Hidden Histories (Vol 2)

In this second part of ‘Hidden Histories‘ I will be exploring and exposing elements of Britain’s black culture  from periods before the 1960s commonwealth immigration. It will become evident to you that there is more to Great Britain’s history than meets the eye. Some of the information I have discovered while studying ‘Identity, difference and race’ during my time as a student at the University of East London. I have also come across other materials by accident during my leisure time searching the internet.

The first artifact which I will discuss involves the Royal Family. During my time as a BA (Hons) Communication Studies student I went on a field trip to ‘The National Portrait Gallery‘ in central London. The purpose of this visit was to understand the role Art played in communicating ideas and concepts concerning identity, difference and race. As an individual who did not frequently visit Art galleries; I did not understand how this visit would shape my understanding of representation and the major impact of seeing historic artifacts.

After receiving a list of questions which related to the artifacts on display I quickly lost interest in basic connotative and denotative analysis my class was being asked to do. I started taking a deeper look at the portraits of the many leaders and celebrities from the past. I noticed a theme with many of the portraits of the women from the 17th & 18th centuries. Many of the women were depicted with little slave girls feeding them grapes as they posed in a demure fashion for the portrait. My teacher informed the class that this was a symbol of high status and wealth similar to Eddy Murphey’s  character in ‘Coming to America‘ when he walked on Rose petals which his maids threw beneath him because he was an African prince.

This annoyed me slightly as my mind started to wonder about the welfare of these young black girls. I started to think, ‘Where’s your mother little black girl?” the expressions on some of the little black girls faces where very realistic! I felt myself go off into a telepathic dialogue with each and every little black girl, in each portrait, who were unnaturally playing accessories to rich white women. My teacher informed the group that these girls were treated well and were very well looked after often looking after the white women’s children. ‘Great!” I thought to myself; not only do these rich white women sit around all day getting painted they don’t even have to look after there own children. One of the well-looked after maids is portrayed below with Louise de KAroualle, the Duchess of Portsmouth in 1682.

Louise de KÈroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Pierre Mignard

The Duchess of Portsmouth with her 'well looked after' black servant girl in 1682.

There was one painting in particular which focused my attention on a half-naked black girl with short hair. The portrait in question quite large in size and almost too real in color to be painted over 300 years ago. My mind went from the black girl to the white women to the beauty of the portrait. It suddenly hit me that this beautiful little black subject could have been my gran, mum or sister.

This is when the reality kicked in. I wanted to know who was protecting this naked 7 year old black girl from being raped by the painter or any other white man around her? Where was this little black girls farther? The answer to that question is; nobody knows because nobody truly cared about these little black girls or there families. In fact she could have had 1 child each year of her mature life and nobody would have even documented it because of her ‘low’ status close enough to a dog. It was then that I realized that this little black girl could have been my daughter if I were alive during these times. In my head she became my long-lost daughter who I wanted to protect from harm by preserving her story in living memory.

Even if  these little slave girls were well looked after and were even allowed to be painted the problem is why were they not painted alone or with there family? This ideal representation of British aristocracy and power suddenly fell on its head when I thought about issue the of ‘miscegenation’;

Since there were so many young black slaves in Britain during the 17th & 18th centuries then there would have been a presence of a black ‘African-British’ community dating from over 300 years ago! Not just situated by the shipping ports of Liverpool, Portsmouth & Scotland but mainly in the Royal capital city of London.

I started reflecting upon all of the portraits I have seen around Europe depicting black people as slaves and laughed. I laughed and said to myself in my head ‘I guess now I know where the saying once you go black you never go back came from!’  These little black girls may have even been the black slave mistresses daughter! Who knows but one thing for sure is that white people are not as pure as some of them like to think even the upper-class ones. The portraits essentially have the power to present Britain in a way which gives colonialist power but at the same time shows that colonialist were interbreeding with the colonized.

This thought process in my head was then confirmed when I walked past the artifact which I have posted below.

Portrait of Queen Charlotte

This portrait is available to view at the National Portrait Gallery in central London.

I had no idea that this was a portrait of a Queen. I did not read the label on the side of the portrait still lost in my thoughts and totally oblivious  to the fact that I was in the quite National Portrait Gallery with my tutor and class mates I said in a confident and confused manner, ‘She looks black‘ I looked away from the portrait and turned to my right where a white class mate looked at me like I was crazy. I reiterated ‘She’s black, she looks like my cousin, look at her face, she aint white, she looks like Mariah Carey! ‘ It was only when I turned to my left to see my tutor who informed me that this was an issue that some academics argue over. I informed my tutor that I didn’t need an academic to tell me that there were mixed black people living in London around the 17th century because the woman in the portrait looks black.

I did not read into this portrait after this day I had deadlines and other things to deal with. I remember seeing this portrait on the London Underground posters advertising the National Portrait gallery yet still it did not cross my mind that this women was the Queen of Britain. I was just concerned about the fact that the black presence in Britain has only been documented mainly from the 1960s when there is evidence all over Europe that black people have always traded, worked and lived in Europe for centuries.

During my studies at Universities I visited other galleries and did my thesis on black identity and representation at the ‘London, Sugar and Slavery‘ exhibition at the Museum of London. During all my research I kept coming into contact with evidence which highlighted the black presence in Britain from Roman London to during the slave period and beyond. Below is another image of Queen Charlotte who’s image was used by abolitionist in the fight against slavery due to her African features.

Queen Charlotte

Queen Charlotte often argued that she had African blood and features.

Mario de Valdes y Cocom, an independent afrocentrist researcher, has argued[39] that Allan Ramsay, a noted abolitionist, frequently painted the Queen in works said to emphasize the alleged mulatto appearance of Charlotte, and that Ramsay’s coronation portrait of Charlotte was sent to the colonies and was used by abolitionists as a de facto support for their cause

Valdes y Cocom goes on to state that, along with descriptions of a “mulatto face” (Baron Stockmar,  wrote in his autobiography), the Queen’s features had also been described as Vandalic, as exemplified by a poem written for the occasion of her marriage:

Descended from the warlike Vandal race, She still preserves that title in her face. Tho’ shone their triumphs o’er Numida’s plain, And Andalusian fields their name retain; They but subdued the southern world with arms, She conquers still with her triumphant charms, O! born for rule, – to whose victorious brow The greatest monarch of the north must bow.

My tutor informed me that just like black celebrities in the media often light there skin for advertising posters that artists were known for altering the figure and tine of skin in order to make the subjects in the portraits appear more ascetically pleasing to the eye. The portraits often reflected the public image for the celebrities of the past when race mixing was viewed as a sin next to bestiality. Men and women often wore wigs and lots of white powder on their faces in the 17th century as it was deemed more attractive. If someone  was of duel heritage or black they could easily appear in public with a wig and powered face similar to Michael Jackson’s new image or Beyonce’s new lace front weave. take a look below at how Whoopi Goldberg pulled it off at the 1999 Academy Awards.

Whoopi Goldberg

Queen Whoopi Goldberg with powdered white face and white gloves!

Whatever Queen Charlotte’s real heritage one thing is for certain and that is the island of Britain has always been full of color for many centuries and not just from the 1960s as the BBC would like everyone to believe. In the next segment of Hidden Histories I will go on to question the real identity of William Shakespeare and highlight one of the first black actor to play Othello.

Until next time

Thank you and please leave any comments or vote in the poll below.

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    • The I Can e Collective
    • April 2nd, 2012

    Very interesting ideas you have portrayed here! Please do keep it up and let us know either on our Twitter (https://twitter.com/#!/) or Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TheICANBeCollective) when you discover new findings. We hope a lot of people have read and considered these ideas you have examined as these issues are still relevant in today’s post-modern culture. All the best fr your further research! =]

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