Though blacks were not often seen on the streets of seventeenth-century London, they were already capturing the British imagination. For two hundred years, as Britain shipped over three million Africans to the New World, popular images of blacks as slaves and servants proliferated in London art, both highbrow and low. Catherine Molineux assembles a surprising array of sources in her exploration of this emerging black presence, from shop signs, tea trays, trading cards, board games, playing cards, and song ballads to more familiar objects such as William Hogarth’s graphic satires. By idealizing black servitude and obscuring the brutalities of slavery, these images of black people became symbols of empire to a general populace that had little contact with the realities of slave life in the distant Americas and Caribbean.
The earliest images advertised the opulence of the British Empire by depicting black slaves and servants as minor, exotic characters who gazed adoringly at their masters. Later images showed Britons and Africans in friendly gatherings, smoking tobacco together, for example. By 1807, when Britain abolished the slave trade and thousands of people of African descent were living in London as free men and women, depictions of black laborers in local coffee houses, taverns, or kitchens took center stage.
Molineux’s well-crafted account provides rich evidence for the role that human traffic played in the popular consciousness and culture of Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and deepens our understanding of how Britons imagined their burgeoning empire.
Offers an important and original analysis of local and popular representations of empire in Britain. It is the first account to present a sustained analysis of how images of white mastery and black servitude were mobilized to help Britons think about themselves in a metropolitan context. This book will make a major contribution to British imperial history, Atlantic history and culture, the history of racialization and slavery, and the histories of art and visual culture.
A vivid and arrestingly original book. Molineux's innovative work shows us that the story of black life in imperial Britain survived in the most unlikely of sources: in contemporary print, iconography and theatre, in shop signs, trade cards, and ephemera of all kinds. Her persuasive argument, allied to the richness of her evidence, illuminates not only eighteenth-century Britain, but provides a discerning insight into the broader world of Atlantic history in the long century before abolition. What had once seemed a curiosity is now revealed, via Molineux's forensic and literary skills, as a multilayered portrait of cultural change during the long century of Britain's Atlantic empire.
An exemplary work that takes the study of the visual cultures of slavery in bold new directions. By turning her delicate skills of interpretation to anything and everything that Britain's colonial ambition generated, Molineux has inaugurated what may be a tidal change in early slavery studies. She deserves our gratitude for having produced a brilliant piece of detective work which redefines our notions of racial encounter. Faces of Perfect Ebony is a book we should all read, digest, and read again, if we hope to understand the bizarre ways in which the white gaze appropriated and unfortunately still appropriates the black body.
Focusing on the period of Britain's greatest engagement in the Atlantic slave trade (ca. 1680-1807), Molineux taps on material culture and popular literature to reveal the presence of Africans in Enlightenment Britain. In doing so, she extends further into the past the growing body of scholarship emphasizing the imperial metropole as a significant contact zone between Britain and its tropical empire. She also highlights slavery's existence in the UK and correlation with racial "othering." While Britain's black population remained small, its presence exerted significant influence in British culture, from the use of images of Africans on shop signs and household commodities to the role of black subjects in performance and art. Most important is Molineux's exploration of British society's ambivalence toward people of African descent. This ambivalence enabled the simultaneous drawing of contrasts and similarities between whites and blacks in the UK, the latter feeding abolitionist sentiment. Based on exhaustive research, this book skillfully employs cultural critique to illuminate the empire's influence on British society.
- 374 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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