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May 30, 2024
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Black aristocrats in British history

The British royalty has undergone changes overtime, perhaps the most telling is the presence of black aristocrat.

The Royal Family, Britain’s most affluent and exclusive organization, has been associated with whiteness for generations. And yet, there she was for a split second: Black woman of multiracial descent, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. An African-American preacher and choir graced St. George’s Chapel in Windsor for her picture-perfect wedding to Prince Harry in 2018, which was an astonishing fusion of black culture and centuries-old royal customs, essentially a coming to life of a 21st century black aristocrats. Who would’ve guessed things would fall apart the way they have three years later while watching on that warm May afternoon?

The Duchess of Sussex is not the first black aristocrats or lady of color to have been a member of the British upper classes, despite being hailed as such. In his most recent book, Dangerous Freedom, Trinidadian author Lawrence Scott explores the life of Elizabeth Dido Belle, a real-life historical character who was the mixed-race offspring of Captain Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved lady named Maria Belle. She was adopted by her great-uncle, Lord Chief Justice William Murray, first Earl of Mansfield, when she was a baby and was nurtured with her cousin Elizabeth in the opulent surroundings of Kenwood House in Hampstead, London. She is regarded as one of Britain’s first black aristocrats today. It was an uncommon arrangement, unique.

Scott began his investigation into Belle’s tale with a painting. The sole depiction of Belle is a painting by Scottish artist David Martin, which places her close to her cousin in the gardens of Kenwood while wearing a silk dress, pearls, and a turban. It is one of the few written accounts of Belle’s life, along with her father’s obituary in the London Chronicle, which described her “amiable disposition and accomplishments,” Thomas Hutchinson, a visitor of Mansfield, who remembered Belle joining the family after dinner, and her uncle’s affection for her. Together with years of in-depth investigation, these tiny tidbits allowed Scott to put together a story gradually.

As it turned out, the creators of Belle, the 2014 movie starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and many people’s first introduction to the lost character, were also researching Dido Belle’s life at the same time as Scott was. Using the same fragments, screenwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante created a screenplay that combined two traditional Hollywood plotlines: a love story as Dido searches for a spouse and a morality play as we wait for Mansfield’s decision in a significant slavery case. As expected, Belle experiences racial remarks from her friends, and, according to Hutchinson’s description, neither has a “coming out,” nor does she eat with her family.

In contrast, she is shown to have a close bond with her cousin “Bette” and her “Papa,” Lord Mansfield, as well as love feelings for John Davinier, an anglicized version of his real name D’Aviniere, who is portrayed in the movie as a white abolitionist preacher and aspiring lawyer.

Representing black aristocrats

To further understand the evolution of black aristocrats in British history, we have to jump forward another 250 years to 2013, when Emma McQuiston, the daughter of a black Nigerian father and a white British mother, married Ceawlin Thynn, the then Viscount Weymouth. Thynn (now the Marchioness of Bath) has spoken in interviews about the prejudice and snobbery she originally encountered in aristocratic circles, and her husband has revealed that his mother raised concerns about “400 years of bloodline,” which is a common theme in Dido’s experiences.

Ironically, there has long been talk that members of the Royal Family may be of mixed racial heritage. Whether Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, was “white-passing” or had African ancestry has been a topic of historical discussion for decades. Although many academics have questioned the hypothesis, the creators of the TV drama series Bridgerton have used it to represent her as a clear-cut black lady.

The series tells the story of black aristocrats by imagining a multicultural “ton” that includes other black aristocrats like the fictitious Duke of Hastings, the society’s most eligible bachelor, and Lady Danbury, his confidante. “Ton” is an acronym for the French word le beau ton, which means sophisticated society. Bridgerton’s racially varied portrayal of black aristocrats is first refreshing when viewed within the context of period dramas, which often exclude persons of color for historical realism. However, the realization that the Bridgerton universe is not quite “colorblind” but rather that what is being portrayed in the series is an imagined scenario where the marriage of Queen Charlotte to King George ushered in a type of post-racial utopia slightly complicates that feeling especially with black aristocrats.

Bridgerton is not intended to withstand in-depth scrutiny because it is bubbly, lighthearted, and full of intentional anachronisms. However, the way the show deals with race has come under fire for being more revisionist than radical. Although the frocks, mansions, and parties of Regency London make for opulent viewing, a crucial source of all that money has been glossed over because the series is set in 1813, 20 years before slavery was completely outlawed in Britain. In furtherance of black aristocrats, the idea that King George’s marriage to a black Queen Charlotte eliminated racial hierarchy is a bit too fantasy, just as Harry and Meghan’s relationship had no discernible impact on everyday black Britons.

Bridgerton could be seen as an unintentional metaphor for how Britain has rewritten its history of slave trading. The Royal African Company, which smuggled more Africans to the Americas than any other institution, was founded by King Charles II and James, Duke of York. Today, little is known about the Royal Family’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

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It took the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of last summer to hasten the review of Britain’s history of the slave trade, particularly its connections to stately estates. The National Trust reported in September 2020 that one-third of its estates had some relation to colonial-era loot; a month later, Historic Royal Palaces indicated it was starting an examination of its holdings. Unsurprisingly, the idea of “decolonizing” some of Britain’s most valuable country homes has prompted a “culture war” response. Still, a select group of members of the landed gentry has been willing to face the past.

With all those castles, diamonds, and artworks, it’s understandable that black individuals in the British upper classes are romanticized in modern culture. Works like Dangerous Freedom now provide an alternate perspective by deglamorizing the aristocracy, giving voice to the oppressed, and describing the prejudice, isolation, and tensions that persist. The utopian reinterpretation or progressive fairytale will always be more appealing. It may be time to write a new story, as Scott recommends.

Reference: Britain’s first black aristocrats

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