Blacks in Victorian England
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The Othered Victorians
The Victorian period was a time of great hypocrisy. Despite the fact that the Protestant work ethic was gaining popular support amongst the Victorians and myths such as Samuel Smiles' "rags to riches" became part of mainstream Victorian culture, the Victorians were greatly divided into their respective social classes. Works like Thomas Carlyle's "The Irish Widow" and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children" exemplified the blatant disregard of the upper classes to that of the lower class. If the Victorians were divided amongst themselves, imagine what it was like for people of different religions and races. The Blacks of this period was one such race that suffered tremendously throughout the Victorian period. They were referred to as The Othered Victorians.
In Victorian novels blacks were depicted as wild savages who were incapable of controlling themselves without the supervision of a noble upper class Victorian. Characters such as Miss Swartz (Swartz is a German word meaning black; it is also a popular German-Jewish name) and Samboo (a general and derogatory term used to refer to all blacks) within William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair were depicted in such a way. For example, on the day of Amelia's departure, Miss Swartz was described as, "[T]he rich wooly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt's…she was in such a passion of tears that they were obliged to send for Dr. Floss, and half tipsify her with salvolatile" (Thackeray 206).
Origin of Prejudice
Where did these prejudices stem from? These prejudices are remnants of the colonial era. Before the Victorian period, the days of Christopher Columbus, there was a fever of exploration and discovery. Unfortunately these explorers found a handsome profit in enslaving the peoples of Africa. Many of these naval captains and colonial governors returned to "civilized" Europe and brought their slaves with them. Although these slaves were not physically abused, they were treated as inferiors to their white counterparts. It was even said that, "Black house-servants and pages…became the exotic trappings of affluent households, sometimes got up in fantastical embroidered uniforms for decorative effect" ("Before" 2). The presence of black servants within the household also represented a sign of wealth (it meant that you had enough money to keep a servant; it also signified a sense of acculturation because of the exploration and discovery of new lands-home of the black slaves).
Many Victorians not only looked upon blacks as slaves or booty in war but they truly believed there were physical as well as mental differences between them. The Victorians believed that blacks were uncontrollable and salacious. The life of Sara Baartman (The Hottentot Venus) was used as evidence in support of these allegations ("The Life and Times" 1). Sara Baartman was a black woman from South Africa during the 1800's that had a steatopygia or enlarge buttocks ("Exhibiting" 1). She was displayed naked first in France and then throughout Europe because of this. Many other parts of her body were said to larger than the "normal" size. When she died at age 26, scientists dissected her body and found that, "Baartman's oversized primitive genitalia was physical proof of the African women's primitive sexual appetite'" ("Exhibiting"). This contributes to the belief that there were no virtuous black women, which meant they could not be gentlewomen like the ladies of the Victorian period.
The science of phrenology, "[t]he study of the shape and protuberances of the skull, based on the now discredited belief that they reveal character and mental capacity" was also used to suggest that blacks were inferior to whites mentally ("Phrenology"; Lester). These prejudices made blacks ashamed of themselves. The blacks prized other blacks of lighter skin tone-mulattos (Giddings 1).
Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair is referred to as the Hottentot Venus when Old Osborne tries to persuade George to marry her. George says, "'Marry that mulatto woman?…I don't like the colour, sir. Ask the black that sweeps opposite Fleet Market, sir. I'm not going to marry a Hottentot Venus'" (Thackeray 217).
Influential middle class men such as John Stuart Mills advocated equality between the races as well as across class lines. He also advocated equality of the sexes. It was men like Mills that brought the country into the next century (the abolition of slavery and recognition of influential literary black men such as Paul Lawrence Dunbar).
*Interesting Fact: Despite the fact that prejudices against Blacks were deep-rooted within Victorian culture, the Victorians were more appalled by a marriage across class lines than across racial barriers ("Before" 3). This does not suggest that they were still disgusted by interracial marriages-recall Rebecca, daughter of an opera singer, and Rawdon, son of an aristocrat in Vanity Fair.
"Before the Black Victorians." 7 November 2004. .
"Creole in Black and White." 28 October 2004. .
"Exhibiting 'Others' in the West." 28 October 2004. .
Giddings, Paula J. The Romance of Two Black Victorian Writers. 18 August 2002. 28 October 2004.
Lester, Julius. To Be A Slave. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1968.
"Phrenology." 8 November 2004. .
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