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18 September 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 1:17pm

Black jokes, white humour

From sexualised mockery to pro-slavery propaganda, how Africans were caricatured in Georgian Britain.

By David Dabydeen

In 1875, Charles Dickens, reflecting on the history of “The Black Man” in Britain observed: “Caricatures, a generation or so old, abound in representations of the black man. And from the caricaturists, very much is to be learned touching a nation’s manners and customs. The negro coachman, a very portly person, with powder over his curly pate; the negro footman, in a brilliant livery, stately of port and stalwart of body, if somewhat unshapely as to his nether limbs; in how many illustrations of social life do not these worthies appear?” The art historian Temi Odumosu, trawling through thousands of Georgian paintings and prints (and uncovering previously unpublished works) has now provided substantial scholarship to confirm Dickens’s observation.

She reminds us that every major artist, from William Hogarth to James Gillray, depicted black people. They are referred to constantly in art treatises, essays and other literature by theorists and practitioners, in relation to the aesthetics of blackness. Hogarth and Reynolds, for example, both grappled with concepts of beauty and both agreed that the form and colour of the black body was as attractive as that of the white. As Hogarth states, “the Negro who finds great beauty in the black Females of his own country, may find as much deformity in the European Beauty as we see in theirs”.

Such enlightened views, however, do not inform the depiction of the black figure in the bulk of Georgian art. There are, it is true, some magnificent portraits, revealing human warmth, dignity and nobility (think of Gainsborough’s 1768 portrait of the African writer and former slave Ignatius Sancho; or David Wilkie’s 1815 portrait of Billy Waters, arguably London’s most famous beggar), but these form a mere handful. There are also many non-judgemental pictures in which blacks, as chimney sweeps, beggars, musicians and household servants, simply go about their business, their normalcy revealing how unremarkably diverse London was, how easily they blended into street scenes and households.

In the period before the abolition movement began in earnest (in 1787) black people are depicted as relatively harmless, in the high-life-below-stairs genre, cavorting or getting drunk with white female servants. If they are comic actors in such plebeian scenes, provoking shock or laughter, so are the white servants. Caricature is a great equaliser; it thrives on sexual scandal, and blacks depicted in the drawing rooms of the aristocracy, serving refreshments while their masters and mistresses are indulging in debauchery, are passive “participants”, though sometimes, as in Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode, Frame 4 (1743), they are the ones doing the quiet laughing.

A startling example of open sexualised mockery is the anonymous 1792 print, The Rabbits (given a prominent space in Odum osu’s book), in which the black rabbit seller, Mungo, has a ready and comic rejoinder to the Lady’s complaint about his goods. “O la how it smells – sure it’s not fresh,” she protests, holding a rabbit upside down, with its legs spread. “Be gar Missie, dat no fair – If Black Man take you by Leg so – you smell too.” Who would have thought, at the height of the Atlantic slave trade, that the black man could get away with such a provocative insult. Or, rather, that the artist was bold enough to give the black man a lead role in visual humour.

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“Mungos” were many, especially after the publication and performance of Isaac Bickerstaffe’s comic play The Padlock (1768). It was a huge success, with many stage spin-offs, and versions were enacted in South Carolina, Calcutta and Kingston. Its most memorable character, Mungo, a trickster who gleefully fails to protect his master, Don Diego, from being cuckolded, is given the best lines, and the pidgin he speaks raised loud laughter. But Mungo also won over the audience by his complaints of being ill-treated by Don Diego: “La, Massa, how could you have a heart to lick poor Neger man, like you lick me last Thursday?” Mungo sings a lament that became so popular that it was to be reproduced in several contemporary songbooks:

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What e’er’s to be done,
Poor black must run; Mungo here,
Mungo dere, Mungo everywhere;
Sirrah come, Sirrah go,
Do so, and do so
Oh! Oh!
Me wish to de Lord me was dead.

That Don Diego was a Spaniard (“bloody dago”) would have made those who enjoyed Mungo’s mischief and misrule even more sympathetic to him. Imagine a Drury Lane crowd taking the side of a black man against a white man, albeit a Spaniard.

As Odumosu states, “the phrase from the song: ‘Mungo here, Mungo dere, Mungo everywhere’ became a popular expression for general busyness and activity.” Politicians such as Jeremiah Dyson, notorious for changing sides when it suited their purse, were depicted in many prints as black Mungos, and the phrase applied to their opportunism. Mungo became a generic name for black male servants, especially in scenes of bawdy and titillation. Mungo was truly  everywhere in the visual archives, memorably in Thomas Rowlandson’s etching, Every Man Has His Hobby Horse (a satire on Westminster election antics of 1784), in which the tavern of drunkenness and disrepute is called “Mungo’s Hotel”, and Mungo himself is a main figure in the picture.

If the black man was depicted as a satyrlike figure, making him recognisable, and so less threatening to white viewers, black women were also given a classical makeover. However, increasing their familiarity had a different, malicious purpose. This is evident in Thomas Stothard’s notorious illustration for Isaac Teale’s poem “The Sable Venus” (1765). There, the black woman is willingly following her lover Neptune from Africa to Jamaica on a sea-shell. It is a callous denial of reality, given the relentless abuse of women in the colonies. As Odumosu writes, “Usurping composition and iconography from master works such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (circa 1486) and Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea (1512), Stothard’s image classicised the experiences of enslaved African women with shameless irony, stretching the very notion of allegory by representing a colonial figure understood as the property of her owners, voyeurs and abusers.”

At the other end of the spectrum were crude representations of the black female body (beastly, with bulbous breasts and broad bottoms), revealing a horror of miscegenation, as well as fascination with what Daniel Defoe called “unspeakable acts of copulation”. If you want to understand the context of the caricature of Serena Williams losing her temper during the 2018 US Open final, then read Odumosu. She herself intimates how troubled she was in conducting her research and unearthing such crudities.

The relatively light-hearted, if casually racist, mockery of black figures in early to mid-Georgian art gave way to the most   virulent images when the subject of abolition reached boiling point in political and popular discourse. The pro-slavery lobby went on a visual rampage, best exemplified in George Cruikshank’s etching, The New Union Club (1819).  There, black people in London are depicted as innately wild, with freedom for them leading to sexual excess, drunken violence and sickly behaviour. Odumosu is resolute in dissecting the  picture, contextualising all its minutiae. Such scholarship – patient, thorough, challenging, courageous, groundbreaking – makes her book one to be valued. 

David Dabydeen is a novelist, broadcaster, academic and co-editor of “The Oxford Companion to Black British History” (Oxford University Press)

Africans in English Caricature 1769-1819: Black Jokes White Humour
Temi Odumosu
Harvey Miller, 223pp, £105.79