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Posts Tagged ‘Black People in the Regency Era’

Photo of Crystal Clarke as Miss Lambe

Crystal Clarke as Miss Lambe

Miss Lambe, introduced in Episode 1 at the assembly ball, is an intriguing character – a new one for Jane Austen that she intended to explore in depth before she abandoned her manuscript due to illness. By the Regency era, the British Empire had spread the world over. The term “Black” in England during that time denoted any skin color other than “white.”  This included people from Africa and the East Indies and West Indies, such as Antigua, the land of Georgiana Lambe’s birth.

Georgiana is the ward of Sidney Parker, who, after she voices her displeasure at his power over her, reminds her that her father wanted her to take a place in polite society, that she was far richer than all of them put together. Neither relish his role, but both understand that because of her fortune she must be managed.  It’s a mystery how Sidney achieved this position, but we’ll assume that an explanation of how his work in the West Indies led him to become Georgiana’s guardian will be given in future episodes.

The viewer instantly understands Georgiana’s views on her position when she angrily lashes out at Sidney that she is “not your slave to be served up as your general amusement.” She gestures dramatically and adds in mock tones, “Here’s a negress, rich and black as treacle. – feast your eyes!”

Photo of actress Anne Reid as Lady Denham

Anne Reid as Lady Denham

In the quest to cozy up to Georgiana, Lady Denham hosts a luncheon to introduce her to Sanditon society. Instead of behaving like a gracious hostess, she says the crudest, uncivil statements imaginable. As Georgiana makes her entrance, Lady D. turns to Sir Edward Denham, who is in need of a wife with a fortune, and says, “Edward, there’s your quarry. Hunt her down!”

Before anyone takes a bite of food, she addresses Georgiana, gesturing to a pineapple that was placed at the center of the table in her honor. Offended, Georgiana employs a thick island accent to indicate that pineapples are not grown in Antigua. The pair are off to a bad start. 

During the soup course, Lady D asks, “Miss Lambe, what are your views on matrimony? —“An heiress with a 100,000 must be in want of a husband.”

And we’re off to the insult races!

Georgiana gives her a sideways glance: “I don’t care to be any man’s property.”

“Oh, hoity toity! … Was not your mother a slave?”

Pregnant pause.

“She was. But being used as a thing and liking it are not the same, my lady.”

“No, I’m beginning to think that you’re a very opinionated young lady, Miss Lambe.”

Georgiana wins the riposte, but she remains deeply unhappy and unsuccessfully attempts to escape to London by coach. Charlotte happens upon a despondent Georgiana standing dangerously close to the sea cliff’s edge and crying. She comforts her and the two lonely young women become friends. 

Episode 3 presents many new revelations and developments, which will be addressed in a later review.  Miss Lambe makes only two appearances. The first in a painting class to demonstrate her rebelliousness, and the other in a scene with Sidney to show her contrition for bad behavior. The episode ends with Georgiana examining a locket with a portrait of a young Black man and kissing it before finishing a letter.

My, oh, my! How the plot has thickened.

I’ve concentrated on Georgiana Lambe in this week’s review because she is such an unusual character in the Jane Austen canon. Jane visited her brother Henry in London on many occasions and to meet with her publishers. She would have noticed the many Blacks who lived in Britain, most notably in London and major port cities. By some estimates, around 15,000 Blacks lived in England at the end of the 18th century, 20% of whom were women. Around 10,000 Blacks lived in London. 

Slavery was legal in Britain until 1772. While servitude there was preferred over life on a West Indies plantation, Black lives were not easy. After the slaves were freed, males and females found work as servants. During the Napoleonic wars, many Black males enlisted in the navy and army. Once the wars were over, these sailors and soldiers were no longer enlisted and stayed in the port cities they knew so well. 

Portrait of The Hon. John Spencer, his son the 1st Earl Spencer, and their slave, Caesar Shaw, ca 1744. Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

The Hon. John Spencer, his son the 1st Earl Spencer, and their slave, Caesar Shaw, ca 1744. Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

Overt racism was rampant. Servants of the rich were beautifully dressed, but treated like possessions (much like a brood stallion or a rare antique vase.) Portraits would show noble women and a Black servant, be it a child or adult, sitting at the edge of the painting, which served to increase the contrast of the female’s creamy white skin to the ebony complexion of the other sitter. The power differential between males and their Black servants was also evident.

In 1847’s Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackery created two characters – Mr. Sambo, the Sedley’s male servant, and Miss Swartz, which means black in German and Dutch. Miss Swartz was described as a “rich, woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s,” as well as a Belle Sauvage, a dark paragon, and a dark object of conspiracy. George Osborne, her suitor, described her as “elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day.” 

George might not have given Miss Swartz respect, but he and his family had a healthy regard for her money, which made her an acceptable prize. Lady Denham viewed Miss Lambe with much of the same interest and contempt, but this did not fool Miss Lambe, who was proudly not for sale. Her personal experience of society’s disdain for Blacks (such as in the stage coach scene) fuels her anger, combativeness, and sadness. She has nothing to lose by meeting the offensiveness of others head on.

The Advertisement for a Wife, illustration by Thomas Rowlandson. Internet Archive

The Advertisement for a Wife by Thomas Rowlandson. Internet Archive. University of California Libraries. No visible notice of copyright; stated date is 1903.

For The Third Tour of Dr. Syntax In Search of a Wife: A poem by William Combe, Thomas Rowlandson illustrates  “The Advertisement for a Wife, in which a Black woman is placed prominently at the front and center of a group of spinsters. Dr. Syntax had asked an acquaintance, Mrs. Susanna Briskit, an “eccentric creature full of vivacity,” to help him find a wife. She embarked on a “scheme of fun” and invited a room full of loud, insistent females and their chaperones to apply for the position. The scene as written by Combe is funny and I imagine the inclusion of a Black lady heightened the comedy, but probably had a cruel undertone.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825), David Martin. Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825), David Martin. Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain

Not all is misery for Georgian Blacks.  This portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray by David Martin in the late 18th century depicts a genuine friendship between the two women. Dido, an heiress, was born illegitimately  in the British West Indies of a British navy captain, Sir John Lindsey, and Maria Belle, an African woman whom he captured from a Spanish ship. Dido was sent to England as a child and brought up by Sir John’s uncle, Lord Mansfield and his wife, who were childless. Elizabeth Murray, Dido’s cousin, was motherless. The two girls were raised together, but Dido, while beloved, was not always invited to dine with guests. In the film “Belle,” Dido expresses the same sentiments as a governess–her position was too high to eat with servants and too low to eat with guests. Dido eventually married, had 3 children, and died in 1804 at 42. Compared to most of her Black contemporaries, she led an idyllic life. 

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho, 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough, National Gallery of Canada. Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

Ignatius Sancho, 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough, National Gallery of Canada. Wikimedia Commons. This work is in the public domain.

There were other success stories, such as the boxer Bill Richmond, or Ignatius Sancho. Born on a slave ship, Sancho became a protege of the Duke and Duchess of Montagu. While working in their household, he had access to their books and taught himself to read. Today he is celebrated as a writer, composer, shopkeeper and abolitionist. 

It would have been interesting to know how Jane Austen would have fully developed Miss Lambe and what information she learned about the West Indies and Blacks in the navy from her sailor brothers.

Post Note: In The World of Sanditon (see sidebar), Sara Sheridan writes of Austen’s romantic entanglement with Dr. Samuel Blackall, a minister. In a letter to Frank, her brother, Austen describes him as “a piece of perfection.” Nothing was to come of her infatuation. Years later, Blackall married a Miss Lewis of Antigua.

Sheridan concludes that this story “provides an intriguing real-life parallel to the world of Sanditon, as does the idea of a love interest with West Indian connections.”

More sources:

The First Black Britons: Sukhdev Snadhu, History, BBC,2011-02-17. Downloaded 2/20/2020.

Black People in Late 18th Century Britain: Histories and Stories, English Heritage. Downloaded 2-20-2020

Black lives in England: Historic England Blog, Research tab. Downloaded 2-20-2020.

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