Black history in Britain through the courts.

The central criminal court in London, the Old Bailey has published court records from 1674-1913 online. The database includes records on the lives of Africans and their descendent’s in London. The publication of the archives online is probably one of the most exciting additions to the history of Black people in Britain. The site archives records of 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court between 1674 and 1913. I spent many hours looking for cases of Africans accused of crimes, as well as victims of crimes as a way of beginning to understand the kind of lives they lived.  My search included keywords  ‘negro’, ‘slave’, and ‘African’.

 In Staying Power: A Black History of Britain, Peter Fry traced the Black presence as far back as the Roman invasions, when many of the soldiers came from parts of Africa. By 1674,Britain had been involved in the Transatlantic slave trade for nearly 100 years. In total, 11,500 slave-seeking voyages to Africa were made by British merchants in the 245-year period.  So it made sense there would be a considerable number of black people in London [more on London history here] from that period on — a fact that one Joseph Guy used in his defence on being tried for highway robbery:

‘There are a thousand black men in London besides me: last Monday se’nnight I went to see a serjeant’s sister that lives at the Three Conies in Rumford road; when I had rode over the stones, and cantered about half a mile, I found my horse would not perform his journey; I turned back again, and got to a house in King-street, Westminster; I got there about ten minutes after five, and gave my horse a feed of corn, and in about half an hour or three quarters after, I went for Chelsea; I have been in England six years. Guilty. Death.’ Joseph Guy was convicted of highway robbery on 18 February 1767.

Esther Allingham was a sex worker who refused to work for nothing and was then accused of theft. Surprisingly, this black woman, a sex worker, was acquitted in 1782. She told this to the court:

‘This money they swear to, is my own, I have saved up at a shilling a time. When I met this gentleman first, he was with a black woman with a white gown and white coat on. What he had, was entirely unbuttoned. I was at a distance, against the rails. I went down towards Pall-Mall; I stood upon the stone of a door in Gloucester-court. He asked if there was any house he could go into; I said there was a house there. I knocked at No. 3, and went in. He said, My dear, I have no money; I have been with a black woman; my money is all gone. He pulled out his pocket, and said, I have got a snuff box, and a watch, and a pin valued at so much, and a pocket-book at so much, which he could not part with. I said, if he had no money, I would not go with him. I said, As you have no money, I do not chuse to give my carcase up to you for nothing; and I hope you will give me liberty to get some water, for I am dry. He said yes; but he would keep my cloak till I came back. What he offered to me, was what is not fit: he is a man neither fit for God nor the devil; he is neither fit for a black woman, nor a white woman. What he expressed to me, put a shock upon my spirits, and frightened me.’ Esther Allingham — not guilty, 15 May 1782.

Another interesting case was that of one Highwayman,  John Guy. When he refused to have sex with two women, they robbed him. It was 1786 and Guy was a sailor, so he possibly was a ‘freeman’ from one of the Caribbean islands.

Here’s his testimony:

‘I was just paid off from the Ship Newcastle, and walking along Rosemary Lane , between 4 or 5 o’Clock I met 2 Women; I asked them for a Lodging, they bid me come with them: I went with them to Whitcher’s House, and we had some Salmon and Punch and a quartern of Brandy? Then I went to bed, and one of the Women came to bed to me, tho’ I would not let her: The oldest of the Prisoners pull’d up her Coats, and bid me look at — and told me it was as black as my Face, &c. &c. — I would not do it, but went to sleep, and when I waked I found all my Money gone. One of the Girls own’d before Justice Farmer, that 8 Guineas and 4 s. of my Money was divided among them.’

Like Esther Allingham, John Guy was acquitted — is it possible that black people in those days received better justice than they do today? Certainly if this had taken place in the US, Guy would have been lynched.   However other cases resulted in extreme punishment which could have been as much due to class as race.  ’Poor’ Thomas Robinson (‘a Negro Black Boy ‘), for example, was sentenced to death for house-breaking and stealing ‘divers Goods’ in 1724.

John Bardoe  was bought as a slave in Lagos by a Genoese sea-captain and, when their ship docked in London in 1859, Bardoe apparently freed himself with the aid of a fellow countryman and began working for another Italian. Bardoe then fell ill and, in a feverish state, assumed he was being recaptured. He first barricaded himself into his room, then made a break for it and stabbed a policeman in a rooftop chase. An interesting story in itself as the translator at the trial was ‘Miss. M. B. Servano, a native of Yorubah, and educated in England’.  Bardoe was found to have acted in self-defence and judged not guilty.

These are only a handful of the many cases at the Old Bailey that involved black people.   There are lots of interesting analytical details to be found: social networks among Africans in London, the continuation of slavery at sea, varying perceptions of freedom, and the education of African women.    Roughly the period I looked at was between 1725 and 1860 and it’s worth briefly examining other events and legal cases during the same period  for example through the civil courts.  For example,  Saartje Baartman arrived in England in 1810 and was exhibited at Piccadilly Circus.  What I did not know was Baartman’s role in the abolitionist movement in her capacity as the “Hottentot Venus”.  This is explained by Christina Sharpe in “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post Slavery Subjects”. [a must read]

Zachary Macaulay, Robert Wedderburn and the African Institution petitioned the Court of the Kings Bench on account of the indecent nature of the exhibition, in which they suspected she was being kept as a slave.  After hearing and viewing the evidence [including testimony and a signed contract between Dunlop [her keeper/owner] and Baartman dated 29 October 1810] the court concluded, “She came by her own consent to England and was promised half of the money for exhibiting her person – She agreed to come to England for a period of six years”

Sharpe explains that the court’s decision was to “resolve” the question of whether Baartman was someone else’s  property [chattel] or a ‘free’ person with rights over herself.   Although the intention of the petition was to free Baartman and effect her return home, but in claiming Baartman was consensual to her own humiliation, meant she remained in captivity.

“Even as Baartman has the legal signifers of a free subject conferred upoin her by the outcome of the case, in fact she remains captive to her employer and becomes a kind of theoretical limit case that helps define the limits of freedom for the English subject.  However the case could have been resolved, the freedom at issue was never Baartman’s own.   Had she not been viewed as a free citizen under contract in England, she would have been set free [redemption operating here in the sense of the 'action of freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment' ] on the Cape into a state of near slavery” .

I have taken Sharpe’s work slightly out of context of her book to provide a historical and political understanding of this period  in the history of Black people in Britain and the changing significance of race…  The point is that the criminal and civil courts can provide us with an additional perspective on the presence and lives of black people in Britain in the 18th and 19th century’s and how these were and continues to be intertwined closely with the empire.