Mini-lecture: London's Black history (UCL)

Uploaded by UCLTV on 12.10.2010

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>> My name is Caroline Bressey, and I'm a lecturer in cultural
and historical geography in the Department
of Geography here at UCL.
And my particular interests are the black presence
in 19th Century, London.
But I'm also very interested in how that history is represented
in urban landscapes, urban landscapes as public history,
something I'm very interested in,
and also how it's represented in things
like museums and art galleries.
So Joy Gregory, who is an artist,
has done a project called, Sites of Africa, which tries to bring
out what -- some of the work that I try to do
as an academic and researcher.
So she's highlighting the black presence way back to the 1700's
and sort of pointing out parts of the city
where the black presence could be remembered,
even if it's not inscribed into the urban landscape.
And I guess I'm interested in trying to provide the sort
of academic information that gives people those kind
of snippets from history.
I'm particularly interested in black Victorians,
the period that includes people like Mary Seacole
who was a Jamaican born nurse.
She was born in Jamaica, in Kingston, Jamaica.
Her father was Scottish and her mother was Jamaican and a nurse.
And she was brought up in the arts of nursing,
which she eventually came to Britain to offer
to the soldiers in the Crimean War.
She ran a hotel, not far from the front in Crimea, and there,
she -- the officers were able to sort of eat in the canteen
that she ran, but she also used it as a base
for her nursing activities for which she won a number
of medals, which you can see her proudly wearing
in this portrait, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
The Crimean War ended rather abruptly; and so she
and her partner were made bankrupt.
And as part of trying to raise funds,
she wrote an autobiography, the Wonderful Adventures
of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which was published
in the 1850's, went into two editions.
And also they were very sort of fund-raising events for her.
So as a result, she's perhaps one
of the better known black Victorians of British history.
So I'm interested in trying to find ordinary folk,
people who were in the crowd,
people who didn't write their own autobiography,
and people who haven't had much written about them.
So people, like this gentleman,
this comes from an early engraving from the early 1900's.
He sits in sort of a public house, somewhere in London,
and is very much just sort of one
of the ordinary folks sitting in the pub.
But it's rather difficult to find these people
because the kind of resources that historians
of the 19th Century would usually use, like the census,
doesn't record the colour of the person's skin, their ethnicity.
As a matter of course, not actually
until the late 20th Century.
So in my research, I tend to use photographs.
So it's an opportunity to look through archives,
that have photographs attached and find black people in them.
It does mean that my work tends to focus on people
in the margins; so people in prisons, people who are
in children's homes, people who are in asylums,
like this woman, Caroline Massey.
She, again, appeared to be a very ordinary member
of the working class, living in London.
She was married.
She was in the asylum for a year.
So she seems to have something temporary that happened to her.
She left and, presumably,
just became an ordinary member of the working class.
What's interesting is that on her admission records
to the asylum there's no mention
of the colour of her skin at all.
So without the photograph, we wouldn't know
that she was a black woman.
And this raises interesting questions
about how many others there might be in the archives, who,
because we can't see their colour, we see them to be white.
So how we get around that is something that I
and others are working on.
But, of course, not everyone was part
of these very marginalised communities.
There were very ordinary members of society,
actually quite elite members of society.
So Sarah Davis was one of those elite members of the society.
She was originally an orphan.
So she came from a rather humbler background
than we might think.
She was brought, indeed, to England as a gift.
She was given to a naval officer by the King of Dahomey
and presented to Queen Victoria sort
of when she was brought back to England in 1850.
So Captain Forbes wrote to Queen Victoria via the Admiralty
and said I've been given this girl as a present.
Really, what should we do with her?
And so Queen Victoria took responsibility for her.
And the two would stay in touch throughout Sarah's life.
And, indeed, Sarah and her eldest daughter, Victoria,
would both be goddaughters to the Queen.
But these images are taken or were taken in 1862 just
after Sarah's marriage to James Davis, who you can see
in the photographs with her.
She was married in Brighton, and they had their honeymoon
in London before they returned to Lagos, where they settled
down and had their family.
And, usually, this album is in the archives
at the National Portrait Gallery.
But at the moment it's on display as part
of an exhibition on Camille Silvy.
So if you're looking for something to do
in Black History Month, go into the National Portrait Gallery
where you'll be able to see the portrait of Mary Seacole
and also this picture of Sarah Davis; that might be something
that you'd like to do.
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