Tag Archives: Queen Victoria

All in this Together? Wartime Britain and its Colonies in Children’s Literature

In Britain, Monday is the celebratory day known as Spring (or sometimes Late May) Bank Holiday.  This particular bank holiday used to be connected with the religious celebration of Whitsun, as Philip Larkin can attest (somehow, “Spring Bank Holiday Weddings” just doesn’t have the same ring to it), but I suppose given the changes in society, naming a day off after capitalism is really much more appropriate.  It is a time of year in the northern hemisphere when a long weekend is welcome; the French still celebrate Whitsun and the Canadians take a day off for a dead British queen (any excuse…).  In the US, however, Americans celebrate the first of two days (Veteran’s Day being the other) to honor the military.  Memorial Day’s origins go back to the US Civil War, when people needed an outlet for nationwide grief over the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in that conflict.  Back then, it was called Decoration Day, and it wasn’t an official holiday.  In fact, it didn’t become an official holiday until 1971, when the Vietnam War divided the country (at least ideologically) once again.


From the IRR’s Patterns of Racism, one of the many incidentsWalt where the British turned weapons on colonial subjects.

What struck me about all this is that both the US Civil War and Vietnam were divisive in large part because of race.  The Civil War’s connection to race is obvious; the Vietnam War perhaps less so, but “during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action” (http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/african-americans-in-combat/).  And the other thing that struck me—since I was thinking about Canadians and Victoria Day—is that if the British had started a similar holiday in the 1860s, there would probably be a huge debate over whether or not to celebrate it, since many of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” were about putting down the rebellious colonial subjects (the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 and the Morant Bay Uprising of 1865 are two examples that spring to mind where the British military turned guns on colonial subjects).


Together . . . as long as you know your place.

And yet, particularly during the twentieth century, Britain relied heavily on her colonies to provide human power to fight the war against Germany.  A poster from WWII to encourage recruitment was, I’ve always thought, remarkably upfront about how Britain saw their help—we need you, but if you’re not white, please stay at the back of the parade.  Most mainstream children’s books about the world wars (as I’ve written elsewhere; see “A Medal for Walter: Representations of Black Britons and World War I” in Lion and the Unicorn 41.2) show only white British soldiers.  But books by smaller and independent presses have done better in showing the contribution of the colonies to Britain’s war efforts—as well as how those efforts were not always repaid with gratitude.

The oldest of the books I’m going to look at today comes from the Institute of Race Relations’ racism series.  Book two, Patterns of Racism (1982) shows the many armed struggles between Britain and her colonies, including the Sepoy Rebellion and the Zulu Wars.  Book three, How Racism Came to Britain (1985) points out that, following World War II, “Having helped to win Britain’s war . . . [West Indians] were asked to win the peace for Britain too” (24).  The book goes on to detail how Black Caribbean people who answered Britain’s call for workers then faced discrimination, racism, and poverty.

Neither of the IRR books focuses directly on the West Indian soldiers from the world wars, but Angelina Osborne and Arthur Torrington’s We Served: The Untold Story of the West Indian Contribution to World War II (Windrush Foundation 2005) tells the story of four individuals who contributed to Britain’s success, all from the West Indies.  The book tries to highlight their successes, but downplays their struggles, and racism is almost entirely absent.  One possible hint is found in Norma Best’s story; after the war, she qualifies as a teacher and secures a job in Cambridge, but “was told that she had to return to British Honduras” (11), a rejection that would be echoed decades later in the recent Windrush deportations.


Despite centuries of colonial oppression, Britain’s former subjects still answered the call to the ‘Mother Country’.

The best biography of a Black World War I British soldier also comes from an independent press.  Historian Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull (Northamptonshire Black History Association 2007) highlights Tull’s skills and talents—but also how those skills and talents were constantly being challenged and threatened by racism, from “ordinary” Britons as well as the British Army in which he served.  “He knew the rules in the Army as well as anyone.  It was written down in black and white.  ‘No negro or person of colour to occupy officer rank’” (22).  Claire’s book rightly celebrates his achievements, but also notes that it took years to recognize him. Describing a memorial dedication service in Northampton, Claire writes, “It is Sunday, July 11th 1999.  Walter died more than 80 years ago, but he has not been forgotten . . . Walter Tull, the first black professional footballer in Britain, the first black officer in the British Army is, at last, being publicly honoured” (28).


Racism on the playing field and the killing fields in Hilary Claire’s The Story of Walter Tull.

The hesitation over people of colour in the British armed forces continued through World War II, despite Britain’s even greater need for help.  Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, wanted to help Britain fight fascism.  But as Liberté: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust 2007), written by school children in Manchester, points out, she had to become acceptable to the British in order to do so.  “Noor changed her name to Nora Baker, so the WAAF would accept her” (13).  She later became a spy, and, like Walter Tull, was killed in the line of duty.


Noor becomes Nora to please the British in Liberte: The Story of Noor Inayat Khan.

Perhaps these children’s books from independent publishers have started to have a slight influence on the way that mainstream publishers depict the war for their readers.  In 2014, Collins Big Cat put out a book by white author Clive Gifford.  This book was not about the war, but it mentioned it; The Empire Windrush indicates that one of the reasons that Caribbean people came to Britain in the Windrush years was to “rejoin the Army or Air Force units that they’d served in during World War II” (12).  The book gives the example of Sam King (who also appears in We Served), and celebrates his contribution to the war but also to London after the war as mayor of Southwark and as a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival.  But the book doesn’t shy away from the racist attitudes people like King had to face.  Britain may have promoted an image of the entire empire fighting together, but Britain’s Black population had to fight two wars—against the enemy of the Mother Country, and against racism.


From Gifford’s Empire Windrush, Sam King gets no help from the British to return across the sea, even though he didn’t hesitate to help Britain in the war.

But I’ll Never Be Royal? Shakespeare, the Monarchy, and Black Britain

This week marks Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. I thought I might mark the occasions on this blog, and then I thought, huh. What does Shakespeare or the monarchy have to do with Black British children’s literature?


Edmund Kean as Othello in Skelt’s Toy Theatre version of the Shakespeare play


Shakespeare is (at least at first) slightly more obvious. There is, after all, the Noble Moor. Othello, written in circa 1603, is perhaps the most famous early literary depiction of interracial marriage. And kids have learned the stories of Shakespeare from a very early age for quite a long time. The introduction of Shakespeare through Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare was a more “serious” introduction, and the toy theatres of Pollock’s and Skelt’s were more popular introductions, but both included Othello in their repertoire. The Lambs’ version, obviously shortened from the original, is clear from the outset that Othello’s skin color is an issue. The third sentence of the Lamb version points out that Desdemona is dissatisfied with her marital options: “among the suitors of her own clime and complexion, she saw none whom she could affect: for this noble lady, who regarded the mind more than the features of men, with a singularity rather to be admired than imitated, had chosen for the object of her affections, a Moor, a black”. Note that children are to admire Desdemona for wanting a clever husband, but not imitate her. And this is not Shakespeare as written; in the play, Desdemona is not ignoring Othello’s appearance; she is clear that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/ And to his honour and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate” (Act I, Scene III). But the Lambs had to make Desdemona “childlike” in order to “excuse” her for marrying a Black man; their account of Othello serves as a warning that only children fail to judge books by their covers.


The Lambs’ version of Othello claims Desdemona was childlike and not interested in Othello’s looks.


But the Lambs did not include pictorial representations of Othello and Desdemona’s love; this was left to the theatre. And in the theatre, Othello was generally played by a white man (in the 19th century and far beyond as well). Even though the famous African-American actor, Ira Aldridge, took over from Edmund Kean after Kean’s death in the 1830s, the toy theatre sold by Skelt’s continued to use Kean’s image as Othello.


Out, damned spot–the sticker book includes Macbeth and the Tempest, but not Othello or Black Shakespearean actors.


And in the 20th and 21st century, this discomfort with Othello as a suitable subject for children continues. Usborne’s Shakespeare Sticker Book has engaging sticker pictures of both comedies and tragedies by Shakespeare, but not Othello—nor are any of the sticker figures Black. Thank heavens for Malorie Blackman, whose Chasing the Stars, a YA science fiction-y retelling of Othello, comes out this weekend. If only someone were still doing toy theatres, they might do a version of Talawa theatre’s all-black cast in King Lear.


Prince William said in a recent interview that his grandmother stays “above” politics, and this generally includes racial politics as well; while her husband is famous for his impolitic pronouncements on non-white people, Elizabeth confines herself to the occasional celebratory remark about the many cultures that make up Britain. Children’s literature about or including the queen generally reflects this; the queen is guarded by white soldiers in most children’s books, and even her appearance in Roald Dahl’s The BFG suggests an all-white Britain over which she reigns. There is some suggestion that the queen (or at least her staff) want to encourage this to change; the children’s book that commemorates the queen’s birthday (official and approved), The Birthday Crown, does show a little (very little) diversity in the background.


Brief appearance for diversity in Royal Collection’s The Birthday Crown by Davide Cali and Kate Slater.


But the royal family has, in the past, had more deliberate and purposeful connection with a diverse world. Children’s literature (by both Black and white authors) have written about Victoria’s interaction with various people of her empire, from Mary Seacole to Sarah Forbes Bonetta to Sophia Duleep Singh (two of these three women were themselves royal in their own countries). Victoria did not have to worry about her relationship to these women; she was their queen-empress, and they were her subjects. That means she could afford to employ Mary Seacole as a masseuse in her household, adopt Sarah Forbes Bonetta (not of course in the way that normal people adopt a child), and give Sophia Duleep Singh a grace-and-favour apartment. The mighty can afford to be generous (though it does not always follow that they are).


Myers’ book about Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

There is evidence that other queens of Britain may have had more direct connection to the non-white world. The Guardian reported in 2009 on Queen Charlotte, known to be abolitionist in her politics, and her possible African ancestry (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/mar/12/race-monarchy). This link, if true, would of course mean that the current royals would also have this ancestry—although much further back in time. The evidence is sketchy, but there are clearer indications about the 14th century Queen Philippa, who one of the English bishops described as having clearly African features. But neither of these queens feature very frequently in children’s literature (and when they are, as wives or mothers of kings, their race is usually unremarked). A rare example of a children’s book that acknowledges the suggestion of African ancestry in the monarchy is Joysetta Marsh Pearse’s Black Royals: Queen Charlotte (2014), which appears to be part of a series—but I can’t find any other books in the series.


The first Queen Elizabeth famously complained about too many “blackamoors” in England, and Shakespeare’s play reflects some of these fears. The Jamaican prime minister has just wished the current Queen Elizabeth happy birthday at the same time politely suggesting that Jamaica would soon end the tradition of considering the queen Jamaica’s titular Head of State. Yet some of the best Shakespearean actors in the UK today are Black (Adrian Lester, Don Warrington) and the queen’s Britain today can no longer be seen as an all-white world. Perhaps it’s time that more children’s books reflected these realities.







Victoria in Black: “Race” and Queen Victoria

Today is Victoria Day, a curiously antiquated holiday to celebrate, in Canada, a queen of England who has been dead for over a hundred years. (In Quebec, they tried to change the name to honor a Frenchman who died battling the Iroquois near what is now Montréal; now the holiday is called National Patriot’s Day in Quebec, to celebrate the struggle for freedom from British rule in the year that Victoria came to power, 1837.) The reason for this continuing praise of the deceased monarch is that Victoria is seen as the “Mother of Confederation” in Canada. The image of Victoria as mother, and Victoria’s own emphasis on family and motherhood, extended to the empire in places other than Canada. In fact, it was during the Victorian period that the British Empire became known as a family of nations rather than simply a collection of production sites for empire goods. Queen Victoria had a great deal to do with this herself, and not just in the “white” colonies such as Canada or Australia. She was godmother to several imperial subjects, providing education and economic support for her godchildren (and her godchildren’s children) from Africa and India. Some of these were royals of their own country, including Duleep Singh and Princess Gouramma of India, and Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia.

Myers' book leaves questions unanswered.

Myers’ book leaves questions unanswered.

One of the earliest of Victoria’s imperial godchildren may or may not have been a princess, but she certainly was of good (though massacred) family, as she was presented to the queen in 1850 as a gift from the notorious slave-trading King Gezo of Dahomey. The girl, Sarah (or Sally) Bonetta Forbes, had been named after the captain (Forbes) who represented the queen’s wish that the king cease his slaving activities, and the captain’s ship (the Bonetta)—like Paddington Bear, her birth name is lost to history, replaced by an English one at the whim of her rescuers. She was brought to Britain, but the British climate was seen as potentially fatal to Africans (much as the tropical climates were seen as potentially fatal to Europeans), so the young girl was sent back to Africa (to the Sierra Leone colony, where ironically the British had tried to send indigent Black Londoners in the 18th century—most of whom had died). She was sent there to be educated as part of Victoria’s Christianizing mission of Africa; it was felt that Forbes would be an excellent voice for Christianity in Africa, someone who would be listened to more readily than white missionaries. Forbes did not like Sierra Leone, and returned to England until her marriage to an African businessman. Following a short time living in Bristol, the couple returned to Sierra Leone, but Forbes visited the queen a number of times, and her own daughter—named Victoria after the queen—continued to do so after her mother’s death. Forbes’s story, which is highlighted in Walter Dean Myers’ biography At Her Majesty’s Service (1999), raises a number of unanswered questions about the peculiar “empire family” relationship between Queen Victoria and Sarah Forbes. Myers concludes the book with an afterword in which he asks several of them, including wondering about her birth name and her relationship with Africa. The questions remain unanswered, but Forbes’ story (and Myers’ account of it) keenly highlights the way that the British saw themselves as head of the imperial family, caretakers of the “childlike” races.

Books about Seacole were published after she was placed in Britain's National Curriculum--but now there is controversy about including her.

Books about Seacole were published after she was placed in Britain’s National Curriculum–but now there is controversy about including her.

Another Victorian troubled this image of the Great White Mother, even as she clearly longed to embrace her Mother Country. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican “doctress” (a common figure in the West Indies, who healed the sick through herbal remedies) came to Britain in 1854 to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing staff headed to the Crimean battlefields. Nightingale rejected her help, but Seacole went anyway, and by attending to soldiers on the battlefield (Nightingale and her nurses were positioned some distance away) and opening up The British Hotel, a hospital and recreational club (card games and alcohol—both disdained by Nightingale—were available for the soldiers), nearby, Seacole earned a nickname she coveted and promoted in her autobiography (The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857): that of Mother Seacole. In an era when many women of African descent were not considered by British people as anything more than heathens to be converted or servants to be ordered about, Seacole earned the highest honor possible for any (especially childless) Victorian woman, white or black. She was allied through her name to Queen Victoria, the mother of the nation and the empire, through this nickname. But although this was a link that Nightingale herself never achieved, Seacole wanted to be recognized as a capable, useful, even heroic human being by the queen herself. Several reports offer connections between Seacole and the Royal Family, and though they are all unsubstantiated, it is of some significance that children’s versions of Seacole’s life continue to introduce this idea of Seacole on familiar terms with the queen. John Malam’s Tell me About Mary Seacole (2006) argues that “when the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s eldest son, was ill, it was Mary who made him better” (20). And Paul Harrison’s Who was . . . Mary Seacole? (2007) said that “Mary would often meet with the Queen and Prince Albert” (18). True or not, it is the image that matters. A poor Jamaican nurse rejected by Florence Nightingale becomes accepted by two great symbols of imperial power: the British soldier who enforces empire, and the “ruling mother” of the Mother Country, Queen Victoria.

Curious that on the page where Mary Seacole dies, her death isn't mentioned.  From Paul Harrison's Who Was . . . Mary Seacole?

Curious that on the page where Mary Seacole dies, her death isn’t mentioned. From Paul Harrison’s Who Was . . . Mary Seacole?

Queen Victoria ruled over the largest empire ever to have existed, with dominion over people of many different nations. For a few of empire’s subjects, the queen herself played an intimate role as a mother figure to be honored or emulated. Both Sarah Bonetta Forbes and Mary Seacole were placed in the impossible position of having to reject their birth homes and pasts in order to be recognized as worthy of (white) Victorian England’s notice. Even then, Seacole and Forbes were often treated as curiosities or second-class citizens. In children’s books, the women are treated as heroes; but the underlying message of all of the books is that true power lay with a woman who, by virtue of her birth, could accept people as gifts and bring her version of civilization to a large portion of the world, whether they liked it or not. After all, Mother knows best!