The TV show Bridgerton is known, among other things, for its choice to cast diverse characters for its upper-class, Regency England setting, including a Black Queen Charlotte. This has led many Regency fans new and old to wonder if there really were upper-class people of color in early modern (or earlier) Europe. The answer is yes, though they were the exception and not the rule. Here are spotlights of a few European aristocrats of African descent.
Too often when Black people appear in paintings from the 1700s and 1800s, they’re servants, standing in the background to hold the subject’s horse or bowl of fruit. Dido Belle is a notable exception–sort of. She is literally holding a bowl of fruit in the painting below, but she’s not subservient. Her eyes sparkle with mischief, and the painting captures both a fondness and an uncertainty between her and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Both young ladies were great-nieces and wards of the Earl of Mansfield, raised together by the childless earl and his wife. Dido had been born to an enslaved mother from the West Indies and the earl’s nephew. Based on comments made by visitors, Dido engaged in some social activities with the family, but not all of them. It’s hard to say for certain how much of that was because of her mixed-race heritage and how much was because she was illegitimate. She helped to oversee the earl’s household and even acted as a sort of clerk for him, an unusual role for a woman. Upon the earl’s death, he left her a comfortable legacy (though much less than her cousin, who was white, legitimate, and an heiress). Dido married a French emigre, and her sons went on to have successful military careers.
The mixed-race heiress from the West Indies was unusual in early nineteenth-century British society, but not unheard of, and seems to have occupied an uncomfortable social position. Jane Austen appeared to be exploring this theme with the mixed-race West Indies heiress Georgiana Lamb in Sanditon, but unfortunately died before the work was finished, so we don’t know what insights she might have offered. From the fragment we have, it appears that Miss Lamb’s position as a legitimate daughter and a very wealthy heiress earned her a sometimes-grudging acceptance from society.
It may be a coincidence that Dido Belle married a Frenchman, but the French in the late 1700s did seem to have a more open attitude about race. The best example of this is probably the so-called Black Count, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. Born to a French marquis and an enslaved woman in Haiti, Dumas’s father acknowledged him and brought him to France, where Dumas was educated and accepted as part of the aristocracy. Dumas was known particularly as a swordsman, and in the French Revolution, he led a group of mixed-race soldiers called the Free Legion of Americans (those born in French colonies in the Americas) or the Black Legion. Dumas and his legion gained fame for their daring exploits, until Napoleon turned his back on his Black subjects, reinstating slavery and stripping free Black people of their rights. If the name Dumas sounds familiar to you, that’s not a coincidence. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ son was the novelist Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
In the cases of Dido Belle and Dumas, they started with aristocratic connections, but their children and grandchildren landed in the middle class. Though that was often true of white aristocrats as well, it wasn’t always the case even for Black European nobility. Take Abram Petrovich Hannibal. The son of a prince or chieftain from Central Africa, he was captured in battle around 1700 as a young boy and taken to the Ottoman Empire. From there, a Russian official brought him to the court of Tsar Peter the Great, since Black servants and slaves were status symbols. Peter the Great saw Abram’s intellectual and military potential, freed him, and became his godfather. Abram excelled in his studies in math and military strategy and fought with the French army to gain military experience. He adopted the surname “Hannibal” after the great Carthaginian general who led an invasion of the Roman Empire from North Africa. Abram returned to Russia to serve in the court of Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, as a successful engineer and general-in-chief. Elizabeth elevated him to the nobility for his work, and his children further married into aristocratic European families so that today, many members of the European nobility are descended from Abram Hannibal.
So, what about Bridgerton‘s Queen Charlotte? Her real-life portraits look as Germanic as her name (Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), but plenty of people have suggested she has some African ancestry. In fact, most Europeans do–nobility or not. That’s because the European nobility of Iberia (Spain and Portugal) sometimes intermarried with the (African Muslim) Moors who ruled the peninsula for centuries. And the nobles of Spain and Portugal intermarried with nobility in the rest of Europe, and voila! In Queen Charlotte’s case, she has Portuguese ancestry, so it’s possible that she could trace her lineage back to Africa as well.
All images are in the public domain and courtesy of Wikimedia.