There was standing room only at a special public event held by the University to celebrate and discuss the life of Cesar Picton (1755-1836), a former African slave brought to England as a young boy, and also the wider role of Africans in Georgian England. The popular event saw over 90 people in attendance, including students, academics, local historians, and a range of interested visitors from the local community in Kingston-upon-Thames.
Organised by Kingston University’s Centre for the Historical Record, in conjunction with The National Archives (TNA), Kew, the event was held on November 11th at the University’s Penryhn Road campus as part of the national Explore Your Archives campaign to encourage people to visit archives and discover new documents for themselves. The main theme of the evening was the life and times of Cesar Picton and how the study of new public records has helped researchers piece together further fascinating details about Picton’s place in the local community in Kingston, and how other people viewed and interacted with him. Picton’s life was also placed in the more general context of the presence, role and treatment of other Africans in British history during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
An added treat for the audience was the public premiere of two documentary-style short films, which re-enacted aspects of Cesar Picton’s remarkable life story. Made by Anna Brass and Lilly Mehbod, who also gave brief introductory talks about the films, Cesar Picton Part One and Cesar Picton Part Two are based on records held by both The National Archives and Kingston Borough Council’s Local History Room.
The first film provided an evocative reproduction and narrative of Cesar’s early life, including his voyage from Senegal to England at the age of six, while the second film offered various comments from and about Cesar as an adult and a ‘gentleman’, based upon newly discovered and very revealing letters. In addition to dramatic reconstructions, the film followed Dr. Nicola Phillips, of Kingston University, as she unpacked and explained the importance of this new material discovered amongst Chancery records in The National Archives.
The audience discovered from the two films how Picton, who is arguably Kingston’s most famous black businessmen, was brought to England by an army officer and, in 1761, was ‘presented’ to Sir John Phillips, a local and wealthy Baronet, who resided in Norbiton, just outside Kingston. Sir John’s journal described the arrival of the young Cesar, together with the additional gift of “a parakeet and a foreign duck”. The Phillips family were strong supporters of Christian missionary work and they ensured that the young boy was baptized. The first film also revealed how the young boy was initially dressed as a kind of exotic page-boy, complete with a velvet turban.
However, from an early age, Cesar showed that he was a highly intelligent boy, and he went on to become a particular favourite of the Phillips family, especially Lady Phillips.
The audience were also offered important insights into how others saw Picton. It was revealed, for example, that when Picton was 33, Horace Walpole (1717-1797), the famous Whig politician who lived at Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, wrote a letter in 1788 which commented: “I was in Kingston with the sisters of Lady Lilford; they have a favourite black, who has been with them a great many years and is remarkably sensible”.
Following the deaths of Sir John Phillips in 1764, and later his wife in 1788, Picton used a legacy of £100 (a huge sum of money back then), left to him by Lady Phillips, to set up his own business as a coal merchant in Kingston. Picton became a well-known figure in the local community and gained a very deserved reputation as an astute and highly-principled coal trader. Despite one notable outburst of racist animosity by a Richmond gentleman thwarted by Picton’s insistence on protecting the property of a local tradesman, historians believe Picton became one of the richest Africans in Georgian England. Perhaps because of his wealth, there is evidence that he clearly enjoyed a varied diet. When he died in 1836, aged 81, and was buried in All Saints Church, Kingston, Picton’s coffin had to be carried into the church on a four-wheeled trolley.
The highly entertaining evening was then given over to an equally fascinating general talk by Dr. Miranda Kaufmann, who set out the extent to which other Africans had an impact on Georgian England, including figures such as Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano and Dido Elizabeth Belle. Miranda set out a very persuasive case that there is still considerable research to be carried out on the presence and full extent of Africans living in Georgian England. Indeed, scholars now estimate that there were about 10,000-15,000 Africans living at the time just in the capital city of London alone.
Dr. Kaufmann showed us an extensive range of examples of Black individuals in paintings, sketches and other cultural artefacts from the period, leaving the audience with a much deeper understanding of the diverse nature of the population in the Eighteenth Century, and how there still remains many potential research avenues to be carved out on the subject.
There have been numerous requests to make both the films and a recording of Miranda Kaufmann’s talk more widely available. You can watch both parts of the film above and find a link Miranda’s talk as well other resources under Kingston Links, Black History Resources.