The essays in Black Victorians/Black Victoriana are varied and fascinating, ranging from the everyday lives of African Brits to the portrayal of blackness by the British, and, in turn, how the British defined themselves by their whiteness. The topics of these essays are divided into three general areas: the black experience in Britain, the interaction between Africans, African-Americans, British, and African-Brits, and representations of being black in Victorian culture. I enjoyed the essays that focused on aspects of the black experience—nevermind Victorian— that I had never even considered before. Joan Anim-Addo’s “Queen Victoria’s ‘Black Daughter’, examines the life and circumstances surrounding Sally Bonetta Forbes, a young orphaned West African child whom the King of Dohomey presents to Queen Victoria as a “gift” in 1850. Sally was the first of a long line of Empire adoptees who entered the Queen’s household as “properties of the crown” and were raised as the Queen’s proteges. Other interesting essays included about the black experience is a profile on Pablo Fanque, a black circus proprietor who ran the most successful circus in England for 30 years, and the biracial classical composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
The conclusions each of these essays make about race relations during Victorian England vary, even contradict each other. Fanque, for instance, is widely respected and defended by the general public as a performer, and Coleridge-Taylor’s historical biographers skid more about his white mother’s illegitimate parentage and servant class than his Nigerian father’s background. On the other hand, other pieces such as “Mrs. Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands and the Consciousness of Transit” (titled after her memoir of the same name), focuses on the prejudice the Crimean War heroine and nurse Mary Seacole faced from the British medical establishment —and from Florence Nightingale’s all-white company of nurses—when on the front lines. And the essay “The Blackface Clown” explains the roots of blackface in England, framed around the concept of “blackness” as the racial Other onto which white Brits transposed everything they considered “unBritish.”
The most interesting essay in the collection is Neil Parsons’ “No Longer Rare Birds in London,” a record about the travels of four different African envoys to England. Representatives from these African kingdoms visited England in order to petition for various reasons, from protesting British occupation to appealing for protection against other European powers. Parsons gives a detailed itinerary account of what each group experienced. Some incidents during their journey were very telling of the conflicting views of black and Africans in Victorian England. For instance, when King Cetshwayo of the Zulu visited in 1882, he was whisked away in a special train because the colonial ministers didn’t want the public—who were only familiar with “Zulu warriors” as depicted by mostly African and African-American circus performers and from the news of the crushing British defeat by the Zulu nation in 1879—“to make a spectacle of him.” The king, however, was unexpectedly received by cheering crowds and enjoyed being recognized in the streets as the leader of the battle. The envoys reactions to England are also intriguing. Many compared the packed urban sprawl of London to locusts and the Ndebele envoys remarked how the British “worshiped the god of money while they spoke of the God of Love” and how “the hands of the European never tire of making things. It is for this reason that white men’s faces are often so fatigued and sad. They wage war with each other not for virile glory or to test their strength, but for things.”