Pablo Fanque (28 Feb 1796 – 4 May 1871)
Even though there is much speculation about when he was born, many sources agree that William Darby was born in Norwich to an African-born father and English mother. He joined a circus as a horse rider and rope walker and became known by his stage name of Pablo Fanque. His performances in 1847 was very successful, with The Illustrated London News raving about this ‘artiste of colour’ and his ‘extraordinary horse training skills’. The circus historian George Speight said that ‘by his own industry and talent, he got together as fine a stud of horses and ponies as any in England’. He even performed in front of Queen Victoria in his run at London’s Astley’s Amphitheatre as well as employing Elizabeth Sylvester who was Britain’s first female clown. He went on from there to operate his own circus for 30 years, during which time he toured extensively through England, as well as Ireland and Scotland. Even the legendary Jem Mace toured with Fanque in 1861. His circus’ were regarded as the most popular in Victorian Britain for 30 years in spite of the fact that he was the first non-white circus proprietor in Britain.
It’s entirely normal to see reference to his African heritage, but unusual to see a Black man in such a prominent position in the entertainment industry not as a performer, but as a businessman. And well-respected at that. A quote in the Blackburn Mercury reads as follows:
I am sure that the friends of temperance and morality are deeply indebted to him for the perfectly innocent recreation which he has afforded to our population, by which I am sure hundreds have been prevented from spending their money in revelling and drunkenness
He seems to be one of the earliest examples of prominent Black entertainers in the Western world along with Ira Aldridge, who performed in London as an actor as early as 1825, albeit as a slave named Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam. Unfortunately, his wife died as a result of a structural accident at a show, and Fanque himself died penniless. His story becomes more incredible when noted that a funeral procession, band and four coaches and mourners marched ahead of his coffin when he died. On their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, the Beatles pay homage to Fanque by mentioning him in a song entitled Being for the Benefit of Mr.Kite!
Saartjie Baartman (c.1789 – 29 Dec 1815)
Taken from her homeland of the Gamtoos Valley in South Africa, Saartjie was taken to London and spent four years being exhibited in around Britian. She was exhibited for people to look at and stare, like the sub-human they all thought she was. The recent Human oo attraction at The Barbican would have included an actress displayed like the picture above; a tribute to a woman who, like many others in the 19th century, were degraded in similar fashion. Others like Ota Benga (a pygmy from the Congo) and Abraham Ulrikab (an Inuk from Labrador) were taken from their homeland and displayed to members of the paying public.
She was displayed because of her ‘unusual’ bodily features. Her large buttocks and elongated labia were of great curiositiy to scientists, as well as her jaw structure, the shape of her nose and chin. After her death, her cadaver was dissected and the results published by Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville who likened certain features to that of an orangutan. The measuring and comparisons of her face no doubt contributed to Ernst Rüdin’s justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany and have their root in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution which was turned into eugenics by his half cousin Sir Francis Galton.
Despite the atrocities of WWII, the civil rights movement and even Womens Suffrage, Saartjie’s genitals, brain and skeleton were on display in Paris’ Musée de l’Homme up until 1974. A cast of her body was removed in 1976.
Given this sad story, the way she was exhibited and is rumoured to have prostituted herself while living in Paris in poverty, it’s no wonder that certain singers and entertainers have come under criticism for how they portray themselves. Are they just an extention of Saartjie? Or are they merely expressing their sexuality in today’s liberal society?
Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) (18 April 1922 – 11 Feb 2000)
Even as the Trinidadian Lord Kitchener stepped off the Empire Windrush in 1948, he was singing the song he wrote on the famous boat, ‘London is the place for me’. Kitch brought a twist to the calypso that already existed in London, with the likes of Sam Manning and Rudolph Dunbar already plying their trade in the capital. The difference was, that fresh from his 6 month tour of Jamaica, he was already adapting his music to his surroundings.
London is the place for me
London, this lovely city
You can go to France or America
India Asia or Australia,But you must come back to London city.
Kitch’s lyrics, instead of conforming to the norm and singing for pure entertainment, he took Calypso’s original meaning (coming from the word ‘kaiso’ in the Hausa language) by acting as a contemporary griot, commenting on social events and criticism of government. he wrote songs such as Cricket, Lovely Cricket to celebrate the West Indies beating England in 1950, My Landlady which spoke about struggles to pay rent, and If You’re Not White, You’re Black.
Your Negro hair is obvious,
You make it more conspicuous,
You use all sort of Vaseline,
To make out you are European…
He also commemorated Ghana’s Independence with the song Birth Of Ghana:
This day will never be forgotten,
The 6th of March 1957,
When the Gold Coast successfully,
Get their independence officially,
He also paid homage to some of the bebop artists of the day on Bebop Calypso and the jovial Love in the Cemetery. His most successfully commercial song was Sugar Bum Bum which was written in 1978. He made some of the funniest, introspective and historically significant calypso of his time, and had an influence on Ghanaian highlife music due to his tours there, and won many awards in his native Trinidad all the way into the 90’s.
150 years before Marcus Garveys plan for people of African ancestry in the diaspora to return to Africa, there were a group of Blacks based in London who managed to do just that.
In the 18th century, The Black Poor were a group of people living in London, who for different reasons, were unable find work or who simply couldn’t find it. They generally lived around Covent Garden, the East End and Marlybone, and Eliabeth I on more than one occasion referred to the ‘great numbers of negars and blackamoors’ she wanted to be deported. God save the Queen. The funny thing is, they actually weren’t all Black. Originally, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was set up for Lascars (Indian sailors) who were sometimes abandoned in England by the East India Company. In 1786, The Committee found that there were about 250 Black and Indian people who needed help and some of the most prominent figures of London’s financial elite began to plan. Ironically, these abolitionists and members such as Thomas Boddington and John Angerstein, while raising money for aid, were themselves slave owners and benefited from the slave trade.
Whether it was in an effort to remove Blacks and Indians from London, or a purely altruistic endeavour, on 9th April 1787, 3 ships left Portsmouth bound for Sierra Leone. Even Olaudah Equiano was employed to help arrange supplies for the long journey. They arrived on May 5th and their descendents are called the Krio, and make up approximately 4% of Sierra Leone’s population.
Rudolph Dunbar (26 Nov 1907 – 10 June 1988)
Rudolph Dunbar was born in Guyana, and began playing the clarinet in the British Guiana Militia Band after being inspired by their arrangements of Wagner and Elgar when he was 14 years old. He moved to New York at the age of 19 to study at the Institute of Musical Art (now Julliard), majoring in composition, piano and clarinet. He became involved in the Harlem Jazz scene and featured on recordings by The Plantation Orchestra.
He moved to Paris in 1925, and spent time in Vienna, studying with some of the top musicians in Europe including Felix Weingartner and Louis Calusac. He was once invited to give a private recital to the widow of Claude Debussy of members of the Paris Conservatoire. He then moved to London and set up the first ever clarinet school, which lead him to write the textbook Treatise on the Clarinet (Boehm System) which became the standard reference work for the clarinet.
In London, he made pioneering recordings with the All British Coloured Band and Rudolph Dunbar and his African Polyphony. He also composed a ballet score Dance of the Twenty-First Century, which was broadcast nationally. In the years following, he became the first black man to conduct the London and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, as well as conducting in Russia and Poland in the late 50’s and early 60’s.
Unfortunately, he has never truly been recognised as a pioneer not only of classical music, not only of British classical music, but of Caribbean music too. With so much focus on the likes of Louis Armstrong and other African-American musicians, the feats of many Caribbean musicians in Europe and indeed has gone under the radar. Let’s help change that.
Oluadah Equiano (c.1745 – 31 March 1797)
Even though 12 Years a Slave portrayed the pain and struggles of Solomon Northup, there is another story which predates Northups which in some ways is even more remarkable.
Coming from Igboland, Nigeria, the young Equiano was first taken to Barbados as a slave in 1754, shipped to Virginia, and was fortunate enough to purchase his own freedom in 1766. After travelling and remarkably learning the French horn, he settled in London and wrote his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) which depicted his experiences as a slave, was instrumental in the British Slave Trade Act of 1807. If this rags to riches story wasn’t enough, he married an English woman in 1792, and had two children. One can only imagine what life was like for two mixed race girls growing up in late 1700’s London. He also helped to select slaves in South America for Dr. Charles Irving, and managed them as they worked on sugarcane plantations. He became one of the leading abolitionists of his day, lecturing and touring with his book in the 1780’s, and was appointed to help resettle some of Londons free Black people in Freetown, present day Sierra Leone.
Here’s a link to his epic story: