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[ANON POST] Black University Lecturer in Early 19th-c. Oxford?
orange_fell wrote in little_details
Hi! I've been following this community for a while and think it's wonderful, and despite spending a large part of last evening and this morning Googling around for answers, I've found not much definitive, so was hoping you could help me...

I'm writing a story set in early 19th-century England (probably just after the abolition of slavery). The main character is a biracial (black/Spanish, fairly dark-skinned) woman who is extremely learned (speaks about ten languages, has familiarity with classics, medicine, mathematics, science, etc.) but keeps this under wraps most of the time. At points in the story she disguises herself as a man and goes out to talk to other learned people/make money/get taken more seriously/etc.

The story is set near Oxford, and I was hoping that one of the ways she could do this was to give lectures at Oxford University in her male persona. However... because of her ethnicity, I'm unsure how possible or likely this would have been. I know from research and blogs like medievalpoc ( that wealthy and upper-class black people did exist in England historically, so I don't believe it's impossible, but I'm trying to work out how hard it would have been and what sort of reactions she'd have met with.

I've Googled lots of terms like "racism Oxford university 1800s" "black graduates of Oxford university" "black university lecturers" and then more general ones like "black (higher) education 1800s" and "racism 1800s" also tried to find out about famous graduates and entrance requirements for Oxford. When I Googled stuff about education, a lot of stuff I turned up was related to America, where apparently for a long time it was illegal for black people to be educated, but not so much info for England.

I found this interesting page (, which told me that "Oxford's first black student graduated when Christian Cole from Sierra Leone studied Classics in 1873", and I found some interesting info about him, which also stated that it seems like Oxford and Cambridge started accepting black students in the 1860s-1870s, but I couldn't find anything about lecturers.

On the flip side, I read about a woman (in America, but around the same time I think) who allowed a black student into her school, and there was an outcry and people started removing their children from the school.

So basically, how much discrimination would she (as a he) have met with? Might people have refused to attend her lectures/boycotted the university, or would she have got any lectures at all, or would it have been OK because she was exceptionally clever? (Any information about reactions she'd have met with in general at this time/place would also be great, but I'm mainly looking for stuff about the possibility of her lecturing). One thing I have thought of is to have her write for journals etc., so then people wouldn't know her ethnicity, but I'd like her to be able to go out and do stuff as well, if possible.

She also has a disability in that her arm is withered from surviving polio when she was little – not sure if that would have any notable effect (I had imagined that if she got read by people as upper-class and learned it wouldn't really matter, at least not as much as her race and gender).

Thanks so much in advance!

Knowledge aside, what are her qualifications? What university did she attend and where has she published? She may well be extremely learned but without evidence of that, she's not going to get a job.

Oxford is a relatively closed system, so unless she was educated there or is a known expert in some field, she's not going to be working there. That said, the 19th century was a time of huge expansion in education and she (disguised as a man) may be lecturing at one of the newer universities, particularly in medicine.

Class trumps race to a degree, so if she has or can fake an upper class background she could well fulfill the category of the exotic curiosity, someone who it would be a bit glamorous and exciting to know, though of course you wouldn't want him marrying your daughter. There's quite a few foreign students, all upper-class, at British universities at this time (and indeed now, though with a bit more variance in class) which is seen as them improving themselves and getting a good British education to take back home to rule over their people in line with British Imperial ambitions.

That's... actually a really good point, and not one I took into consideration. Thanks for bringing it up! She definitely doesn't have university qualifications, since most of her learning was done in secret – she has been published in journals, but I'm not sure if that alone would be enough. I don't think it's inconceivable that she could be a known expert, but based on what you and others have said, I think public lectures outside of the university seem more likely.

Yeah, I found a fair amount of information about students at that time, but being a student wouldn't fit for her, I don't think – her husband doesn't know she's doing this, so she sneaks out at night, so full-time study wouldn't really work.

Thanks so much for your help!

Does the lecturing have to be at the University? Public lectures on topics of science and general public interest were big in nineteenth-century England (Exeter Hall? the Royal institution?). I'm not sure about payment at the RI, but I imagine a collection would have been taken up for a visiting speaker at Exeter Hall, and I would think that a travelling lecturer explaining the mysteries of ... I don't know... electricity would have been able to make a living from a tour of provincial cities (with good PR!). Her gender and ethnicity could also work in her favour, if she was happy to work with the strongly religious Anti-Slavery Society. I expect an address on the economics of slavery, around about 1830, would have found a large audience (in London, anyway, i.e. where the big population was).
Sorry! Lots of "I'm not sure" and "I imagine" - but I wanted to suggest that not all lecturers were at the universities.

And... I've reread, and I see you say "one of the ways she could do this" - so sorry again for the distraction!

Edited at 2014-03-01 06:19 am (UTC)

I agree that public lecture outside the Univerity might be more plausible. At this point, all Oxford dons were not only male, but Anglican, and required to live in college. Students were also required to be members of the Church of England. So unless your character can pass herself of as a classically educated, CofE man, who mysteriously no-one in this fairly closed world has never heard of but everyone overlooks this, she isn't going to get a job lecturing in the University. The same would apply if she were a white upper-middle class Anglican Englishman who was educated, but outside the system. It's not just race and sex that are an issue here, significant as these are, but that you are talking about belonging to very specific groups in which everyone knows each other, or knows someone who knows the other person, and for many reasons your character is not a member of these groups. The fact that she hasn't been to an English University and no-one knows her will matter almost as much as her race and sex in setting up your scenario.

You don't mention theology among her areas of study, but other than public science lectures, I think that might be one of your better options. I'm no expert, but Patrick O'Brien has a character who is a mixed-race Catholic priest, and his research is usually pretty good. A well-travelled religious scholar who could talk about theology, languages/linguistics, and his experiences around the world, might well attract interest from people who were interested in talking about the same subjects. The odd lecture as an invited guest at the university isn't going to make her any significant money, though.

Edited at 2014-03-01 09:09 am (UTC)

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Thanks so much for the suggestion! I think this is what I'll be going with, since I'd conveniently overlooked the fact that you need to have certain qualifications to be a lecturer. I did find several lecturers talking about anti-slavery, so that's also a possibility.

Her gender shouldn't matter, as she always disguises herself as a man when she does this – but yeah, I think this is definitely what I'll be going with. Thanks again for the help!

My pet subject is late 18th century/Regency, not 19th, and I can't be much help with the university side of things, but I think there are other things that you need to think about before you can write this:-
1) she's highly educated, 2) she's black 3) she's upper class 4) she's a woman.
At the beginning of the 19th it would be extremely rare for women - even white, upper-class women - to be that educated. Why is she so educated?
How is she upper class (by that, I take it you mean aristocracy)? There were illegitimate black offspring in the first families, but they would have been unlikely to have the same privileges (i.e. education) as legitimate children.
Middle and upper-class women would not work at all - it would be scandalous if they did - so why is she working as a lecturer?
Is she married or single? Because it would be quite socially unacceptable for a single woman to address a room full of male (and they would be male) students. It would be a scandal for her husband if a married woman did the same. Remember that a single woman would be subject to the will of her father or brothers, a married woman to the will of her husband - she wouldn't have had free will in that respect.
Also, a woman who dressed as a man would be seen to be immodest and immoral - whores did that sort of thing, but not "polite" women.
Oh, and FYI, slaves were never abolished in Britain, because they never kept slaves in the first place. What was abolished was the slave trade. It was an industry that was abolished, rather than a social construct, which would be important in terms of how she would be treated. In other words, she wouldn't be treated as a slave by people who have never kept slaves.

Hope this helps. You need to think in term of the social conventions of the time to create a situation that's believable.

Edited at 2014-03-01 09:16 am (UTC)

Okay, so the classes at this time are something I still need to research/haven't got a clear picture of in my head. But her mother is... whatever would be considered the equivalent of upper-middle-class? I.e. in theory could marry someone of a higher class but there would need to be some kind of motivation (love, beauty, etc.) to do it? Anyway, she had the protagonist as an illegitimate daughter, then remarried a wealthier/more upper-class man and was widowed around the time the protagonist was born. For all intents and purposes, the protagonist is seen as this man's daughter (although because of her skin tone, some doubt is cast on the matter).

Her education was something she pursued by herself, mostly from books – which I think her mother would have bought for her, at least at first, because she approved of the idea of her being educated. It's also possible that she would have had a governess at some point. Later on, when she started disguising herself as a man and making money, she was able to pursue learning independently/buy books and materials for herself. Her level of education is largely because she's extremely dedicated to it. Perhaps she has some kind of natural propensity as well – as there have been people considered to be child geniuses/prodigies. Mostly, she throws herself into it because she thinks it will give her some worth – because her withered arm disfigures her perceived appearance/beauty and makes her the subject of taunts.

I know this is unlikely, but not impossible – it's earlier than the time I'm writing, but Dido Elizabeth Belle occupied the same sort of social position that I'm imagining here.

I think perhaps I didn't make it clear enough in the original post that she disguises herself as a man when she's doing the lectures, so she definitely wouldn't be perceived as a single or married woman giving lectures – I thought that would be stretching the credibility too far! Of course, there's the possibility that someone might see through her disguise, but there have been many historical instances of women successfully disguising themselves as men, and I think people are unlikely to imagine that she would be a woman in that context. If she were found out... definitely, and it's something that will happen later in the story.

Thank you for the clarification about the abolition of the slave trade! I need to educate myself better about this.

Thanks for your help!

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'Slaves were never kept in Britain' is a bit of simplification; Miranda Kaufmann has a good synopsis of the many contradictory common-law shenanigans about slaveery on her website, which is generally excellent for questions about Africans in early modern Britain.

Just to say that you can't read racial attitudes across from America to Britain, because the situation was so different. In the USA, slavery had left the country with a huge black and mixed-race population, and whites felt the need overtly to 'keep the n******s down'. But although Britain had been hugely active in the Atlantic slave trade, relatively very few slaves had been imported into Britain itself; outside the major ports a black face would have been almost as rare as, say, a Chinese one. Black people didn't constitute a class or community and really weren't a social issue at all, so British people weren't in any way threatened by them and could afford to consider them as exotic curiosities.

The situation was radically different again in the colonies of the British Empire. In Africa and India the British were holding down much larger black and brown populations, and felt the need for crude racism every bit as much as the whites of the Southern US. Rudyard Kipling was born in India to British parents and according to the custom of the times was sent 'home' aged six; he and his little sister were boarded with strangers in Portsmouth and sent to the local school. His autobiographical short story, Baa Baa Black Sheep, about this period of his childhood records the six-year-old Kipling's shock at finding that one of the boys in his class at school was black (Portsmouth, being a naval port, was one of the few places in Britain where a black face would not be that unusual) and his genuine outrage at being expected to tolerate the presence of a 'hubshi' (a derogatory Hindi term for an African) as an equal.

Ooh, okay, that's a good point. Although I did read that by some point during this time (I can't remember the date, unfortunately, and can't find the site!) that there were about 10,000 black people living and working in Britain, but that a large amount of them would have worked in the ports etc., so it's entirely conceivable that the inland population would have been overwhelmingly white.

But yeah, this is why results about American education haven't really been helping me! XD

I didn't know that about Kipling, either. What a git. :(

Thanks so much for answering. :)

it's entirely conceivable that the inland population would have been overwhelmingly white

Large parts of the country still are overwhelmingly white.

I'm only thirty miles from London and my town of 6,000 people has at a rough guess ten non-white families, and this is quite normal, by which I mean that I don't live in a special white enclave or anything. On an average day I'm far more likely to hear an Eastern European accent round here than to see a non-white face. About 12% of the UK population is non-white, but as they're concentrated in major cities where the journalists and tv people live, and where the big news stories come from, it's very easy to imagine from the news that the whole country is 40%-50% non-white.

I didn't know that about Kipling, either. What a git. :(

I haven't read Kipling's autobiography, but I think you're being unnecessarily harsh on a six-year-old child taken to what to him was an entirely foreign environment. Did you have the full complement of modern PC attitudes at the age of six? Or were there things you had picked up from your environment and internalised without ever have thought about them until you started school and discovered that other families weren't necessarily identical to yours?

The blame must be on his parents for having failed to realise what he would find strange about "home" and prepare him for it.

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It's too late at night for me to go read "Baa Baa". But I'd be surprised if the Kipling who invented Kim and wrote intimately of some very dark people in India, would write the story quite as you describe it.

Kipling's childhood language was actually Urdu, not Hindi, and he absorbed his Ayah's anti Hindu prejudices as well

Your search terms using "black people" etc would bring up material written around the 1970s and later. That is when the word 'black' began to be accepted in such contexts. Earlier material might have used 'Negros/Negroes' or possibly 'colored people' or 'colored folk'. Well, in England, 'coloured'.

Confusingly, there is The Souls of Black Folk 1903, and Shaw's The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God 1932.

Good point! I'd think contemporary information discussing it in a historical context would be unlikely to use those terms, though? But I could try searching stuff like Google Books. Thanks!

Hmmm. "coloured people" -- I observe that in the quote I gave above, Chesterton considered the term an Americanism. Of course, that was somewhat later.

I think it's not just about race. I think that, for all the reasons people have outlined above, it's overwhelmingly unlikely.

Yes, I think I've decided to have her publishing anonymously and very, very occasionally, if her husband is away, going somewhere further afield in her male persona, where she won't be recognised. Thanks for commenting!

Also, if you look at Vanity Fair, Thackeray includes a wealthy mulatto female character (and a very quick look in from her brother). She ends up doing far better in life than any of his white characters, but because what he's doing is a parody of moralistic literature, there are some weird complications.

However, her position, her options, and the various attitudes around her fit with bits of research I've done on children of French planters sent home for education and marriage as freemen. The distance, and the money, enable race to be a foreign exoticism that may be seen as more or less dirty, but money overcomes a lot. It doesn't mean she isn't described with some very familiar racist tropes, both by the author and by the other characters, but the other characters are mostly terrible people, and she's neither terrible nor a doormat, and the author seems to be sympathetic to her. There has almost certainly been a bunch of analysis on Miss Schwartz that you can find, and I think it will be a useful perspective to see how these characters are depicted in their racism by a man who certainly has some racist tendencies but also sympathy.

It's definitely possible at this time to send your non-white daughters to boarding school for a good English education, not just your sons, but of course, the vast difference in depth of education men and women are given is going to continue to screw up what you want plot-wise.

I think you're trying to do too much here. How convincing is her male persona, really? How could she possibly be doing this much behind her husband's back? Why must she be doing public lecturing instead of having gathered a small literary following, perhaps through specialist publications like anti-slavery or proto-socialist periodicals, and expanding that through continued writing that, through connections those editors have to editors of more general publications, can get out to a broader audience? Try to winnow down to what is actually necessary about this character, then we can help you more reasonably fit her into this time period.

Thanks very much for your helpful comment, and sorry it took me so long to reply! I haven't read Vanity Fair, but I'll look into it.

I think her male persona is convincing – and her husband does find out about it in the end – but I definitely agree, after receiving advice here, that the likelihood of her being found out is too great, so I've decided to go with her just writing papers / having acquaintances by correspondence (setting up some form of postal redirect / proxy through someone she trusts) and very occasionally, if her husband goes away, going further afield, where she wouldn't be recognised, in her male persona. (And that is the situation in which he does find out about it, and is Not Pleased.)

This is straining my suspension of disbelief a little, not because she's passing as a man -- as you say, plenty of women have -- but because you've got a woman with a very distinctive appearance for her time and place doing something very public that would require spending a significant amount of time establishing social connections for her male persona, while successfully hiding it from her husband.

Can something give, here? Which is most important to your story, her race and visible disability, that she make public appearances in her male persona (as opposed to something like publishing under a pen name), or that her husband not know about it? (And you're going to want to think about how often she can reasonably sneak off without her husband noticing -- that might be easier if he were frequently traveling or otherwise away from home for some reason.)

She might be able to get away with juggling two personae (as opposed to moving to a new place and adopting a full-time male identity) if she convinces people that the lecturer is her brother (twin or otherwise), which would explain away the physical resemblance -- how well is her family history known?

Also, I agree that her husband would have to either be in on the ruse, or away from home most of the time. Or really not paying attention.

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Thanks for your comment! After receiving all this good advice, I've decided that what has to give is her being in public, and so am going with her writing papers and writing to people (with some form of postal redirect / proxy through someone she trusts) and very, very occasionally, if her husband is away, going somewhere further afield in her male persona, where she won't be recognised. I think so far I've got that happening once, and that's when he finds out. I'd definitely rather tell the story that way than change her race or remove her disability, even if it makes the storytelling harder!

Perhaps Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) might give you some feel for the period. "The novel opens a short while after the 1833 emancipation of the slaves in British-owned Jamaica." It progresses in England.


Thanks! I'll look into that. :)