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In Meghan, we must study the Black History of the British elite

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Since Meghan Markle and Harry stepped back, the British media have talked about whether their treatment of Meghan Markle has been racist. A discussion has which has certainly produced its own irony and racism. The Royal Family is a historically White institution; however, in light of this, I think it needs to be acknowledged that Meghan Markle is not the first non-White member, but is part of a longer, subtler history of Black / biracial aristocracy in Britain.

When Meghan joined, it was lorded progress. Yet, is diversity progress if non-normative figures are being sent into already hostile environments? Is Britain a racist country? “Definitely, 100%” said Stormzy. Meghan coming from a country that is overtly racist in the tint of Jim Crow Laws, ICE and ALEC, to a country that’s more subtle… this brand of racism from the UK media was almost colonial, simply without the violence. From comments on her “exotic DNA” to descriptions of her being “(almost) straight outta Compton”, as well as comparing her newborn son to a chimpanzee.

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Allan Ramsay, 1762)

But Meghan wasn’t the first Black or biracial person to gain a pass into the British elite. German princess (Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), who then became Queen of England on marrying King George III in 1761. Historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom thinks she was of the direct line from a Black Portuguese royal family, Alfonso III and his mistress, Ourana, a Moor.

In the BBC docuseries Black and British and the book of the same name, historian David Olusoga talks about a slave turned bare-knuckle boxer by the name of Bill Richmond. In Richmond Unchained, historian and Richmond’s biographer Luke Williams discusses Richmond’s pioneering achievements in boxing, winning 17 of 19 professional fights but also being a member of English aristocracy, an invitee to the Coronation of George IV.

What’s more, however, Bill was a member of eighteenth-century Britain and went on “to take Georgian Britain” by storm, says Olusoga. Originally from Staten Island, he came to this country as a young man, possibly a teenager. Born into slavery and somehow finding himself on the bloody battlefields in America’s War for Independence. Surviving the war, he made his way to Britain as a servant for Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland.

Portrait of Bill Richmond (Hillman, 1812)

Whilst we had Bill Richmond in the thick of Georgian Britain, in the halls of Kenwood House lived a girl by the name of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Born to a slave, and Rear Admiral Sir John Lindsay, she lived the life of an heiress in London. Essentially, “too Black” for the social scene of Georgian Britain but “too elite” to live with the servants. Living in the late 1700s, she would have been witness to some of the landmark slave trade cases, including “The Zong” which was ruled on by her uncle, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield.

The slave ship Zong left Africa with 470 slaves. Slaves were not seen as people. They were material objects to be touched, poked and prodded at any White person’s choosing. Often raped by the slave masters, as shown with Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) in 12 Years a Slave and Hilde (Kerry Washington) in Django Unchained, they were property, not people.

As with the Zong, many captains took more than ships could handle to ensure maximum profits. The Zong was overloaded. Many got sick and died from disease and malnutrition. Captain Collingwood is reported to have jettisoned some of the cargo in order to save the ship and provide the ship owners with insurance money. In total one hundred and thirty-three slaves were thrown overboard (chained together) for the seamen to try to claim back on the insurance, since slaves weren’t people, but property.

Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray

Though the film Belle is depicted as fiction, the Zong Case is not. The massacre and the court trial happened. Dido was real. Her love interest John Davinier was real. Lord Mansfield was real. Kenwood House still stands in London. The Zong was one of the many benchmark cases of the Slave Trade. Director Amma Asante puts these atrocities into a format that everyone can understand, not just people that understand legal jargon.

Not only were there Black Georgians in Britain, there were Black Victorians as well. But we’ll have more in that later.

One of history’s most “important” businessmen (in my opinion) is not a household name but should be, His name was Cecil Rhodes: businessman, colonialist, and White Supremacist – believing in the superiority of Whites over everyone else. ​And he is in-part at least responsible for the apartheid regime in southern Africa, building its foundations in the 19th century. ​

Cecil Rhodes wanted to build a railway line from Cape Town in South Africa through Botswana and up to Cairo, Egypt

In the late 19th century, the Bechuanaland Protectorate (modern-day Botswana) was under threat of being forced to join what was then British South Africa Company under Cecil Rhodes. The “merger”, so to speak, would mean that the country would have no control of its own governance and would have to do everything Rhodes and the South Africa Company said. ​

Three Kings of Botswana (Getty Images)

​Looking at the threat this would bring to the their people, in 1895 the three chiefs (Kharma, Sebele and Batheon) went to the heart of Empire, to parlay with Queen Victoria. This soulless landgrabbing happened throughout Africa and Rhodes was instrumental in what became ‘The Scramble for Africa’, where European powers divided Africa among them. Exploiting it for its resources, the locals suffered in the next stage of colonisation.

King Kharma and the other chiefs knew that Cecil Rhodes’ railway was a pretext for colonisation. This was a protectorate – claimed by Britain by ruled by local leaders. ​

Constantly being fobbed off by the colonial secretary, they decided it was time to meet the British people. Running a propaganda campaign to rally people to their cause, they then got their meeting playing Rhodes, the colonial secretary and Queen Victoria off against each other with tact.

Photo Credit: Camille Silvy, (1862)

Unlike the other nations, this country’s deal was kind of unique. Most colonised countries entered into colonialism at the end of a gun. Under some sort of threat. ​These Black men came to the heart of Empire showing British aristocracy that these colonial racist stereotypes of Africa and Africans were falsehoods. They came to England, defeating Rhodes at his own game, contradicting his own views of Africa and Africans.

What this story says to me is: ​

1) It contradicts the racial thinking of the time – Black people to be stupid and savage. Shows us to be intelligent and with values. ​

2) That these kings had come to the heart of Empire, outwitting the seemingly “superior race”, Rhodes’ had been outmaneuvered. ​

3) They saw there were differing opinions in Britain, they knew that the British Empire was bureaucratic. ​

Queen Victoria’s goddaughter / protegé was a called Sarah Forbes Bonetta. A number of events involving a one Captain Forbes, his ship the Bonetta and King Gezo of the Dahomey saw Sarah (Aina) pass into the care of Queen Victoria. First living with Forbes and his wife, Sarah then lived with Victoria and Albert at Windsor Castle before marrying a Sierra Leonean called James Davies, having a daughter, who they named Victoria after the Queen.

It’s strange to think she would have walked many of the streets Black Britons walk today, just 150 years ago. That brief word on Sarah is a snapshot but she lived a remarkable life, returning to Africa to raise a family.

Watching the ITV adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and then starting the book of the same name, we are introduced to a Bajan heiress called Rhoda Schwartz. Despite it being fiction, this inspiration for Thackeray to write this character must have come from somewhere. How many Dido Belles have been lost to history? And what of the Black African Tudors that inhabited the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII? What of the Black and brown people in Tudor England, irrespective of wealth, class or rank?

From John Blanke “[…] depicted with dark skin and wearing a turban […]” (Kaufmann, 2017, p7) – to Katherine of Aragon’s lady of the bed chamber who Olusoga says was “a North African Moor called Catalina” – to Prince Jaquoah, “christened John, after John Davies” (Kaufmann, 2017, p176) – to the African Roman general Septimus Severus, Britain’s Black History goes back centuries, including those today we’d say inhabit White spaces.

John Blanke, a Black Tudor in the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII (Westminster Tournament Roll, 1511)

Despite this history being a lot of blanks and hypotheses, it’s sad that their words are almost lost to us looking back. No biographies. Simply moments in time. Nonetheless, the tide is turning against the naysayers.

And British history is not just White. It can’t only be White. We have always been multiracial and Meghan wasn’t the first, nor will she be the last, as the future is mixed-race.

Works of Note

Bidisha (2017). Tudor, English and black – and not a slave in sight. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/29/tudor-english-black-not-slave-in-sight-miranda-kaufmann-history [Accessed 28 January 2020].

Brown, DeNeen L. (2018). Meghan Markle, Queen Charlotte and the wedding of Britain’s first mixed-race royal. Washington Post [online]. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/05/15/meghan-markle-queen-charlotte-and-the-wedding-of-britains-first-mixed-race-royal/ [Accessed 22 January 2020].

Clarke, S. (2019). British Presenter Fired After Posting Chimp Picture With Royal Baby Tweet. Variety [online]. Available from: https://variety.com/2019/tv/news/royal-baby-chimp-tweet-bbc-danny-baker-fired-prince-harry-meghan-markle-1203209699/ [Accessed 31st January 2020].

de Valdes y Cocom, M. (N/A). The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families. PBS Frontline [online]. Available from: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/royalfamily.html [Accessed 28 January 2020].

Goodfellow, M. (2020). Yes, the UK media’s coverage of Meghan Markle really is racist. Vox [online]. Available from: https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/first-person/2020/1/17/21070351/meghan-markle-prince-harry-leaving-royal-family-uk-racism [Accessed 27 January 2020].

Jeffries, S. (2009). Was this Britain’s first black queen? Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/12/race-monarchy [Accessed from January 28 2020].

Johnson, R (2016). RACHEL JOHNSON: Sorry Harry, but your beautiful bolter has failed my Mum Test. Daily Mail [online]. Available from: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3909362/RACHEL-JOHNSON-Sorry-Harry-beautiful-bolter-failed-Mum-Test.html [Accessed January 26 2020].

Kaufmann, Miranda. (2017). Black Tudors: The Untold Story. London: Oneworld.

Myers Dean, W. (1999). At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England. New York: Scholastic Inc.

Olusoga, D. (2017). Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Macmillan.

Sawyer, P. (2017). Poignant note from Queen Charlotte to dead son’s nanny throws light on the sadness of George III. The Telegraph [online]. Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/28/poignant-note-queen-charlotte-dead-sons-nanny-throws-light-sadness/ [Accessed January 20 2020].

Stezano, M (2017/18). The 19th-Century Black Sports Superstar You’ve Never Heard Of. History [online]. Available from: https://www.history.com/news/the-18th-century-black-sports-superstar-youve-never-heard-of [Accessed January 28 2020].

Styles, R. (2020). EXCLUSIVE: Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton: Gang-scarred home of her mother revealed – so will he be dropping by for tea? Daily Mail [online]. Available from: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3896180/Prince-Harry-s-girlfriend-actress-Meghan-Markles.html [Accessed January 24 2020].

Thackeray Makepeace, W. (1848). Vanity Fair. London: Macmillan.

Van der Kiste, J. (2018). Queen Victoria’s African Princess. Devon: A&F

Walk-Morris, T (2017). Five Things to Know About Queen Charlotte. Smithsonian [online]. Available from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smartnews-arts-culture/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-queen-charlotte-180967373/ [Accessed 28 January 2020].

Williams, L. (2015). Richmond Unchained. London: Amberley Publishing.


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