[Featured image: Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies), by Camille Silvy, 1862 © National Portrait Gallery, London]
Illustrated by quotes from campaigner for racial justice and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, these photographs are part of a project to establish the presence of people of African and Asian heritage in Britain before the end of World War II. Autograph ABP have excavated public archives and private collections to bring together a visual account of the story of immigration and the affects of colonial expansion, prior to the landing of the boat the Empire Windrush in Tilbury in 1948, which is commonly held to be the start of black immigration to Britain.
The portraits are striking in their modernity. This could be a contemporary modelling shoot, rather than 200 years old photographs. The portraits of Johanna Jonkers and Frances Gqoba are particularly striking – the subjects look directly at you with an unwavering gaze.
British colonial policy had a marked effect on individuals. The story behind Sarah Forbes Bonetta (featured image) is frighteningly bonkers. Sarah was born in what is now Nigeria. Her parents were killed and she was orphaned at age 8, falling into the hands of notorious slave trafficker King Ghezo. Intended to be sold as a slave, she was given to an emissary of the British Government, Captain Frederick E Forbes, as a gift to Queen Victoria. Her African name forgotten, she was named after Forbes and the boat, Bonetta, in which she was delivered to Britain. Presented to Queen Victoria, and becoming property of the Crown, Victoria paid for her education, and arranged her marriage to James Pinson Labulo Davies, which Sarah agreed to after some initial resistance.
As Stuart Hall has said “We are here because you were there.”
The exhibition finishes at the weekend. Go and see it.
Black Chronicles, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE