076: Black Britain, 1858

The Morning Chronicle (5 Jan 1858) reported “Macommo, the negro” had been attacked by a lioness. Black lion tamers were far from rare in Britain, and entertainment histories state he was a West Indian sailor named Arthur Williams who took up this employment in London, possibly taking his name from the Xhosa leader of 1830s South Africa. On 6 Jan 1862 The Times reported “Macomo” the “African lion tamer” had again been attacked, in Norwich. He died in 1871 in Sunderland.

The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh) 12 Jan 1858, the Leicester Chronicle (13 Jan) and other papers mentioned the grotesque discovery in the port of Southampton when seven cases consigned from the Cape of Good Hope to a German professor were found to contain the heads of four Africans, preserved in brandy. Southampton’s Hampshire Advertiser (6 Feb) reported John Marmond as a “black fellow” and “negro scoundrel”. Lodging in the town’s Simnel Street with his family, Marmond had been sentenced to two months for assaulting a 13-year-old girl.

The Times on 12 January reported from the Southwark court that Charles Williams, “a tall black man” had been begging with a sign round his neck saying he was a fugitive slave. His Irish wife said he was a sailor but had taken up begging, sometimes bringing home £2 after a day selling tracts and almanacs. The slave “dodge” was new. He had been arrested before. He was sentenced to 14 days with hard labour.

As usual there were more positive aspects of Britain’s black presence in the newspapers – the Bristol Mercury (6 Feb) reported the Revd T. A. Pinckney, destined to work among escaped slaves in Canada for the Colonial Church and School Society, had spoken at Clifton parish church on 29 January. The Nottinghamshire Guardian (14 Jan) called him “a coloured clergymen from Africa” where he had worked for 4 years. Born in South Carolina and ordained in 1853 he had worked in Liberia until 1857. The Society’s annual meeting (Birmingham town hall 13 April) reported in the the next day’s Birmingham Daily Post described him as “a clergyman of colour”. Days later at the Society’s annual meeting in London the Earl of Shaftesbury said Pinckney was about to go to Canada, “the representative of the much-wronged coloured race”.

In late March the captain of the Gertrude was mentioned in many newspapers. Captain Doane was from New Brunswick, Canada, and had taken the Gertrude from Liverpool to New Orleans. It had an almost all-black crew as Doane thought blacks were good sailors. There was trouble and dissent on the west-bound leg, then a stowaway was found after they left New Orleans – an escaped slave, who had been aided by his crew. The ship was diverted 400 miles to put the man into American hands – a letter in the Liverpool Mercury (23 March) pointed out that such a diversion would have invalidated the insurance. Doane informed that newspaper that had he kept the runaway he would be liable to be fined $5,000 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, and that the ship could be confiscated under US law. He had to protect his employer’s interests. The Liverpool Mercury (29 March) reported that he had charged 15 “coloured men” of his crew with mutiny. The court believed the captain and two mates, and found 8 crewmen guilty and they were sentenced to 12 weeks with hard labour, and 10 lost any right to wages (the 15 had grown to 18 accused). New Orleans was a major exporter of slave-grown cotton and Lancashire’s mills depended on US cotton imported through Liverpool.

On 6 April the Caledonian Mercury  of Edinburgh reported a meeting on Saturday 2 April at the city’s Queen Street Hall chaired by the president of the Royal College of Surgeons which had been addressed by a medical student “Mr. Johnson, formerly a slave” who spoke of his 24 years as a slave and experiences in Ohio and Canada.

On 9 June a court in Cardiff heard evidence against three Americans, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd mates of the US-registered Gleaner charged with attempting to commit grievous bodily harm against the black crew. The pilot who took the Gleaner out from Penarth was so insensed by what he saw that he reported to police who sent an inspector out to the ship. The Times (11 June) also said that one victim had to be taken to hospital, others had been beaten and one crewman’s arm fractured, and another knocked off the top-sail yard was saved by the rigging but when he hit the deck he was kicked. A German crewman was beaten: eleven crewmen had been ill-treated by the three mates who explained they had been insubordinate. The pilots denied that, and tempers in Cardiff were such that a strong force of officers had to protect the accused on their way from the court back to the police cells.

Westminster sessions (court) on 22 June heard a black steward from an American ship testify against a man accused of stealing a watch (guilty: 6 months) and The Times (21 August) reported an Old Bailey trial on 20 August when another black male was a witness. An itinerant musician accused of the manslaughter of his partner in the Spitalfields (London) house the witness lodged in had threatened him: “If you come near, you black b—, I will serve you the same”. The Old Bailey transcript has that, and the witness’s name as Antonio Martine, a labourer  – but does not mention his ethnicity.

The Times (8 Sept) reported the Bristol court the day before heard how Henry Price, “a coloured man” and ship’s cook, had been ill-treated by the captain and mates of a New Orleans-registered ship when he sought a discharge. He escaped, told two policemen who took Price to a magistrate who issued an arrest warrant to bring the three men to court. They were found guilty, charged the maximum fine (5 shillings – £0.25p) and the legal costs – for despite Price’s wounds if the matter went to a higher court there would injuries to innocent parties (the ship’s owners?).

Thieves and pickpockets were among the thousands who watched the Lord Mayor’s Show in London on 9 November 1858 and Joseph Thornton was accused of both offences at the Old Bailey on 22 Nov. The victim told the court that he saw a watch being stolen and that a “black man” had it and that Thornton had then robbed him. Mayhem had been created by “bonneting” (knocking peoples’  hats off) and a fight broke out. Thornton was sentenced to 12 months – the black man was not named.

And in mid-December the Old Bailey heard Muslim crewmen testify of insults (involving pork) and bad treatment on a voyage from Calcutta to London. The chief mate had been charged with wounding them – and was sent to prison for 6 months. The cook was a “West Indian”.


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