Retrospect
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EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY'S HISTORY, CLASSICS AND ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE

‘Black Terror’: Black Masculinity and Identity Formation in Eighteenth-Century England

‘Black Terror’: Black Masculinity and Identity Formation in Eighteenth-Century England

In recent years, historians of British and Black history have decidedly sustained a historiographical and widespread effort to uncover the lives of Black communities, Black individuals, and Black cultures in Britain. The ‘unsilencing’ of the archive through careful reconstruction of the lives of Black men and women before the twentieth century has opened wider discussions of archival issues, historical responsibility, and historical ignorance. As Montaz Marche recently stated, Black people throughout British history are not ‘invisible’ but rather there is “an inability to see” their lives, whether through lack of archival sources or historiographical ignorance. This lack of historical focus has recently been addressed, yet the main effort, explicably because of archival issues, has been placed upon examining the lives of more well-known Black voices, such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano. Regarding Black British female voices, this history has been even murkier. However, as this essay will demonstrate, constructing the lives of Black individuals who did not have such a degree of influence among elite circles or educated white men is equally as important in considering the complex, fluid, and varied historical realities of Black men and women in Britain. In other words, a ‘history from below’ approach is necessary within the discipline of Black British history. 

By tracing the story of William Richmond, the first Black boxer recorded in British history, this essay aims to reconsider the importance of integration, manhood, and identity construction within Black communities in Britain. This text reconstructs the ways in which they ideologically, as well as physically, fought, both consciously and subconsciously, through their masculinities against the period’s racial volatility. And as such, a glimpse into the new ways Black communities expressed themselves and re-formed their image is highlighted. Masculinity as a concept and a historical discipline has placed white men’s history at the forefront, especially in the British context. The focus of this essay is to re-align this historiographical tradition with marginalised histories and consider how masculinity and manhood is itself a competing, complicated, and multi-layered condition within Black British communities as well. The story of migration and integration is especially important in considering how this man entered into the white, hegemonic masculine environment, and how this environment, coupled with his own attempts or disillusionments with integration, constructed new ideals of Black masculinity in late eighteenth-century England. Therefore, the central argument throughout this text will be that Richmond was able to challenge the status quo of white British manhood and form new Black masculine notions of identity.  

First, it should be clarified that, although he marked new communities, sociabilities, and identities, his history is not one of agency, autonomy, and overcoming, and should not be viewed through ‘rose-tinted glasses’. As a Black man within a period in which ideas of race were changing, and scientific racism, skull-measurements, and anthropological ideas of race were emerging through publications such as Carolus Linneaus’ 1758 Systema Naturae, his everyday existence was fraught with painful racial harassment and abuse. Yet, this essay, following the example of C. L. R. James Simon Gikandi’s postcolonial perspective on the “incomplete project of colonialism” which “allows colonised peoples to hollow new spaces of identity and self-expression”, counters what has often been taken to be the traditional history of Black subjugation and lack of opportunity. As such, a move away from the binary notions of Black history as either filled with exploitation and pain, or filled with power and resistance, is necessary to understanding the complex and fluid lived reality of Black men and women. And this essay attempts to highlight this complicated relational experience through the experiences of Richmond.  

In England, boxing became a uniquely urban pastime which brought working-class and elite men together in a supposedly symbiotic patron/client relationship aimed at the pursuit of a nationalised male aesthetic. An important core of this aesthetic of manhood was the concept of ‘bottom’: the ability to face oncoming blows without ‘backing away’, regardless of any adversity the man faced. During the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, Regency writers promoted pugilism as a display of manliness, honour, and restraint which fostered courage and national pride. Pierce Egan’s third volume of Boxiana claims that:  

“it is of the very importance to England as a nation, my Lord, that she still preserves her high character of TRUE COURAGE, both at home and abroad, both by land and by sea: nay, more, that not one particle of this real greatness should be frittered away from squeamishness of DISPOSITION or EFFEMINACY of habit.” 

The Prince of Wales and his brothers, the Duke of York and the Duke of Clarence, all supported pugilism as a national cause aimed at restoring manhood. By the end of the eighteenth century, at the moment in which Richmond entered the ring, prize fighting was hailed as the “national sport whose lessons helped English armies prevail”. It should be noted here that when using the term ‘masculinity’ in this period, as Gail Bederman has noted, trepidation need be applied to its exact definition and connotations. Masculinity as a noun was not used until the 1890s, and so in this period the connections drawn were between manhood, honour, and nation: all ensconced in the art of pugilism, and the exact scene in which Richmond entered as a black man. Labour movement leaders promoted pugilism for its ability to counter the ‘effeminising’ civility that ‘gripped’ the period and warned of the eventual threat by foreign domination. Richmond emerged and threatened the existing paradigms of national and racial superiority which held up pugilism as a ‘manly’ sport. Of course, the racial tone was obvious from the start as Richmond defeated the top white English contenders, and thereby carving a new space of Black masculinity alongside, and within, the traditional space of white hegemonic masculinity.   

William (Bill) Richmond was born on the fifth of August 1763 in Cuckold’s Town, now Port Richmond in New York City’s Staten Island and spent his adolescent years in bondage. Richmond was able to free himself as his former enslaver fled when the British were capturing Staten Island under the command of General Hugh Percy. Afterwards, he enlisted in the war and became a stable hand, and although only a teenager, he had already made a name for himself as a fighter. On the fifth of November 1776, Richmond fought three officers at the Red Lion Tavern, and General Percy described the fight as such:  

“A young Blackamore was ostling the officers’ mounts, and fetching water to the horses, when a corporal of the Brunswicke division chaffed the black boy and he did make sport of the oster’s colour. Two more Hessians joined in the folly, and one of them tripping the black boy a-purpose so that he dropped in his water-can, spilling the lot.” 

Clearly, Richmond’s display of defence and the retention of his honour, and therefore his manhood, solidified him in the eyes of the white men as a contender of powerful masculinity. Richmond’s defence when confronted with racism, or harassment based on his ‘colour’, also implies a sense of pride and masculine distinction prominent amongst Black men. The power to defend one’s honour was very important to ideals of white hegemonic manhood and in this sense, Richmond is displaying a competing masculinity which inserts itself within mainstream manhood, complicating the boundaries between race and masculinity. Afterwards, General Percy was so impressed with Richmond’s fighting abilities that he brought him back to England as his personal valet. In England, Richmond entered prize fighting and steadily became the first African American prize-fighter to secure victories against the most experienced white English pugilists. Because of the defiance displayed by Richmond and the presumed threat the British national sporting heroes and British notions of masculinity, Richmond was dubbed the ‘black terror’, a name which not only subjected him to his race but also captured the nation’s general social horror that a Black man could ascend into the sphere of white manhood. His disposition threatened the racial pride of white labourers, the majority of boxing fans, who viewed the display of manhood through assertions of violence. In 1804, for example, Frank Meyers, also known as the ‘York Bully’, called Richmond a ‘black devil’ for accompanying a white woman. Richmond, refusing to fight in the presence of a woman, suggested a pugilistic duel with Meyers at the grove at a later date, where he beat his opponent so thoroughly that it was rumoured that Meyers was unable to eat solid food for a week. Stories like these solidify an image of Richmond as defying stereotypes of Black infirmity and weak manhood. His refined ability to duel in a separate location and his physical authority exerted over Meyers poses a new threat to the racial order of eighteenth-century Britain: an order in which Black men were relegated as outside the masculine sphere.  

As Richmond adapted to his new environment and facilitated new ways of exchange with his white opponents, both through ideological and physical prowess, he expressed his masculinity in a way which had not been witnessed before. What or who contribute to the meaning of nationalism and masculinity, through the sport of pugilism, changed from within and outside society as Richmond enlarged ideas of what it meant to be masculine and, in the process, combatted stereotypes of Black manhood. Contributions to the concept of masculinity as both separate from and conflated with nationalism were reflective in the way Richmond was able to fashion his own identity. He did not allow himself to be ‘put in the corner’ by conforming to the restricted meanings of nationalism and masculinity within the sport of prizefighting. Richmond in this sense can be hailed as an innovator, a Black man who demanded that his white country acknowledged him as a man, and thereby changing the mainstream (white) constructs of what signifies masculinity.  

Written by Boryana Ivanova


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