Kirsty Reid – Writing racism on the streets of early nineteenth-century England

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

 

Event Dates: June 24-­26th 2010
Bristol, UK

Kirsty Reid (University of Bristol)
Writing racism on the streets of early nineteenth-century England

‘From his own mouth, this story is told
No doubt Sam Springer could much more unfold’

This paper opens with the story of Udolpho Samuel Springer, a runaway slave from St Kitts and an early nineteenth-century London street performer. In the late 1830s, Springer – also known as ‘Black Sampson’, ‘Sable Sam’, ‘Smutty Face’, ‘Santo Domingo Sampson’ and ‘The Black Indian Giant’ – told his life-story to a journalist called ‘Jack Rag’, who published it in a sixpenny periodical aimed at a popular, even street, market. In the course of his narrative, Springer related an account of how he had once talked his way around a crowd of men who were insisting on forcibly washing him white. The paper builds on this episode to consider the ways in which ideas about racial difference informed early nineteenth-century English street cultures more broadly. It begins by exploring two inter-related areas: firstly, the ways in which ideas about race figured in street literature, and particularly in hybrid oral/literary forms like broadside ballads; secondly, the extent to which other non-white itinerant performers (who were present in surprising numbers on the streets of nineteenth-century English cities) were like Springer able – or not – to talk, perform and even play their way around racism. It asks questions, for instance, about the widespread popularity of street musicians like ‘Black Billy Waters’ in these years. Having plumbed the depths of popular prejudice, the final section of the paper moves on to consider two episodes in which white labouring-class communities apparently sought to right racism in this period. Two cases of men of African and ex-slave descent who were tried and convicted in the English courts (one for theft, the other for the carnal knowledge of a young white girl) and sentenced to transportation to the Australian colonies will be considered. Their plight aroused strong feelings in their respective communities of Coventry and Hull, feelings that stimulated popular defence campaigns and mass petitions in which racism was cited as grounds for clemency. By drawing on a variety of archival, written and oral fragments, the paper seeks to explore some of the ways in which racism was variously inscribed, spoken, practiced, performed, negotiated and challenged on the streets of early nineteenth-century England.

Kirsty Reid, University of Bristol, email
Kirsty Reid is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Bristol and also currently a Sackler-Caird Research Fellow at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Her research has primarily focused on convict transportation to the Australian colonies and her publications in this area include the prize-winning Gender, crime and empire: convicts, settlers and the state in early colonial Australia (Manchester, 2007). She is currently working on a new book based on her research project at the National Maritime Museum: Australia bound: convict voyaging, 1788-1868. Some of the stories and scribblings that will make up that book will shortly be made available on her recently launched blog.

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