Profile of an 18th century Black Voter: George John Scipio Africanus

In a second blog for this year’s Black History Month, we are once again hearing from Helen Wilson, PhD candidate with the History of Parliament and the Open University. Within Helen’s research she has been uncovering the previously overlooked presence of Black voters in 18th century Britain, including figures like George Africanus, profiled below…

The eighteenth century saw many geo-political expansions and retractions for the British empire, including the gaining of territories in the Caribbean, West Africa and Asia and the loss of the American colonies. These undulations of the British state created a web of people across the world connected to this small European island. Unsurprisingly that connection in many cases led to migration. Black people had been arriving in British ports for hundreds of years, but the East India Company and the Africa Company had a hand in accelerating population movements. Black Slaves came to Britain to be traded to other countries in Europe and to work, mostly in domestic roles to wealthy masters. The Black loyalists arrived in London after the failed campaign against America’s independence, their freedom assured by the British government if they fought with the British. There were also the Mixed-Race children of West Indian plantation owners who, when recognised, could inherit huge fortunes. Therefore, it cannot be ignored that Black people lived, worked and thrived in eighteenth-century Britain. But, as always, the Black British experience was unique, challenging and nuanced.

Black British political participation in the eighteenth century has largely been interpreted through the lens of slavery and the abolition movement. However, Black Britons were not all tied to slavery even if it was why they were brought to these shores. George John Scipio Africanus is one of those people. He is thought to have been born in West Africa possibly Sierra Leon c.1763. His journey to England probably began at the end of 1765 or early in 1766, because he was baptised on 31 March 1766. The baptismal record described him as a negro boy belonging to Benjamin Molineux of Molineux House. Africanus was given an education as soon as he became part of the Molineux family. This was not especially common as many masters chose not to educate those held in their service for the purpose of keeping them submissive. When Molineux died in 1772 his son George took over the responsibility for Africanus’ education and, when he was old enough, he was apprenticed as a brass founder.

At the age of 21 Africanus’ service ended with the Molineuxs and he moved to Nottingham, around 1784. Africanus was fortunate to have been discharged from his service to the Molineux family; in many instances someone in Africanus’ position would not have known if they would ever have been freed from bondage. As he had completed an apprenticeship, he was in a position to be able to move and earn money, and his education gave him opportunities not available to others in a similar position. He met and married a local woman Esther (Ester) Shaw on the 3rd of August 1788 at St Peter’s Church in Nottingham. It was approximately five years later that they started an employment agency Africanus Register of Servants, which they ran from their home, 28 Chandlers Lane. The business helped primarily Black servants get jobs in respectable homes, and paid service. However, both also had to take other forms of employment, as seen in the trade directories where Africanus is listed as being a waiter and a labourer. But this was not unusual; many of those in the burgeoning middle-classes faced a similar situation at this time, as the British economy was stretched from wars and poor harvests. The Africanuses ran their business from 1793-1853, Ester taking control after George’s death in 1834.

Green plaque from the City of Nottingham on black bars outside St Mary's Churchyard. Plaque reads St Mary's Churchyard, burial place of George Africanus (1763-1834), Nottingham's first Black entrepreneur.
Memorial plaque to George Africanus, image captured in 2008, via Wikimedia Commons

Africanus voted in three general elections in Nottingham: 1818, 1820 and 1826. Africanus exemplifies the diversity in the British electorate, even within a system that was not designed to be inclusive. A successful business owner regardless of race was able to be part of the political discourse of their area and nation.

Nottingham returned two MPs to Parliament at each general election, while certain constituencies such as London returned four and a small amount returned one. Voters would use their votes in a few different ways, which can be seen in the poll books. They could vote for two candidates of the same party, split their votes and vote for a candidate of either party, or plump, using only one of their votes and signalling that they only supported that candidate and did not support any of the others. Africanus chose one of each of these options for each election: he split his vote in his first election, 1818, which was the only time he voted for a candidate that won. In the second election, 1820, he voted for the two Tory candidates, one of whom had West Indian interests, although there is no evidence that Africanus knew that nor if it factored into his decision. In his third and final election in 1826 Africanus plumped his vote and only voted for John Smith Wright, who did not win. From Africanus’ voting behaviour it appears he was a Tory supporter. On their own, the three general elections cannot show much about his politics, but they are clear evidence that he was politically engaged. Therefore, it is likely that he also participated in more local politics, which combined with his national choices may build a clearer profile of his political ideology.

Africanus exemplifies the diversity of eighteenth-century Britain and the Black experience within it. The dichotomy of the slave trade and the perceived wealth and status of business ownership feels too distinct to be embodied in one person. However, one of the many things that Africanus highlights is that those in the middle classes in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain were not a homogeneous group of wealthy individuals. Many of them had come from rural, working class and even from enslaved backgrounds working their way into a newly described class. Africanus is not only a person to use to look at Black participation in politics, but also an individual who represents how the middle class formed and grew.  Many people whose lives started as his did were not as fortunate to be able to be in the position he was in, however, through ingenuity more Black Britons than previously thought were thriving in Britain.

H W

Read Helen’s earlier blog here.

Further reading:

Ben Truslove, ‘George Africanus: From slave to respected businessman’, BBC News, available here

‘George Africanus – from rags to riches’, BBC Nottingham, available here

‘George John Scipio Africanus: 1763-1834’, University of Nottingham: Nottingham Schools and Transatlantic Slavery Project, available here

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