re right about trying to sex things up so the adaptation sells, I also think the rauchiness is true to one side of Victorian life–although I’m not convinced by the S&M thread and I don’t think it adds anything.

      And finally, you’re right, that would make a good tee shirt.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes, I have no doubt about the Victorian raunchiness and that it’s therefore pretty true to the times, probably including S&M. Actually, it – like a lot of period dramas – probably vastly underplays the subservience demanded of women. To its credit, it was explicit about the misogyny of characters like (I forget his name) the nutmeg merchant, who, on meeting his intended wife slapped the table with his riding crop and told her he would dominate her and her likes and dislikes would be according to his whim. I’m not sure she would have given such sarcastic responses as she did, even if she was clearly scared. Heck, I’ve no idea why I’m analysing all this so much (with so little knowledge too, but that rarely stops me, tbh).

        And hundreds of years earlier – I’m sure you wrote about this here – the spiritually-minded, world-denying Medieval monks became corrupted by their wealth and status from wool production, went to spread the good word in the burgeoning towns and cities (becoming “Friars”) and became a mainstay of the brothel industry.

        As for the teeshirt – NftUK merch! :)

        Liked by 1 person

        • My best guess is that our inclination to chop the story into little pieces and analyze anything we haven’t broken is a tribute to the story’s power. It gives us a lot to work with. Personally, I like the idea of throwing Dickens’ approach to sexuality out the window (the man couldn’t write a realistic woman to save his life) and being true to his interest in showing the full range of society by including what in his time he had to ignore.

          What’s NftUK?

          Liked by 1 person

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