Sunday, June 30, 2019

Diversity and High Society in the Regency Period

One of the projects I have had over the last year was to investigate minorities in the Regency period. It came about because I was doing my Life in the UK test and read about the man who started up the first Indian restaurant and who really popularized the taking of waters in Bath as well as the concept of shampooing (Indian head massage) – Sake Dean Mahomet. In June 2018, I went to the Black Salt exhibit in Liverpool and discovered Captain Jack Perkins. There wasn’t much on him at the exhibit as he didn’t fit the narrative of the exhibit but I became intrigued. He was the first black Naval officer and was one of the most prize-winning Naval captains during the American Revolution (therefore of all time). British Naval captains were members of the First Estate and not members of the working class.
 I then discovered Nathaniel Wells who was High Sheriff in Wales in 1818. His first wife was the daughter of George III’s chaplain and his 2nd related to William Wilberforce’s wife.  There was also Cesar Picton who rose from boy-slave to millionaire coal merchant in Kingston upon Hull. And of course there was Gustav Vassa who made one fortune in shipping after buying his freedom as a slave and another as a best selling author during the Georgian period. 
Today I discovered someone else -- a woman.  
The Sunday Times are reporting that the new series of Poldark will carry a strand about the real life adventures of American Revolutionary war hero and British officer Edward (Ned) Despard and his wife Catherine who had once been his servant. Apparently it was a real love match.
On his return to London, he and his wife for a time cut a swathe through Regency high society.
So far, so ordinary, so Regency romance.So far, so Poldark -- although Graham's son denies his father knew anything about Despard and his servant wife.
 Despard however had married his servant Catherine (Kitty) in what became Belize. 
He was an early campaigner for civil rights of the freed slaves and was removed from being the Superintendent of the colony (basically the governor) . Kitty was supposed to be Jamaican (although some people preferred to call her Spanish Creole).
Despard was a friend of Nelson's but it was Kitty who prevailed on him to intervene on Despard's behalf during the trial. Despard  was hanged in 1803 for his part in the so-called Despard plot. She also became an activist for prison reform. They had a son James -- no idea what happened to him.
I suspect some viewing the new season of Poldark will say that the BBC are being politically correct to make Kitty a black woman.
My point is that the notion that somehow black people (and other minorities) in British society during the Regency period was all of low class who did not mix with high society is a canard which is often peddled in Romancelandia as an excuse for not including diverse characters.
 Often they are hiding in plain sight, overlooked because they don't fit the historical narrative or social construct  on many levels.  In short more black men dined with the Prince of Wales than Wellington ever rose from the ranks to become officers. This is not to say that there wasn’t huge discrimination. The fact they continued to be overlooked points to that. To do your research, you must be aware of how people were presented and how things were brushed under the carpet. A painter visiting Wells for the first time expressed surprise at his countenance and that he was as dark as any West Indian but of course, he obvious wasn't (Wells was the son of a slave). It puts another interpretation on Mr Rochester's first  wife and brother-in-law btw. 
NB I haven’t mentioned the French and what was going on there – suffice to say, there is much to excite any historical romance writer who is interested in getting more diversity into their work.
It is time Romancelandia started reflecting what was actually happening during the Regency period, instead adhering to an Edwardian view of the period which Heyer developed.  The late Victorian and Edwardian periods were notoriously xenophobic and people’s family history was bleached. But they are there, hiding in plain sight. It is about time they were restored.

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