Britain’s Black trailblazers

This arresting image of South African chorister Eleanor Xiniwe, who toured Britain as part of the African Choir between 1891 and 1893, lay forgotten for over 100 years.

Eleanor Xiniwe, The African Choir, 1891-93 London Stereoscopic Company. Courtesy of © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Autograph ABP – a charity established to promote Black photographers – unearthed it and first exhibited it in Rivington Place, London in 2014.

The image is one of over 40, which depict celebrated and forgotten African and Asian figures and is on display at London’s National Portrait Gallery until 11 December 2016.

Named ‘Black Chronicles – Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’, the exhibition is small, and the images annoyingly scattered across three gallery spaces.

Nevertheless, the showcase is well worth a visit. In my view, it celebrates the achievements of some pioneering men, women and children who were trailblazers in politics, the arts, music and sport before Black and Asian people settled in Britain in large numbers.

Xiniwe was part of this trailblazing party. She was part of a 14-strong choir that included husband John Xiniwe and their young son Paul – both of whom are pictured in the exhibition.

The group sang South African songs and Christian hymns at the Crystal Palace for members of the British aristocracy. They were raising money to build a technical college in Kimberley, the Northern Cape of South Africa to support the area’s growing Black labour force. Little Paul and fellow singer Charlotte Maxeke (nee Manye) later became social activists and reformers in South Africa.

Orphan girl

Some of you will recognise Sarah Forbes Bonetta who was orphaned in the 1848 Okeadon War after her royal parents were reportedly killed. The so-called Yoruba princess was captured by King Gezo of Dahomey, and was among the spoils of the war, according to Walter Dean Myers’ book ‘A Literary Companion’.

Bonetta was due to be sacrificed by the King but instead, she was offered as a ‘gift’ to Captain Frederick Forbes. Forbes took her to England and presented her to Queen Victoria. The Queen adopted her as her god-daughter, educated her and even Sarah’s daughter Victoria years later.

At the exhibition, Bonetta is pictured alongside her merchant and philanthropist husband James Pinson Labulo Davies shortly after their marriage. The picture definitely screams aristocracy but while Davies’ posture and gaze is one of absolute self-confidence, Bonetta looks distant, almost blank. What was she thinking ….?

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies),
by Camille Silvy, 1862
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Musical legacy

Other familiar faces include Holborn-born composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor whose father was from Sierra Leone and his mother English. Despite being a gifted musician, composer and teacher in Croydon, Coleridge-Taylor endured a series of setbacks because of his skin colour which I think has left him without the true adulation he deserves.

And then there is Reverend Samuel Ajayi Crowther who became the first Anglican bishop in Nigeria in 1864. He later received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Oxford.

Some of you will have heard of the Kalulu Falls on the Congo River, which was named after the boy-servant who accompanied journalist Henry Morton Stanley. Henry had been hired by the New York Herald to find missionary Dr David Livingstone. And it is from this encounter between the two me that Henry is believed to have said: ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’ The falls was where the 12-year-old, whose real name was Ndugu M’Hali, drowned.

Boxing clever

Next to these familiar faces are those whose life stories are lesser-known but nevertheless every bit as captivating. There’s champion boxer Peter Jackson who was born on the island of Saint Croix the then capital of the Danish West Indies. As a teenager, Jackson emigrated to Australia and by 1886 claimed the Australian heavyweight champion title. He fought and won against the best 28 boxers from England and America. His career only ended in 1892 because he could not get anyone to fight with. He died nine years later aged 41, according to notes from the gallery.

Pygmies of Central Africa by Benjamin Stone photographed
from © National Portrait Gallery, London

The second of the three rooms, you’ll find images of Congolese pygmies from the Ituri region. This contingent was brought to Britain around 1902 where they performed songs at the Hippodrome Theatre in Leicester Square. And Martha Ann Erskine Ricks who was enslaved on a Tennessee plantation. She settled in Liberia after her father bought the family’s freedom. In 1892 she managed to secure an audience with Queen Victoria, presenting her with a quilt showing a Liberian coffee tree in bloom that took 25 years to make!

These images are just snapshot of a culturally rich period in world history that has so much more to give, in my opinion. Maybe more images will resurface as the curators behind the exhibition keep on digging. Maybe images depicting Bonetta once she emigrated to Sierra Leone will surface or ones showing the African Choir’s completed technical college….. Let’s hope so!

Dancer and choreographer Berto Pasuka
who helped established the first all-Black ballet company
les Ballets Negres, by Angus McBean, 1947
© Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

To visit the exhibition for yourself, visit the National Portrait Gallery here.

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

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