Shondaland’s Bridgerton: The Black History You Don’t Learn at School

Not wanting to get sucked into the recency bias that comes with new dramas, I waited three weeks to watch Bridgerton.

Writing as someone that watches an awful lot of historical dramas, it is by no means a surprise to see that Bridgerton was attacked for its inclusion of Black and Brown characters by the usual racist hordes in the period drama fandom. Also disliked by some for being ‘too modern’ in its construction, the modern-ness reminded me of what happened in the 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House on BBC One. During the mid-naughties, the Andrew Davies adaptation of the classic Dickens novel took a massive step forward in the way television programmes of that kind were made. It plays out like an episode of Eastenders or Coronation Street; the creator did it like a soap opera in half-hour episodes at peak time in a historic classic serial slot.

Simon Bassett (Regé Jean-Page) and Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne (Bridgerton, Netflix)

Netflix on the otherhand, changed the way audiences watch television where the term ‘bingewatch’ was really popularised in public lexicon. With Charles Dance as Mr Tulkinghorn, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock and Phil Davis as Smallweed, it is by far one of the best-acted period dramas that has been aired on the BBC in living memory. And in December 2020, critic Amanda Prescott wrote an article that made waves. It proved divisive, namely because of the flowery characters that litter the fanbase. It talked colour-conscious casting in period dramas. Starting with her intro about Bridgerton, by the second line she’s saying while Bridgerton meshes tradition and progress, “white critics may dismiss this trend as unnecessary pandering to Black and POC viewers, but the number of productions designed around reforming all white-casting has increased over the last 10 years.” As many have claimed that the inclusion of Black and Brown people is not historically accurate, it is also a fact that people of colour have been present at every era of British history.

In recent times, in the context of Regency-era-set dramas, we have had Sanditon based on the unfinished Jane Austen’s novel of the same name that had a West Indian noblewoman lead (Georgiana Lambe) played by Crystal Clarke. Furthermore, Vanity Fair based on the 19th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray that featured a Jamaican-Jewish heiress named Rhoda Swartz. Prescott (2020) goes on to state that representation “can’t be meaured in ratings or clicks online” and she is absolutely right. Trying to that in clicks, is sort of like when our institutions try to measure anti-racism initiatives and diversity with impact assessments.

Chrystal Clarke plays Georgiana Lambe (Sanditon, ITV/PBS)

In watching Bridgerton, viewers must leave the realms of believability behind them, to a degree. Prescott also tells us that costuming “is a critical part of upholding the fantasy and cultural diversity… and also in communicating … the series isn’t your aunt’s neutral tone Austen adaptation.” We also come to see Black men with traditional African hairstyles in a time period where ‘Africanness’ had been problematised under colonialism (thanks to European theorists). Colonialism was more than landgrabs and enslavement, and in the Black Atlantic, it problematised all things culturally African, including languages, religion and yes, hairstyling. Would we have seen African hairstyles in Regency Britain brazen like that? I’m inclined to think not. Not like that anyway. But, that does not mean the series is pure fiction. One of things it gets right is its depiction of bare-knuckling boxing and its inclusion of Black men in that arena is vital.

Remember these were the same years that Britain was the biggest slave-trading power in the world. In the 19th century a man called Bill Richmond, formerly enslaved, became Britain’s first Black British sportstar, and by proxy an emodiment of the ‘national character’… a national hero

Bare-knuckle boxing was a staple of the nineteenth century. Biographer and social historian Phil Vasili (2010) writes about the reality of sports participation in Britain and how “people of colour were knitted up all over the place.” Vasili writes “boxing was the sport in which Black participation had been longest and most numerous. Because of its core elements — controlled aggression and muscled agility — and the personal qualities required to be successfull — strength, character and durability — contests between Black and White, of which there was a long history, had significance beyond the ring.” In Black and British, Prof. David Olusoga (2016) says that “the world of prize fighting, of bare-knucking boxing, was special to the British in a way no other sport was — because the fighter was said to be the embodiment of the national characteristics of bravery, manliness and reslience. All the things the British liked to believe made them who they were.”

Boxing was viewed as an embodiment of the British national characteristics, including ‘manliness’ and ‘strength’ (Bill Richmond, 1810, Credit: Unknown)

Bill Richmond’s biographer Luke Williams (2015) writes that “pugilism was a sport that united the twin concepts of pleasure and business, identified by Pierce Egan as the driving forces of life in Georgian England, with its participants and patrons predominantly gamblers pursuing the adrenaline rush of a successful wager, or thrill-seekers in search of the fame and immortality of sporting glory.” The fact that Bridgerton’s Will Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe) was a successful fighter could in fact play into the ‘national characteristics’ being met by a Black man. And just like it is today, boxing is violent (though less so), and is driven by capitalism. Today, few die in the ring; back in late Georgian/Regency era, that was a commonality. Before there could be a Muhammad Ali, Nicola Adams, Anthony Joshua or Amir Khan, puglists White and not would fight bare-knuckle in brawls sometimes losing their lives. However, for men like Will, whose father was enslaved, the concept of bare-knuckling boxing tames in comparison to a life of misery on a US or Caribbean sugar, cotton or tobacco plantation. Much akin to that of Bill Richmond, who was also formerly-enslaved. Was Will based on Bill Richmond? I do not know. Yet, unlike Will, Bill married a White woman whose name was probably Mary Dunwick.

Just as we see with our Duke of Hastings, 18th/19th century Black men embarking on interracial relationships with White women is not historically innaccurate. Bill Richmond married a White woman. However, so did Francis Barber, as the heir and servant of intellectual Samuel Johnson. Moreover, Victorian Daniel Tull, Olaudah Equiano and James Gronniosaw. Olusoga (2017) says that in Georgian Britain, “interracial marriage was an unremarkable feature of life” and those are known about because they were famous. Thus, the birth of Mixed-Race children was also a feature of Georgian/Victorian Britain, despite the ‘race science’ peddled by theorists like Edward Long (1774).

Black puglists have a British history where Black men like Bill Richmond embodied the national character, albeit in 2020 the constructs tied to Black men and violence cannot be ignored (Bridgerton, Netflix)

Bridgerton skirts around the realms of fantasy but there is also history to be had. Most notably in boxing, Black and Mixed-Race people as part of the British nineteenth century, and also Queen Charlotte. By US standards, Charlotte would be Black (see the one-drop rule). In Europe, she may be thought of as Mixed-Race or Black depending on who you ask. During the kerfuffle around Meghan Markle, numbers of articles were published about her not being the first Black or Mixed-Race royal. Said articles went on to name Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who married George III.

During her reign, she was subject to racially-charged insults. Walter Scott’s silence on enslavement make comments about the Queen like “ill-colored, orang-outang looking figures, with black eyes and hook-noses” entirely in character, even as a lawyer during the years leading up to abolition where the role of lawyers was instrumental in the end of enslavement. Whilst Bridgerton’s inclusion of Black and Brown characters may be on the surface a step forward for diversity, I wonder if it is a step forward for representation. The Twitter thread attached from writer Chimene Suleyman makes some interesting points and the fact the three most powerful characters are Black but are obsessed with a White woman is uncomfortable at the very least. It wouldn’t have been so iffy had this not followed Poldark and Outlander, with their problematic storylines involving rape.

Yet, this time, it’s a White woman raping a Black man then she proceeds to act like a victim. When we talk about Whiteness and thus White women tears, this is probably on the higher end of that spectrum of violence. Albeit the main characters predominantly being Black, they are props to the White families.

If they wanted to push this ‘fantasy’ to the wire, it might have been interesting to have Black characters not filling storytelling and media tropes and stereotypes, incluing Marina Thompson essentially playing the Black bestfriend!

All the characters are likeable, albeit Daphne. She gave me a vibe from day one and the fact the show ended with Daphne and Simon together is problematic, with her first raping him and then dismissing his abuse and trauma. On this point, we know the countless number of Black women that were raped by White men during enslavement. However, I wonder if the same thing happened to enslaved Black men on the plantations. In her book (2019) historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers discusses White women as the owners of enslaved peoples in the American South. Yet, men as victims of rape is still a taboo subject in the present, let alone trying to look at that historically.

Queen Charlotte is played by Golda Rosheuvel (Bridgerton, Netflix)

For many White viewers, they may think the inclusion of so many Black and Brown people in a historic setting as a positive — and perhaps for even Black viewers of this show. In 2020, Beyoncé released ‘Brown Skin Girls’ showing a diversity of hues in Black and Brown women, something that was lacking in Bridgerton. However, despite the many dark-skinned extras, it feels like the makers of the television show are scared of dark-skinned women speaking.

The Netflix series is getting rave reviews and is being hailed for its diversity. Yet, there is a difference between showing Black people on screen and representing us on screen, where the clear light-skinned bias throughout the show could be interpreted as colourism, from the lead in Page’s Duke of Hastings Simon Bassett, to Queen Charlotte, Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker) and Madame Genevieve Delacroix played by Kathryn Drysdale.

Season 1 includes a glossed over marital rape, and colourism. Do better. However, despite the fantasy as well, Netflix plant enough seeds in our minds to show us some Black British history to research for ourselves in our own lives and that’s quite exciting.

References

Black and British (2016). Freedom. Episode 2. Pres. David Olusoga. [BBC iPlayer/Box of Broadcasts].UK: BBC One, 16 November 2016, 21:00

Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E (2019) They Were Her Property: White Women as Slaveowners in the American South. Yale: Yale University Press.

Long, E (1774) The History of Jamaica. London: Ian Randle.

Olusoga, D (2017) Black and British. London: Pan

Prescott, Amanda (2020) From Bridgerton to Hamilton: A History of Color-Conscious Casting in Period Drama. Den of Geek. Available here.

Vasili, P (2010) Walter Tull, 1888–1918. London: Raw Press

Williams, L (2015) Richmond Unchained. Stroud: Amberley

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Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Public Historian-Essayist | Poet | Speaker: race, whiteness, Black History, dyspraxia/autism and more | Work: https://treventour.com/contact/ | Neurodivergent