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Black History Month: George Africanus

6 October 15 words: James Walker
"Black slaves and servants were status symbols at the time, and so were often given roles of high visibility"
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Between the 15th and 19th Centuries, around 12m Africans were forced onto European slave ships and taken across the Atlantic. According to Dr Denise Amos, “The earliest known Nottingham reference to a black person was the baptism of John Americanus, a blackamoore, baptised in parish of Newark on 30 March 1645. There is an engraving ‘Paragon un barbe’ of a black man holding a horse outside of Welbeck Abbey dated 1657. This may have been the equestrian groom for the 1st Duke of Newcastle, William Cavendish.”

It has been estimated that without slavery the population of Africa would have been double the 25m it had reached by 1850. Zagba Oyortey a Ghanaian cultural historian, argues that this has slowed down the development of African nations, "During slavery many of the able-bodied people, between 18 and 40, were taken out so society's ability to reproduce itself economically, socially and culturally was impaired." This absence in turn made it easy for “European powers to move in and colonise. Africa's ability to defend itself was seriously compromised."

Slavery also produced its own absurd logic in that many of the slaves were prisoners of war, and so enslaving an enemy became a motivation for war. Inevitably it was in the interest of colonial empires to fuel conflict between communities, particularly given slavery was considered an essential part of the economy. Sadly, some of these conflicts still persist today.

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Africanus is the final character in the Dawn of the Unread serial

There is relatively little known about George Africanus which is why he is the final character in the Dawn of the Unread serial. If we started our campaign with the argument that writers are only able to exist in our imagination if we have access to their books – which is why libraries are so important – we end it by asking what happens to those stories which were never given voice in the beginning. As a slave Africanus endured incomprehensible prejudice and telling his story, no matter how sparse the facts, is one way in which we can ensure such events never happen again.   

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Africanus's marriage certificate

His date and exact place of birth are unknown, but he was most likely about three years old when he left Sierra Leone for England in 1766 and became a servant to Benjamin Molyneux in Wolverhampton. Benjamin Molyneux, like his father, was an ironmonger. The Molyneux’s exported many of their goods to the West Indies while importing Jamaica rum. By 1775 they had opened a Jamaica rum warehouse in Wolverhampton, and Benjamin became a banker and one of the most successful businessmen in the area.

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Africanus challenges representation in Issue 16 of Dawn of the Unread

Black slaves and servants were status symbols at the time, and so were often given roles of high visibility. This typically included page boys who accompanied the lady of the house wherever she went and footmen who carried messages to important clients. It is likely Africanus was given to the Molyneux family as a present.   

In 1772, owning slaves in England effectively became illegal, although the Slave Trade Abolition Act wasn’t passed until 1807. The 1772 ruling meant many African slaves were made homeless as they no longer served a purpose to their owners. However, Africanus was fortunate in that the Molyneux family provided for his education before he was apprenticed to a brass founder, someone who works in a foundry, melting down liquid metal and moulding it into shapes. In 1784 at the age of 21 years he completed his service and moved to Nottingham, where the family had connections.    

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Norma Gregory at the unveiling of a blue plaque for George Africanus

On 3 August 1788 George Africanus married Esther Shaw, a local girl who is recorded as being baptised at St Mary’s church in Nottingham in 1768. Their marriage certificate states that they were both over 21 at the time which simply means they were able to obtain their license without parental consent. George is recorded as a brass founder, but by 1818 he is listed in a local business directory as running his own employment agency the ‘Register Office of Servants’ which placed servants with high class families in Nottingham.

He was also a member of the Watch and Ward Register in 1812 and 1816 which stated he could be called to assist in law and order duties. This was a period of large social unrest due to the Framebreaker riots of 1811 and so he would have helped protect properties.  
In 1829 he bought additional properties in Chandler’s Lane for £380. Owning property brought status in that he was eligible to vote in elections. During this period an average of 1 in 7 men had the privilege to vote. Records show that he voted for John Smith Wright in the 1826 election. Wright was a well-known abolitionist.

Africanus died in 1834, aged 71 years, and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Nottingham on 25 May. He was survived by his wife Esther (who died in 1853), their daughter Hannah and grand-daughter Sarah. It wasn’t until 2003 that his grave was discovered and his story was investigated. To commemorate his achievement of becoming the first Black entrepreneur a blue plaque was put up on the Major Oak pub in Victoria Street, the location of the long since demolished Chandler's Lane where he ran his business. On the 31st August a tram was named after Africanus which will also go a long way in helping the city celebrate the life of this extraordinary individual.

This article was originally published in Dawn of the Unread where you can learn more about George Africanus

Black History Month at the New Art Exchange

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