'Bridgerton': How accurate is Netflix's Shondaland drama and the depiction of Black people in 19th-century London?
Some may wonder whether 'Bridgerton' is accurate in its depiction of Black people in London, let alone high society in the early 19th-century and others may outright disagree
Christmas Day this year may be a drab affair with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging on, but fear not, Netflix is here to save the day. The streaming platform now hosts the first season of Shondaland's 'Bridgerton', adapted from Julia Quinn's best-selling novels, with the first season based on the first book, 'The Duke and I'. The first season introduces the viewers to the Bridgerton siblings but focuses on the love story of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings (Rege-Jean Page).
Of course, one of the most remarkable things about the drama -- and not surprising because it comes from Shondaland -- is that the historical drama, set in early 19th-century London, features a cast as diverse as ever, with many key roles being played by Black people. Those roles include the male lead, Simon, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh). Notably, 'Bridgerton' features people of color in high positions, positions of power -- unlike most other historical dramas which often relegate people of color to minor supporting roles and extras.
This may lead viewers to wonder whether 'Bridgerton' is accurate in its depiction of Black people in London, let alone high society in the early 19th-century and others may outright dispute it. In fact, when a BBC cartoon depicted the father of the central family in Ancient Rome was portrayed as dark-skinned, a Twitter row ensued, and even noted historians falsely stated that Black people were not present in Ancient Rome.
However, studies suggest that people of African origin existed in Britain as far back as in the 12th century. According to the author Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina's book, 'Black London, Life Before Emancipation', a 1764 report from the Gentleman's Magazine stated that England's Black population numbered 20,000, with the Morning Chronicle reporting the number to be 30,000 a year later.
However, that is not to say that Black people did not face racism. Due to the treatment meted out by White people, Black people started to establish communities, concentrating around the large industrial towns and ports. They also began to make increasing numbers of the army and royal navy and across other professions, according to research done by Channel 4's 'Regency House Party'.
There were also many notable Black people in British Regency, including Queen Charlotte, who is fictionalized in 'Bridgerton'. Others include Dido Elizabeth Belle, the grand-niece of Lord Mansfield, who was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and an enslaved Jamaican woman. She is the subject of the 2013 film 'Belle' starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Felton, and Matthew Goode.
Then there was William Davidson, who was born in Jamaica and came to Edinburgh at the age of 14 to study law. When a peaceful protest in 1819 in Manchester ended in bloodshed, Davidson and his peers concocted a plan to blow up the members of parliament of the cabinet while they had dinner at Lord Castlereagh's house. The authorities were informed of the secret plans and they were arrested in a hayloft in Cato Street in London, and hanged at Tyburn.
Gerzina also writes in her book that near the end of the 18th century, there was a large community of Black people living in Britain and they built churches, pubs and the Free Black Community which held regular meetings. She also writes about other notable Black people in Britain including concert violinist George Bridgtower, actor Ignatius Sancho, Cambridge graduate Francis Williams, and grandson of an African king Ukawsaw Gronniosaw.
'Bridgerton' Season 1 is available to stream on Netflix on Christmas Day.