Black Victorians

Hidden in History

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Pub Date 15 Sep 2022 | Archive Date 01 Sep 2022

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A landmark work of revisionist history exploring and celebrating the lives of Black Victorians.

Our vision of Victorian Britain tends to the monolithic – white, imperialist, prurient, patrician. However, though until very recently overlooked in our textbooks, there was another, more diverse Britain, populated by people of colour marking achievements both ordinary and extraordinary.

In this deeply researched, dynamic and revelatory history, Woolf and Abraham reach back into the archives to recentre our attention on marginalised Black Victorians, from leading medic George Rice to protestor William Cuffay to attention-grabbing abolitionists Henry ‘Box’ Brown and Sarah Parker Remond; from pre-Raphaelite muse Fanny Eaton to composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor.

Black Victorians shows how Black lives were visible, present and influential – not temporary presences but established and rooted; and how paradox and ambivalence characterised the Victorian view of race.

A landmark work of revisionist history exploring and celebrating the lives of Black Victorians.

Our vision of Victorian Britain tends to the monolithic – white, imperialist, prurient, patrician...

Advance Praise


‘A promising young historian’ STEPHEN FRY

‘Nuanced and complex, Woolf deftly shows there are stories of empowerment alongside those of exploitation’ BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE

‘John Woolf's book will dazzle you with details of extraordinary lives, long underestimated by history’ MATTHEW SWEET, author of Inventing the Victorians


‘A promising young historian’ STEPHEN FRY

‘Nuanced and complex, Woolf deftly shows there are stories of empowerment alongside those of exploitation’ BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE


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ISBN 9780715654453
PRICE £20.00 (GBP)

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Featured Reviews

These heros of the past who have been mostly swept under the proverbial carpet - hidden from us, are finally getting to see the light of day. Prejudices were alive and sickeningly well back in the Victorian times as they are even now. I learned so much from these courageously valiant black men and women who persevered against all odds and despite the constant rejection of their personages and talents due to their skin tones. To know so many did push through shows their resilience and determination in so many areas such as in the music world, art, entertainment and even, and especially, in the activism of the abolitionists and anti-slavery advancement movements.

This book has been written by a white man about the black plight but I beleive he has credence if you see the extensive bibliography list of references from whence he must have done his research and has been kept accountable by a black collaborater, Dr. Keisha N. Abraham. Additionally, I do not apologize for using the terms 'black' or 'white' either. As you read Black Victorians, you'll understand why.

I found this book to be of great interest and have learned so very much. However, at times I did get bogged down by expoundings although they were needed. The reader just has to be patient and digest the wisdom and understanding while reading. I really was happy to have read this expose and believe all human beings could learn much from these heros such as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Cuffay, Ida B. Wells and so many more.

~Eunice C., Reviewer/Blogger~

May 2022

Disclaimer: This is my honest opinion based on the review copy sent by NetGalley and the publisher.

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Black Victorians methodically moves through various social spheres of Victorian England to bring into the light those who presence has for so long been kept out of history, “colouring in the pages of history with more texture and substance” as co-author Keishia N. Abraham puts it in her foreword, with a goal of “making Black lives not only matter but valued, considered, appreciated, elevated, honoured … centered.” As fellow author John Woolf notes, this centering is no more or less “political” than any history, including the one that has most dominated — ”a version of white British history.” The purpose, Woolf, continues, is a “better understanding of the past,” which of course is difficult to do if one ignores entire populations of that past. In his introduction, Woolfe also confronts upfront the fraught question of whether it is “right that a white person should write any form of Black history,” nothing that these are questions he himself has wrestled with, and attempted to address with “humility and caution,” by collaborating with Abraham, “an expert on the Africa diaspora and a committed Black feminist,” to create a work that is “very much ours.”

The work itself is thorough, detailed, and for the most part fully engaging, though some casual readers may find it a bit too detailed in spots (hardly a complaint though). One of my favorite aspects is how the authors, after a general segment setting historical and research context, separate the book into sections focused on differing levels of class/power, beginning as Woolfe says with those “on the social margins … who struggled for survival inside notorious asylums and on the urban streets.” From there they move upward in status, such as a bishop and someone (William Cuffay) who fought to overturn the state and was transported to Australia after being convicted of treason. The next section focuses more on culture, looking for instance at the Jamaican model Fanny Eaton, composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (perhaps the most famous of the people studied here), and circus owner Pablo Fanque. Finally, the authors turn to politics, particularly abolitionists, including Henry “Box” Brown (so named for his method of escape from slavery), and journalist Ida B. Wells. This segment, like all of the prior ones, does an excellent job in portraying the agency of Black Victorians, something often ignored or trivialized on those rare times Black presence is even noted, with the abolition movement often portrayed as a bunch of white people arguing for Black power, with help from a bare handful of exceptional Blacks such as Frederick Douglass.

Besides the wealth of information, all presented clearly, methodically, and in well-organized fashion, Black Victorians also offers up at the end an absolutely fantastic bibliography, full of fascinating resources for those looking to further their exploration of the topic (or slide into other related areas, such as Victorian circuses). It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I made nearly as many highlights in the bibliography than the text itself. A highly recommended work.

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My thanks to the publisher for an advanced copy of this book to review. It sets out to address quite why the agency of so many black people has been whitewashed out of the history of an age, which was in fact obsessed with race, as, upon it, rested the ‘moral’ justification for empire. Not just any empire. By 1914 25% of the world’s population and 20% of its land fell under British rule.

I think the book goes some way to succeeding in this endeavour, and, in doing so, describes the lives of a number of hugely fascinating people. Their stories are drawn from many different points of view. There are people on the margins, there are voices of protest, there are black aristocrats, there are black people in the arts, black professionals and there are black leaders of political struggle.

Sometimes I think the book spends too much time supposing what these black people might have thought or felt. Hakim Adi’s new book is better on this aspect because his people are selected for having managed to publish work about their lives, which tells us exactly what they thought and felt.

Also, although the book explicitly sets out to focus on African, Caribbean and African American people, it strikes me as odd, given the wide range of lived lives in the book, to highlight the foundation of the pan African Congress as a sort of culmination of the history of all their struggles.

That said, this is an informative and thought provoking book and I recommend it.

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A treasure trove of information, this book shed light on the life and tribulations of some notable black prodigies. I felt it to be very insightful and the knowledge I gained, I feel grateful for it. At times like this, we need to educate ourselves about history and what influenced the present, about those who gave so much but never got the due recognition due to their skin colour and backgrounds. Amazing book. Thank you publisher for the e-arc.

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I read John Woolf's sensitively handled history of the Victorian circus and freakshows with interest, and Black Victorians (written with Keshia N. Abraham) is similarly accessible, empathetic and intelligent. In amongst the great orators and abolitionists are representatives of every social strata, from streetsweepers to clergymen to aristocrats and artists' models (a wonderful chapter on the still under-researched Fanny Eaton). Interwoven are strands of Pan Africanism and a sense of history converging to the present. If I had one criticism, it would be the gender imbalance, as men's lives outnumber women's in the book at roughly three to one. It makes you wonder how many women's lives have gone unrecorded in the archives and are lost forever once out of living memory.

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The book starts off strong with the author, John Woolf, questioning himself if he should be the one writing a book like this since he's a white man. The fact that he does question this and notes that there are a lot of black historians out there who can do as well a job as he does (Like Keshia N. Abraham) shows me that he means no ill intent by writing this. To quote him: 'As a result, this book is not the product of a white historian 'thinking black'; rather, it is a collaborative history that contemplates questions of 'race" in the nineteenth century.' In his introduction, it's very clear that he and N. Abraham had a great bond so I trust her judgement of him.

The book itself is such an important piece of information. It shares the lives of black people during the nineteenth century from every class. So, not only does this book show the upper class more well-known activists and artists, but it also talks about those that lived inside of asylums and those in jail. One of the things that stuck with me is the daughter of William Brown writing him letters which show how much he was loved even if he was stuck inside the asylum. There were a lot of parts in this book where they showed the emotional toll of these lives as well. For example, I learned that black performers also performed minstrel shows to make ends meet. Horrible but understandable in the climate they had to work in.

The book is full of inspiring stories and I was surprised that I haven't heard about some of these people. As a white person myself it visualises what these people went through as well as the trauma that some black people still carry on to this day. Highly recommend for anyone who's a history buff or who's an activist.

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