In honor of Black History month, I’d like to share with you a few notes about Black Victorians – people of color who lived and prospered in England (and in America too) during the 19th century.
Despite the prejudice and discrimination that people of color endured in Victorian England, there were a number of notable and distinguished black men and women in Britain.
Mary Seacole (1805-1881) was born in Kingston, Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican mother who taught her nursing. In 1854 she traveled to England and asked the War Office to send her to Crimea to nurse the wounded soldiers during the war. When they refused, she paid for her own trip there and established the British Hotel to provide a place to nurse sick officers. She also nursed the wounded on the battlefield, sometimes under fire.
“Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s chapter on Mrs. Seacole’s book about her experience, Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands, describes her curious progress from West Indian healer to anti-Nightingale on the battlefield. Paravisini-Gebert argues that Seacole “assumes her place in a British society–and history–from which she is initially rejected, by finding in the Crimea a substitute for ‘England,’ a war zone where the expected barriers to someone of her class, race, and colonial origins can be temporarily lifted.” (from Being Black in Victorian England)
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), was a composer known as the “African Mahler.” His father, Daniel Taylor, was from Sierra Leone. His mother, the London-born Alice Hare, named him in honor of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
He grew up in Croydon and studied violin and composition at the Royal College of Music. He later taught music as a professor at the Crystal Palace School of Music, conducted orchestras and composed music. He was mentored by Edward Elgar and influential music critic August Jaeger, who thought Taylor was a genius.
His most famous work was “Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast,” which premiered in 1898. He was determined to do for traditional African music what Brahms did for Hungarian music and Antonin Dvorak did for Bohemian music.
Coleridge-Taylor died of pneumonia at age 37, leaving behind his wife Jessie, son Hiawatha, and daughter Gwendolyn (who later took the name Avril and became a conductor-composer in her own right).
Actor Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807 –1867) was born in New York City, but made his career mostly on stage in London and Europe.
After acting in African theater companies in New York, in 1825 he made his London stage debut as Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave’s Revenge, which was based on Aphra Behn’s play Oroonoko. He was also known for playing Othello, and in later years was praised for his performance as King Lear. Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Sake Dean Mohamed (1759-1851) or Sheikh Din Muhammad grew up in India. His father was of the barber caste, and Dean Mohamed learned a great deal about the soaps and shampoo used by the Mughals. He served in the English Bengal Army as a surgeon.
In 1786, age 25, he traveled to Ireland where he wrote and published his book, entitled ‘The Travels of Dean Mahomet’. He became the first Indian to write a book in English. He opened the first Indian take-away restaurant in London, the Hindustani Coffee House, in 1810. Customers could smoke a hookah and try all sorts of curries. Then, in 1814 Dean and his wife moved to Brighton and opened the first commercial bath-house, featuring “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath (type of Turkish bath), a cure to many diseases.” The bath-house was very popular, and both King George IV and William IV were among his customers.
Pablo Fanque (1796-1871) was born poor as William Darby in Norwich. He began his career as an equestrian stunt-rider and a rope-walker at Astley’s Amphitheatre and from there rose to become the proprietor of Victorian Britain’s most successful circus. He was the first non-white circus owner in Britain.
He was celebrated for his skill in manège, the art of training horses to perform certain routines. Thirty years after his 1871 death, the chaplain of the Showman’s Guild said: “In the great brotherhood of the equestrian world there is no colour line, for, although Pablo Fanque was of African extraction, he speedily made his way to the top of his profession. The camaraderie of the ring has but one test – ability.”
He was featured in the lyrics of The Beatles song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) was orphaned at the age of eight in a brutal massacre in her home country in West Africa. She was kidnapped and given to King Ghezo of Dahomey to be used as a human sacrifice, but was rescued from captivity by a Captain Forbes who told King Ghezo that the girl should be a gift to Queen Victoria. Sarah’s original name was “Aina” but the Captain named her Sarah, plus Forbes after him and Bonetta after his ship. Impressed by the girl’s intelligence, Queen Victoria made Sarah her goddaughter. She paid for Sarah’s education, and took a great interest in her.
Sarah married Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Yoruba businessman and philanthropist. They moved back to Africa and raised three children there.
Was Arthur Sullivan black?
One thing I learned in my research was that being “black” during the Victorian Era wasn’t quite the same thing as it may be today – according to Being Black in Victorian England many people were called black, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they had African ancestors (they could have been from India or any number of other countries) nor did it mean that the individuals so identified viewed themselves as part of the same community.
So was Sir Arthur Sullivan black? He was described in a news article as a “little dark brown man” and images of the time show that he had dark curly hair and dark eyes. But in my researches I can’t find any evidence that Sullivan had African ancestors. The only reference I’ve discovered is one unfounded comment on the subject, but I’m not sure that qualifies as reliable.
This much seems certain and verifiable: Sir Arthur Sullivan, one of Victorian Britain’s preeminent composers and musicians, was the son of music teacher Thomas Sullivan and his wife Mary Clementina Coghlan. Arthur’s father Thomas was born in Cork, the son of an Irish soldier also named Thomas Sullivan.
Arthur’s mother, Clementina, was partly Italian: her grandfather Joseph Righi (later Anglicized to Righy) had come to England from Nice, which was then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. So it seems likely to me that he inherited his dark hair and eye color from her.
The one mention I’ve found appears in Robert Edward Francillon’s book, Mid-Victorian Memories:
Among the more intimate of their fellow-students at Leipzig, and the most frequent guests at their mother’s hospitable supper-table there — a highly popular institution among a cosmopolitan flock of young people mostly with appetites too big for their pockets— was the future Sir Arthur Sullivan, as notable then for easy charm of manner, and adaptability to all sorts and conditions of persons and circumstances, as when he became no less welcome a guest at royal tables. It may interest some who only saw him in after years to learn that he was golden-curled in his student days, and this in spite of the strong strain of African blood that became increasingly perceptible with increasing age. He was, in fact, an Octoroon, and was accordingly subjected to inconveniences and annoyances during his visit to the United States which permanently embittered him against Americans and American ways. I never saw much of him, for when my then future wife came home after some years in Italy he had already soared into social planes far above ours.
I’m not sure how a person who wasn’t all that close to Arthur Sullivan and never saw much of him beyond their student days would have known about Sullivan’s ancestry, and I haven’t found any mention of it elsewhere. If there is more evidence, I’d like to know!
Other resources on Black Victorians: