When we think of the London of Charles Dickens — that is, the London of the 1830s, much of which is still easily found today — we focus on those landmarks that are the obvious ones: St. Paul’s cathedral, Covenant Garden, Regent Street, and of course the Thames. What you won’t find, however, is the world Dickens tried to re-create through his characters.
As the historian S.I. Martin explained, Dickens lived in a “world of rookeries, of tenements; all sorts of winds, small streets and ruelles — where the least favored of the city’s inhabitants would have lived.” At that time, London was at the center of what was the biggest empire in the world, and a city of 2 million people.
WATCH KARL BOSTIC’S REPORT ON DICKENS’ BLACK LONDONER INSPIRATION:
There was a diverse population of all backgrounds: a large Irish population, a significant Jewish population, and a very visible population of African origin.
There were already second or third generation blacks living in London who were free. The population of blacks was also growing because of black sailors and soldiers moving to London, who had fought in the Napoleonic wars. There were also those blacks who had fought alongside or served the British Army after their failed “North American adventure.
Ignatius Sancho was perhaps the best known of an elite group of blacks in London at the end of the 18th century that also included the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. Sancho was a composer, actor, and writer, who also owned his own pub. (On a personal note, my mother, who was a classical musician specializing in black classical music, used to perform Sancho’s music in lectures during Black History Month each February. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sancho was as highly regarded here as I had been taught.)
Another black Londoner who lived at the time of Dickens’ writing was Henry Murphy, also known at the time, as “Henry the child stealer.” His activities reportedly included holding children at his hideout and forcing them to beg, or to steal. Martin says it’s entirely plausible that Murphy may have been the model for the character Fagin, a central character in one of Dickens’ most famous novels: Oliver Twist.
The case of Henry Murphy should not surprise anyone, says Martin.
“Of course you would have found people of African origin at all levels of society, so Henry Murphy’s activities inspiring Dickens are all part of that,” Martin said.
As for why Dickens chose to depict Fagin as a Jewish character, and not the original black criminal, as he could have been, there is a consensus that anti-Semitism was growing in London, at a time when a wave of Jewish migration created neighborhoods that were predominantly Jewish. Also, 1834, was the year in which the abolition of slavery in the British colonies was taking place, and sympathy for the plight of blacks who had been enslaved was strong. Dickens’ attitude towards race was a reflection of the times in Britain. He was against slavery, but he was not in favor of suffrage for Blacks.
Still, by trading in one stereotype for another, he may have rewritten history — both real and literary.