Black Chronicles II – The Unseen Portraits of Victorian Britain

The newly opened exhibition at Autograph ABP, Black Chronicles II, explores black presence in nineteenth and early twentieth-century British studio photography. Bringing together over 200 photographs, some of which have been unseen for 120 years, the body of curated works sheds an interesting light on the black subject in Victorian Britain. As the co-curator, Renée Mussai, explains: “Black Chronicles II is part of a wider ongoing project called The Missing Chapter, which uses the history of photography to illuminate the missing chapters in British history and culture, especially black history and culture. There is a widespread misconception that black experience in Britain begins with the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the first Jamaican immigrants in 1948, but, as this exhibition shows, there is an incredible archive of images of black people in Britain that goes right back to the invention of photography in the 1830s.”

Mussai notes that there “are several intertwining narratives – colonial, cultural and personal – embedded in these images, but what is often startling is how confident and self-contained many of the sitters are as they occupy the frame.” Above all, these precious windows into Victorian life present images of British colonialism in all its contradictions – the Ethiopian prince in exile, the black companion-servant to explorer Henry Morton Stanley and the celebrated, imprisoned “gift to the Queen of the Whites”.

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December 2nd, 1889. Peter Jackson, born in St. Croix (then the Danish West Indies) in 1860. Jackson was a boxing champion who frequently embarked on long European tours. In 1888 he claimed the title of Australian heavy weight champion. In 1889, he staged a famous fight against Jem Smith in the Pelican Club in England.

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Brighton, 1862. Sara Forbes Bonetta was perhaps one of the most celebrated black British Victorians, an ordinary woman caught up in the sweep of colonialism and post colonialism. She was captured at the age of 5 in West Africa by slave raiders and rescued by Captain Fredrick E. Forbes. Forbes then presented Sara as a “gift” to Queen Victoria, after rechristening her after his ship – the Bonetta. Captain Forbes proudly recalled that Sara “would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.”

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The Isle of Wight, 1868. Dejazmatch Alamayou Tewodros was an Ethiopian prince who was orphaned at the age of 7 when his King father died rather than surrendering to the British troops that surrounded his castle. Alamayou was brought to England by Sir Robert Napier and later adopted by the explorer Captain Tristram Speedy. Alamayou died in England of pleurisy in 1879.

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November 3rd, 1890. Major Musa Bhai was a Ceylon-born Muslim who converted to Christianity in colonial India. He travelled to England in 1888 with the family of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, later to become a high-profile advocate of the organisation.

The African Choir were a group of South African singers who toured Britain between 1891 and 1893. They were brought together to raise funds for a Christian school in their home country and performed for Queen Victoria at Osbourne House in the Isle of Wight. At some point during their stay, the choir group visited the studios of The London Stereoscopic Company to have group and individual portraits made. The London Stereoscopic Company specialised in producing carte de visites, small photographs printed on cards that were traded by collectors or used by performers for publicity purposes. These long-lost images, last shown in the London Illustrated News in 1891, make up the dramatic centrepiece to this exhibition.

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1891. Eleanor Xiniwe of the African Choir.

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1891. An unknown member of the African Choir.

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1891. An unknown member of the African Choir.

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1891. An unknown member of the African Choir.

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1891. Johanna Jonkers of the African Choir.

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1891. Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe of the African Choir.

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Circa 1890. Advert for the Lion Troupe of Ashante Warriors, the Wonders of the World.

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This man was brought to Britain with a Zulu troupe during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and was part of explorer Guillermo Antonio Farini’s exhibition of ‘Friendly Zulus’ in London, 1879.

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Circa 1870. Saragano Alicamousa, a renowned lion and tiger tamer.

Autograph ABP is a foundation that focuses on black cultural identity, often through the use of overlooked archives. Rivington Place, London, EC2A 3BA. September 11th 2014 – November 29th 2014.

Image sources: The Michael Graham Stuart Collection; The Hulton Archive; The Jenny Alsworth Collection; The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography; The Paul Frecker Collection; Autograph ABP; The Guardian Newspaper.

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