EDI Collective

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Collective in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester

Netflix’s new eight-part drama series, Bridgerton, is a sumptuous period drama set in Regency era London. The drama, based on Julia Quinn’s book series of the same name, centers around Daphne Bridgerton’s attempts to secure an advantageous match on the marriage market. Whilst we may have become accustomed to many saccharine period dramas in Britain, this series differs due to its use of contemporary pop music and modern fashion as well as for its unexpected casting choices.

The decision to cast black actor’s in formerly white roles has led to much debate online about the way in which history is presented in popular culture. Whilst the original text features only white characters, the writer, Julia Quinn, has since come out in support of the casting decision. Whilst many may see this as a modern phenomenon, the 18thCentury writer Jane Austen wrote about a black heiress, Georgiana Lambe, in her unfinished novel, Sanditon, which was turned into an ITV period drama in 2019. Similarly, to Sanditon, the decision to cast black actors in Bridgerton is not color-blind casting but, rather, a deliberate decision to draw attention to multicultural Georgian Britain. This not to say that the Georgian period was particularly progressive, but, rather, that the 15,000 black men and women living in Britain by the late eighteenth century should not be ignored in popular culture and academia. Whilst Twitter has been awash with outcries of historical inaccuracy the decision to cast the black actress, Golda Rosheuvel, as Queen Charlotte draws on a contemporary debate in academia as to whether the Queen had black ancestry. Whilst Queen Charlotte’s ancestry is still a  feature of contentious debate, there are many other forgotten figures in Georgian Britain who were black.

A recent exhibition held in 2016 at Brixton’s Black Culture Archives, ‘Black Georgian’s: The Shock of the Familiar’, has gone someway in revealing these previously hidden figures. You can see a guided tour of the exhibit led by the historian and curator S.I. Martin here: 

Some of the key figures featured in the exhibit were: 

1. Phyllis Wheatley [1753-1784]

Wheatley was the first black poet to be published in England. She was brought enslaved from Africa to Boston where she was educated (the exhibits curator is keen to stress that this was unlikely to be a benevolent act but rather an experiment). She was then brought to England where her poetry was later published. Phyllis was used as a political tool in debates by both abolitionists and the pro-slavery movement.

2. Ignatius Sancho [1729-1780]

Sancho was the first black man to vote in a British election, and the first to publish a critique of slavery. He was born on a slave ship and brought to England where he grew up in London. His education was sponsored by the Duke of Montagu whose house he worked in. He later became a freedman, owning his own property and opening up a shop, which made him eligible to vote in parliamentary elections.

3. Dido Elizabeth Belle  [1761-1804]

Belle was born into slavery but was raised as a member of the British aristocracy. She was the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer, and Maria Belle, an African slave. Despite her illegitimacy she was raised by the Earl and Countess of Mansfield with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. The famous portrait of Dido and her cousin was ‘highly unusual’ in 18th-century British art for showing a black woman as the equal of her white companion, rather than as a servant or slave. The 2013 film, Belle, was ‘inspired’ by this painting.

Britain’s Black History was not confined to the Georgian Period but, rather, spans from the Roman Period to the modern day. It is important that we educate ourselves about Britain’s Black Tudors, Victorians and Edwardians in order to provide a more balanced view of history. In the words of the historian David Olusoga, ‘The refusal to accept that the black presence in Britain has a long and deep history is not just a symptom of racism, it is a form of racism. It is a part of a rearguard and increasingly unsustainable defence of a fantasy monochrome version of British history.’

Resources for Discovering Black Britons:

  • Read David Olusoga’s book Black and Britishor watch his documentary series: Black and British, A Forgotten History on IPlayer. 
  • Read, The Oxford Companion to Black British History, Edited by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore, and Cecily Jones.
  • Read, 100 Great Black Britons, written by Patrick Vernon and Angelina Osborne 
  • Read, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain,by Peter Fryer. 
  • View the National Portrait Gallery’s Black History Month Page
  • Visit the Black Cultural Archive in London, or view their online exhibits

Written by Isabella Wood

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