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.
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.
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.
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.