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L'héritage colonial

Anti-Black Racism in British Popular Music (1880-1920)

Racisme anti-noir dans la musique populaire britannique (1880-1920)
John Mullen
p. 61-80


The rapid expansion of the British Empire in the second half of the XIXth century was accompanied by a rise in the diffusion and the legitimacy of racist ideas in Britain. Intellectuals wrote of the “scientific” differences between the races, and racial hierarchies were generally accepted by educated people. What of the uneducated? Comic books and children’s magazines about the “heroes” of the British Empire certainly did not hesitate to use racist stereotypes abundantly. Popular racism against Black people served to legitimize the imperial project, but for most of this period was little aimed at a visible ethnic minority in Britain. Our article will aim at analysing the racist content of popular music in this period – both that of the extremely popular “minstrel shows”, where white performers disguised themselves as stereotypical black slaves for the purposes of entertainment, and the “coon songs” which were common in the music halls. We will trace the depiction of the Black Other as the mirror image of the Victorian and Edwardian respectable gentleman and lady, and how, while generally denigrated, the Black persona could also be desired or envied.

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Imperialist expansion and “scientific” racism

  • 1 Leading Hilaire Belloc to pen the aphorism “Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim gun, and they (...)
  • 2 Niall FERGUSON, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004, p. 278.

1The rapid expansion of the British Empire in the second half of the nineteenth century very much involved Africa and Africans. From the 1880s, war in Sudan confronted Charles Gordon, leading Egyptian and British forces, with the Sudanese revolt. White-led “loyal natives” were faced with “African barbarians” in the dominant English world view of the time. In 1884, the Berlin conference formalized the agreement made between European powers (with no African representatives present), to divide up the African continent between them. In 1893, the First Matabele war showed the dreadful superiority of the British army with its Maxim guns, against spear-throwing locals.1 And, at the very end of the century, the Boer war between Dutch-speaking and English-speaking settlers in South Africa involved, to say the least, a cruel indifference to the fate of indigenous Africans.2 If there is no reason to adopt a conspirationist view of racial stereotyping in popular culture, racist discourses and representations were undoubtedly useful to the imperial vision of the world. If Black people could be considered as inferior, incapable or childlike, the justification for the imperial mission would be much facilitated. The supposed inferiority of African peoples could also serve as a post-facto justification of British organization of the transatlantic slave trade. Finally, it may be considered that racism played a role of social stabilisation often commented on. As Pickering remarks, popular entertainment based on racial stereotyping:

  • 3 Michael Pickering, Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008, p. 109.

[…] encouraged all social classes in Britain to think in racial categories and to rank those categories on the basis of allegedly innate inequality between races […] this deflected attention away from class and gender divisions.3

  • 4 Stephen J Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, New York: Norton, 1981, passim.

2Much has been written about the development of racist theories among Victorian intellectuals, theories sometimes referred to as “scientific racism”. In his book The Mismeasure of Man, US science historian Stephen Jay Gould recounts the extreme reluctance of many nineteenth-century intellectuals to doubt the “obvious” superiority of the white man, even when faced with clear experimental evidence to the contrary.4 In 1863, James Hunt of the Anthropological Society of London posited that “negroes” were a separate species, and were irredeemably inferior to Whites. Professor Francis Galton’s book Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, theorized that, if the ancient Athenians were even more intelligent than the modern English, the English were far superior to Africans. He also affirmed that a suitable role for the British in Africa would be to encourage the victory of the less inferior African tribes over the least “naturally gifted”. In 1883 one of the few British writers who opposed racist ideas, philologist Robert Needham Cust, complained that “the vast majority of the educated public appears to have accepted at least some aspect of the new racial doctrine.

3The link between racist theory and imperial practice was, moreover, fairly direct. Lord Lugard, Governor-General of Nigeria after 1914, wrote as late as 1922:

  • 5 F.J. Lugard, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, s.l.: Blackwell, 1922, p. 70.

In character and temperament, the typical African of this race-type is a happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking in self-control, discipline, and foresight, naturally courageous, and naturally courteous and polite, full of personal vanity, with little sense of veracity, fond of music and loving weapons as an oriental loves jewellery. His thoughts are concentrated on the events and feelings of the moment, and he suffers little from apprehension for the future, or grief for the past. His mind is far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animal’s placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the state he has reached. […] In brief, the virtues and defects of this race-type are those of attractive children.5

Popular imperialism and racism

  • 6 The Representation of the People Act 1918 would increase the electorate from 7.7 million people to (...)
  • 7 See for example Edmund Morel, The Black Man’s Burden, in Louis L. Snyder, The Imperialism Reader, P (...)
  • 8 One can view a fascinating film of a popular Empire Day celebration in the North West of England, a (...)
  • 9 Bishop of Durham, Bishop of Ripon, et al., Hymns for Empire Day, London: Skeffington and Son, 1910.

4What then of the attitudes of ordinary people, those most likely to be enthusiastic participants in popular music events? In a period when most of the population do not have the right to vote,6 and the opinions of the masses are rarely thought worthy of recording, it is not easy to measure the influence of racist ideas outside the elite. Certainly, this period saw a sharp rise in popular imperialism, helped along by the rise of the mass-produced press and the development of the telegraph. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling published his poem on the “White Man’s Burden” in a popular American magazine, and it became the symbol of the racist defence of imperialism, even if it did attract some criticism.7 The street parties in Britain during the Boer War showed the prevalence of popular imperialism. Then in 1904, Empire Day began to be widely celebrated, encouraged by the privately-funded Empire Day Movement.8 In particular, schoolchildren were mobilized to celebrate a consensual image of the Empire as a force for peace and civilization, and by 1910 the Church of England was publishing special collections of hymns for Empire Day.9

5Of course, in all historical periods, the ceremonial activities of schoolchildren may tell us more about the values of headmasters than about those of children or their parents. As Thompson points out:

  • 10 Andrew THOMPSON, The Empire Strikes Back: the Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Ninetee (...)

There are real problems in reading from imperial propaganda - however widespread or commercially successful - public acceptance or approval of the opinions therein expressed.10

6We should not therefore be excessively definite – the most we can say is that there was a sizeable current of popular imperialism in the middle and working classes. Popular imperialism is not exactly the same as popular racism, even in this period when there was a very limited presence of non-white people in Britain, but they did tend to go together. Comic books and children’s magazines about the “heroes” of the British Empire certainly did not hesitate to use racist stereotypes abundantly. Advertisements for everyday products blithely played on them, too. It will be unsurprising, then, to find a similar situation in popular entertainment. Thompson says of street ballads of the time

  • 11 Ibid. p. 51.

From the Indian mutiny (1857-8) through the confrontation with the Zulus (1879) to the struggle against the Boers (1899-1902), the empire's ‘small wars’ gave rise to a string of ballads that were very much alike in their emphasis on the savagery, brutality and treachery of non-European peoples, and the courage and bravery of those sent to fight in far-away locations.11

The rise and transformation of the minstrel shows

7In late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, live entertainment and sheet music were the main focuses of popular song. If, by 1910, many ordinary people had been able, at the seaside or on a fairground, to listen to a few recordings on phonographs and similar machines, the everyday experience of listening to music was purely one of live performances: street singers, family sing-alongs at Christmas or musical evenings in a pub or in the parlour, barrel organ performances, and so on. England was a musical place: by 1914 there were over three million pianos in the country. Already, by the 1880s, the music hall was the dominant form of live musical entertainment, along with the pantomime (a sort of topical musical show produced in the Christmas season) and the much more expensively-ticketed musical comedy. But there was also a very particular form of evening show, a format which was built around racist caricaturing.

  • 12 Pickering op. cit., pp 17ff.

8This was blackface minstrelsy. Where other forms of entertainment might include racial stereotypes, blackface minstrelsy, also generally known at the time as “nigger minstrelsy”, was wholly built around the stereotyping of Africans or Black Americans. The minstrel show in its theatre version was an evening’s entertainment performed by a troupe of white men blacked up to resemble caricatures of Black men: thick red or white lips, wigs of tightly curled hair and so on. This type of show was imported from the United States in the 1830s, but subsequently followed a separate development in Britain than on the American continent. By the 1850s in Britain, the minstrel show was very much stylized and structured. In the first part, a semi-circle of minstrels sang and played, and two clown minstrels, named Bones and Tambo, mocked the master of ceremonies, who perorated in pretentious and incorrectly used intellectual language. In the second part, a variety of circus-type acts and dancing acts were produced. The third part was mock heroic drama, in the style of, say, Shakespeare, produced in “nigger dialect” and overflowing with puns, malapropisms and exaggerated diction. A walk-around song completed the show.12

9This form of entertainment became extremely popular, especially with new layers of clerks and shop workers with aspirations, and with the professional classes. More and more concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies with large amounts of capital, it experienced a veritable boom after 1870. As one commentator writes:

  • 13 John Abbott, The Story of Francis, Day and Hunter, London: William Chappell, 1952, p. 9.

It caught the fancy of an amusement-starved public and was almost the only alternative to the doubtful humour of the music hall of the period. Minstrelsy was a form of family entertainment where husband and wife could take their children without fear of being asked embarrassing questions afterwards.13

It was thus considered as more “respectable” than the music hall, and certainly there was no risk of hearing sexual innuendo or rude jokes, or seeing women’s legs, at the minstrel show. Gradually, the shows became more sophisticated and the costumes and sets more elaborate. Music-hall type songs or parlour ballads were added to the “plantation songs”, and shows often now included virtuoso instrument playing, or dancing. Although racism was at the centre of the concept of the blackface minstrel show, it should not be assumed to be its only or even its principal attraction for the millions who flocked to buy tickets. The music and dancing was often of high quality, and the entertainment offered other pleasures. The minstrel was a clown figure who, at the same time as reinforcing negative stereotypes of black people, gave delight to the audience by mimicking and making ridiculous established elite figures, such as the politician or headmaster. Minstrelsy also developed a number of forms and structures which lived on in popular entertainment long after the minstrel show had died. Cross-talk comedy duos, where one “straight man” and one comic interact, were developed through minstrelsy, for example.

10It is particularly important to underline that the social utility of the minstrel show was different in the United States and in Britain. In the USA, minstrelsy was one of many weapons to help keep down a large local minority population, and to cement white fellowship in the public mocking of the denigrated Other. The audience of the US minstrel show had everyday dealings with Black people and the show gave them images which had a practical effect in everyday living. For a long period, the US audience was made up essentially of working-class white men, whereas, as we have noted, the UK audience would include large numbers of middle-class professionals and their families. In the UK, the mocking of black people was the mocking of a distant denigrated Other: the majority of the audience had probably never met anybody who wasn’t white. The racist stereotypes remained functional as a way of reinforcing popular imperialism, but impinged little on everyday living.

  • 14 The Peoples Song Book, Dundee and London: John Leng and Company, 1915.

11The minstrel shows’ popularity generated a mass market for sheet music of the songs. A number of albums entirely made up of these songs were published, and many other albums would include a song of this type. As late as 1915, the People’s Song Book, published in London, promised “32 favourite Scottish songs, 33 favourite English songs, 35 favourite Irish songs. 34 favourite Welsh songs (…) and 32 Nigger minstrel songs. All with music in sol-fa and staff notations, etc.”14 One of the most popular minstrel troupes, the Mohawk Minstrels, published a regular magazine for a number of years. In each issue were a dozen or so songs. Interestingly, it seems that in each issue there was one “coon song” written in a caricature of Black American dialect. The rest of the magazine was made up of other types of song: love songs, jealousy songs, songs of joie de vivre, cute children, sick children dying, and dancing songs. There were also many “motto songs” delivering moral advice. The latter included such titles as “Do Not Speak the Angry Word”, “Never Be Ashamed of Your Mother,” “Think of the Lowly Ones” and “Do Not Nurse Your Anger”

The coon song and other offshoots of minstrelsy

  • 15 Peter BAILEY, “Naughty but Nice: Musical Comedy and the Rhetoric of the Girl” in Michael R. BOOTH a (...)

12Blackface minstrelsy as an evening theatre show declined very rapidly after 1890. It is difficult to identify precisely the reasons for this. Certainly the rise of musical comedy as a more versatile evening of respectable entertainment was one factor: musical comedy aimed at the same market sector. Pretty dancers, sumptuous costumes and decor, the staged threat of loose morals and a spectacular wedding finale were the key attractions of this genre. While remaining more respectable than the music hall, the form was much more open than was the minstrel show to storylines of male-female relationships and “naughty” girls, the rise of which themes paralleled the very slow relaxation of Victorian morals.15

  • 16 Michael Pickering, the author of the only full-length academic study of blackface minstrelsy in Bri (...)
  • 17 Derek SCOTT, Sounds of the Metropolis: The 19th-Century Popular Music Revolution (in London, New Yo (...)

13Blackface minstrel shows did not owe their decline to public protest over their racist content. We have found no examples at all of denunciations of blackface minstrelsy in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.16 If such denunciations existed, they must have been very much a minority affair. This is despite the fact that we know of severe criticism of minstrelsy in the US context from many decades earlier. Indeed, the great black abolitionist orator, Frederick Douglass, had declared as early as 1848 that blackface performers were “the filthy scum of white society, who stole from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their fellow white citizens.” And in the 1850s, some in the US music industry had come to consider “minstrel dialect” as degrading.17

  • 18 Pickering op. cit., p. 87.

14Even if a rejection of public racism was not one of the causes of the decline, it may well be that the abolition of slavery in the United States in the mid-1860s contributed to making the blackface stereotypes slowly appear out-dated. It does seem that the most violent racist content became considerably more muted as the genre moved into the twentieth century. The blackface minstrel continued for some decades to be widespread in many other forms, which developed in parallel with the theatre show. As a shorter seaside show, for example, blackface still had a long future – Uncle Mack’s Minstrels, at Broadstairs near Brighton, played three shows a day from 1900 for almost fifty years. In town fairs or village fetes, the amateur minstrel troupe was omnipresent before the First World War. The street parade organized in support of the Crewe Memorial Cottage Hospital in 1907 “included no less than eight minstrel troupes from local workshops, with names like ‘Original Golliwogs’ and the ‘Colombo Troupe of Dancing Darkies’.”18

15In particular, the blackface music-hall turn remained popular long after the decline of the full minstrel show. Dozens of greater and lesser artists tried their hand at it. Eugene Stratton, who died in 1918, G. H. Chirgwin, who died in 1922, and G. H. Elliott, who died in 1962, were the biggest stars. Elliott was billed as “The Chocolate-Coloured Coon” and Chirgwin as “The White-eyed Kaffir” (for reasons we shall see below). Chirgwin starred in the very first Royal Variety Command Performance in 1912, a show organized for the King, and an important milestone in the long campaign of music-hall proprietors to be accepted as respectable entertainment. The music hall chose, after 1880, to portray one particular version ang="en"lack stereotypefor r> tinstT-m thal tuso generalmnipresdaten. As Pickeriexcomplites:

  • 9 Ibid. p16 70.

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Into the twentieth century

  • 9 TEd ineit.,11 The perforit.,12 Pickering op. cit.,

6ne y li oraroesider “ne drs oraroes,ted as yere were alotecdateBroferitentht woott, who died in02,lsy was one at the moly successing, aMrtrHd genompsws dhe blackfaothan the music-hahe stted at leate as late as 7ing.4 Is 1915, ter “n">ne y li orasic wanipresdags, at the music hite avck chorm on eigty ye olssed.17 Tce music-hall tuod sor some development of the caricatule and the sttu rise itair. This ne particubablopectabnt of the rise H. Chirgwias billed 5, ter “ow). Chirgwn, playinthe blackfacake-upism, brs witrel mo and owas ote-mat which was m-upt idaptpulationpir parially be to idrovaOrilsy,followhimoch to he sttof persand more comp;was oll h5, tan rrofessity of thr arttofickeries frbehincked the khot4 th befoto ideniilled hr aflitil.ter “nigong” wes n">Michael Pickeried.17niggee kors to 're rophis'etc.”

  • 9 Ibid. p133278.

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Tht racist conteition songy

  • 4 Pickering op. cier, 787.”6 andhasibservantatiot seeme tohaqradua valiized for tof rameee at tas earhe twentieth centur0. It as thh ray othas differeStepg woothed froe twy-fg Firth centtof ramend in BritaiRf rameto a dme Dayand strucmora Ands attunctioeyliite aThis wel sndy, by tMacStenompsresupport 19 189n, and ly thesficands otnd tteeme er n, p wrode raciegh qualn">iidencdhasib reje have becamem pos Stoce fof publd="arties 2000. Orne, it mb one pall of thrhonom soee ch a minorUSA,quad wanw orgaantatio, such as the BritiNaunctionPe pyren or ite EngliDt defenLeagu .He howelsy,e, hrouor almon mame number othathnublia minoriericexcomplhan thme morublittht racihe attitudre abe widespring, it is difficuce fuseto a dlt tmagerlineelar situatiwh, were theropologic superiority of ter “ch aaketion fonoesdagsc. Cr at a e social classng:

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  • 15 Pickering op. cit.,

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  • 12 Pickering op. cit.,

6Michael Picker puti aboin “14

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9incl as tly foltyping:

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