What evidence is there of a black presence in Britain and north west England?

Black servants in Britain

by Dr Emma Poulter

Representations of wealth

Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became fashionable among the British aristocracy to have black servants who were seen as markers of wealth, status and refinement. In this way slavery was domesticated in aristocratic circles, as is shown by a number of portraits in existence in Greater Manchester of wealthy families with their elaborately attired black servants. 

In this portrait, thought to be of either Ann or Mary Butterworth, the subject of the painting is presented as an object of her father/husband/lover's wealth, with water being sprinkled on her hand as she inclines her marriage finger. The presence of the black servant adds to this imagery drawing attention to the Butterworth's wealth and social standing. The image of the black servant was at some time painted out of the picture. It was only during conservation work on the painting in 1969 that x-ray techniques revealed his presence.

Legal status of black servants

This demonstrates how the use of black servants in England was, as the historian James Walvin puts it, a ‘social fad', as there was no shortage of white servants in England at this time. During the late eighteenth century the status of black servants began to change. According to Walvin after 1772 the continuation of slavery in Britain was a rarity and in any case was always likely to attract legal (and increasingly social) hostility. This change in attitude was catalysed by the Somerset case of 1772 in which Somerset, a fugitive enslaved African brought a case against his owner who was attempting to force him to return to the West Indies. Lord Justice Mansfield ruled that it would be illegal to remove Somerset from the country against his wishes. This case partially extended the rights of enslaved Africans in Britain and formed the beginning of a much wider campaign against slavery.

It was probably after 1772 that the black boy in this painting was ‘airbrushed‘ out of a family's history. As Maud Sulter comments on this painting: ‘Having been forcefully absented from our collective memory, he is now brought back into the frame. Rememory'.

The numbers of black people in Britain increased during the eighteenth century. One of the sources of evidence for this is the records of baptisms. In most cases these occurred in adulthood, after the enslaved Africans had reached Britain. Baptisms and other events such as marriages and burials are recorded in parish records across the country, although ethnicity is not always recorded and therefore there are probably many more black people in the records than we realise.