Sunday, 28 October 2012

Deciphering the Past

I thought I'd try something a little different for this blog, which is intended both as a collection of some of my more random musings, a reflection upon my current degree work, and to coincide with Black History Month (albeit the end thereof). The title may well be misleading, for which I apologise in advance - I don't think this will be quite the all-encompassing blog that such a title would suggest!

But that does lead nicely into the meat of this blog itself. I am currently doing a degree in History on a distance-learning programme, for any who might be interested, and have started a course in The History of Wales, which is more about the academic study of the discipline of History than necessarily about Wales and its history. But already some very potent and interesting questions have been raised, which I will ramble on about here for a bit. 

History is fraught with problems when studied, mostly because of that age-old aphorism of it being "written by the winners". History is inevitably biased to one side or another, either consciously on the part of the writer or otherwise. It is up to the historian to piece together all of the available facts, read them at face value and between the lines, and sum up on that basis to try and figure out exactly what happened at any given time. No one piece of evidence is more important, there needs to be corroboration before you can say with any authority "this is what happened". But sourcing the sources, if you will, can be a mammoth task in and of itself, before you can begin the arduous task of source interrogation. Sometimes, either deliberately or not, sources no longer exist for periods of time, and so we enter the realms of historical theorizing. Sometimes only one or two sources exist, which might be in perfect harmony with one another or be polar opposites, and either situation can lead to fantastic misinterpretation. 

The nature of sources themselves is sometimes quite treacherous, too. This is where the historian's skill comes to the fore, in the interrogation of the source. I often feel that studying history all of my life has made me quite paranoid, and certainly highly mistrustful at times - continually questioning the veracity of everything I come across unto death. What is this source? When was it produced? Why was it produced? Who was it intended for? All questions that can lead you round in circles at times. But with careful application, and an objective look, you can begin to distill a picture of the past that is accurate to some degree. 

But will it ever be wholly accurate? Sources - like this blog's title - can be misleading, either intentionally or otherwise. Physical artefacts of the past, in particular, are often forged or copied, usually where big names from the past are concerned. The antiquities trade means big money, after all. The discovery of ossuaries in the 20th century in the middle east that purported to contain the mortal remains of Jesus Christ, among others, that were later proven to have been forgeries, leap to my mind in this case. The Victorian novels Hard Times and North and South purport to show how life was like in Industrial England in the mid-nineteenth century, however it would be remiss of the historian to accept these documents as historical fact. Care is taken to recognise exactly what it is a source is demonstrating - does Hard Times show what life was like in England, or just in Manchester, or just in a suburb, or just in one factory? 

Reading between the lines of a course is often more valuable than what the source itself has to tell us. Which brings me on to the purpose of writing today's blog. I would like to start by sharing with you this picture:

It is a photograph of a portrait that hangs on the wall of a room in the country house of Erddig, near Wrexham in North Wales. It is also the original subject I had intended to write about in this blog. Why? Well, I have always found this portrait intriguing. It is of a coach boy, which confuses matters. It was painted in the late eighteenth century, which could perhaps have been ascertained from the subject's dress, and if you know anything about musical instruments, from what he is painted with. 

So why do I find it so intriguing? Well. The owners of Erddig Hall were, for the most part, the Yorke family, who were active in politics throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They had a tradition of having portraits painted of many of their servants, of which this one is just one that hangs within the hall. It hangs in the Servants' Hall, however, and not in any of the main reception rooms, which could perhaps tell us yet more about the picture. That the family wanted their servants immortalised in oils speaks perhaps of the care and attention they gave their servants - this was after all the Age of Enlightenment, so you could well see the Yorkes as being Enlightened employers, treating their servants as human beings and not just as invisible lackeys. However, the portraits hang "below stairs", so only the other servants could see them, which perhaps means they didn't think so highly of their servants... 

^ the servants' hall, with other staff portraits.

The sensitive issue surrounding this particular portrait is, of course, the ethnicity of the subject. In the first Erddig guidebook, published by the National Trust in 1979, the portrait is labelled as "A Negro coachboy, early eighteenth century", and described as being of a coachboy who served John Meller, the bachelor who lived in the house until it passed to his nephew Simon Yorke. And that is all the book has to say about him. The scroll in the top right of the picture is a verse written by Philip Yorke I in the late eighteenth century, when he had six more servants painted, and for whom he also wrote verses. 

So how on earth did this black boy arrive in the UK to serve as John Meller's coachboy? Well, he is an unfortunate victim of the slave trade that was going on at this time. Wales has a lamentably strong history of involvement in this trade - copper produced from Parys Mountain on Anglesey was shipped to Swansea, where it was smelted at the Hafod works, among others, into manillas (a sort of bracelet), which were exchanged for people in West Africa. The price of a person could vary greatly. The sad thing about this is that manillas were originally traded for goods, such as ivories, before it evolved into a more sinister form of currency. 

Leaders in West Africa prized these manillas because copper was comparatively scarce in their own lands. With this "red gold" they often made bronze (tin being more plentiful) - indeed, in the Kingdom of Benin, bronze was the material of the King (or Oba), and he was the only person allowed to possess anything made in this material. 

The slaves acquired in West Africa through manilla-trading were then put to work on the sugar or cotton plantations of southern North America, where Wales' connection with the trade lingers: Penrhyn Castle near Bangor in North Wales was built on the profits of sugar plantations worked by slaves purchased in Africa. 

However, not all slaves wound up in the New World. In Georgian Britain, it became fashionable to have a "Black", as they were known - a slave boy or girl who would usually have a very comfortable life as a trophy servant, a status symbol to the ladies and gentlemen of society very different from their white counterparts. While hardly pampered, their duties often entailed nothing more stenuous than holding a gentleman's tricone hat, or standing on the back of his coach as it wheeled through the streets of London. It seems that this is the fate of the coachboy at Erddig.

The coachboy in the painting, whose name has not been recorded, is believed to have been Christened, and after his death was buried in the church at Marchwiel, a village just outside Wrexham and whose church holds many of the Yorke family memorials. This much we can get from Simon Yorke's rather fanciful verse that was added to the painting:

"But that to Marchwiel he was sent,
And has good Christian interment"

The poem is otherwise hopeless for getting any further information about him - indeed, it begins:

"Of the conditions of this Negre,
Our information is but me'gre"

The assumption remains, however, that he was John Meller's coachboy, who came into Meller's possession in lieu of payment for some gambling debts his brother-in-law had run up. 

The statement above of such a servant as having a "comfortable" life might now begin to seem untrue, if he was nothing more than a commodity. But this is yet another of the pitfalls of history, where we judge the actions of people in the past by what we in the present expect from individuals within society. Enlightenment was not actually as popular in the eighteenth century as we would like to think. Voltaire and Rousseau were only tolerated in a very small crowd of people. Wilberforce was ignored for years until he managed to get serious consideration for his ideas on the abolition of slavery. The idea of servitude and feudalism had been deeply entrenched in western thought for hundreds of years before this, and it wouldn't be eradicated overnight. In a world where people were accepted as your social betters, the life of a domestic servant could often be brutal. As a servant, you would often be renamed by your master if he found it necessary, you could be beaten for failure to comply with orders or to carry out orders unsatisfactorily, and as your master's possession any number of other torments could be carried out upon you. The fact that black servants were fashionable curiosities most likely spared them a lot of this. But this is not intended as a defense of slavery or servitude.

The coachboy's portrait has since been proven to have been painted in the late eighteenth century, long after the death of John Meller, which makes Philip Yorke's verse about him something of an anachronism. In the current guidebook to Erddig of 1995 (though most recently revised in 2007), the portrait is now called "formerly called 'John Meller's Coachboy', which hardly seems like a better name. The portrait has had some investigation done into it when it was cleaned in 2006-7, and infrared photography has revealed an inscription to have been painted out. The inscription identifies the sitter as a 'John Hanby, 25' though it has been assumed that this is not the black coachboy's name.

Why? Nobody actually knows who John Hanby was. Perhaps the assumption is based on ethnicity, that John Hanby doesn't sound like the name of a black man. But remember that, as a servant, you could have your name changed by your master if he thought it helpful. This could be no different to Indian callcentre staff calling themselves "Ben" or "Jim" because their Western client base would not equate with their actual names. If John Meller's brother in law was as disagreeable as the historical record seems to suggest, is it beyond the realms of possibility that he too would change the names of his staff to suit him? 

This is, of course, historical theory, taking a known historical fact and applying it studiously to another situation. We won't arrive at the ultimate destination of the truth, but we can perhaps arrive at the car park outside. 

The 'history' as taught to me went something like this. The Yorke family of Erddig had a high regard for their servants, and had portraits painted of them, and wrote poems dedicated to them. The black coachboy was especially well-loved, and when he died they had him buried in the family plot in Marchwiel church. All of this was accepted as historical fact, to the point where I've even been to the churchyard at Marchwiel to have a look for his grave. It was only in doing the research for this blog that I started to poke holes in the account, which has in turn led to this new slant on the blog. 

The above is what we think we know. What we actually know is this: there is a painting of a black coachboy in Erddig, who Philip Yorke I believed to have been John Meller's coachboy and who he believed to have been buried in Marchwiel church. Given the portrait's later date of creation, it is possible that John Meller is believed to have had a black coachboy, and so a portrait was found that could be converted for use as this coachboy. John Hanby may well have been Caucasian, and his portrait used to re-create a piece of Erddig's more exotic past for its current owner. We don't know that he was buried in Marchwiel churchyard, and we don't even know if that's what he actually looked like.

This shows another of the historian's pitfalls, that of myth vs reality. The OED defines 'myth' as a 'purely fictitious account' that involves 'some popular idea' of 'historical phenomena'. Something, therefore, that is believed to be true in popular folklore, that may well make use of actual history. For example, I was taught in school that Prince Llewelyn of Gwynedd had a dog called Gelert, whom he left guarding his baby son while he was out hunting; Gelert saved the baby from a pair of wolves, hiding the baby and spattering blood everywhere when he killed the wolves, but when Llewelyn returned from the hunt he merely found his dog, covered in blood, and no sign of the baby, so he killed his faithful hound, only to then hear his baby crying: in memorial, he buried his dog besides a river in Snowdonia at a place now called Beddgelert, or Gelert's Grave. None of this can be proven to be true, but there was a historical Prince Llewelyn of Gwynedd (there were actually two...) 

However, myths can be extremely useful to history for what they tell us about the time in which they were created. The Gelert example is credited to an innkeeper in the eighteenth century who was trying to entice visitors to the area - taken together with the history of the Romantic movement at this period of time, and you can see that there was obviously a degree of competition for tourists to get them to visit certain areas of the country. 

I think I've rambled on a bit too long now, so I'll leave you with this final thought: go visit Erddig, it's a fascinating day out!