Thursday, March 18, 2010

race and class for the Victorians

I keep misplacing my favorite quote that demonstrates the Victorian understanding of race and class. From a review of David Cannadine's Ornamentalism: how the British saw their empireWhy the Victorians were colour blind. In the 19th century, race mattered far less than social distinction: a West African tribal chief was unquestionably superior to an East End costermonger. By Kenan Malik:
Lady Gordon, the wife of Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, the governor of Fiji from 1875 to 1880, thought the native high-ranking Fijians "such an undoubted aristocracy". She wrote: "Their manners are so perfectly easy and well bred . . . Nurse can't understand it at all, she looks down on them as an inferior race. I don't like to tell her that these ladies are my equals, which she is not!"
Researching this, I stumbled across a LiveJournal discussion, race and class in Victorian England, which has some useful links—and which was refreshing after encountering the obliviousness to class that's been exhibited too often in discussions of race.

The First Black Britons is a bit simplistic when it addresses class issues--"white" servants were also inferiors whose purpose could be primarily decorative--but it's got great snapshots of blacks in Britain, and includes this:
The black and white poor of this period were friends, not rivals. So much so, in fact, that Sir John Fielding, a magistrate and brother of the novelist Henry Fielding, complained that when black domestic servants ran away and, as they often did, found '... the Mob on their side, it makes it not only difficult but dangerous to the Proprietor of these Slaves to recover the Possession of them, when once they are sported away'.
Also of interest: Class, Gender, and Race: Chinese Servants in the North American West


  1. A co-worker of mine was just in Fiji, so I did a quick web-browse. The Brits were surprisingly hands off on the locals, to the point of importing a few hundred thousand workers from India instead of co-opting the locals.

  2. So was the epithet "wog", sneeringly referring to natives of wherever the Empire had planted its flag, making a class distinction as much or more than a color one?

  3. Jeff, now I'm wondering why. Did the Fijians do much to resist the Brits? If it was functioning as a client state, the Brits would've naturally stayed hands-off.

    DSD, it might have been a tribal/national difference. Humans can slice the us vs. them pie in an amazing number of ways. If I had to make the call right now, I would say it was all three in most cases, especially at the turn of the 20th century, and the class element was the most important, followed by tribe/nation, and then race.

  4. DSD, a PS: There's a strong hint of classism in the "polite" etymology of "Worthy Oriental Gentleman." (It's more likely from Gollywog or Polywog.)

    And I'm reminded that L. Ron Hubbard, that racist pulp writer, needed a slur for non-Scientologists, so he chose "wog" instead of inventing a new one.

  5. While I don't know how much credence I would give Urban Dictionary, it does suggest tribe/nation are more important when using "wog""