On June 23, 2022, the UK auction house Trevanion sold a rare and remarkable seventeenth-century painting of a Black and a white woman depicted as social equals. In fact, the painting is so rare and significant that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) blocked the sale. They have since sought and successfully found a domestic buyer who will keep the painting in the UK.
At first glance, the portrait contrasts starkly with eighteenth-century portraits of Black and white women, most famously the portrait by David Martin of Dido Elizabeth Bell and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray. Unlike Dido, who hovers in the background of the portrait she shares with her cousin, the two women here are posed facing each other at a three-quarter angle, have face patches applied in mirror-images of one another, and have similar dresses, hair-styles, and jewelry. Art historians who have written early commentary on the 1650s portrait, viewing it primarily through the lens of gender, find in the subjects’ parallel positioning an acknowledgement of social equality between Black and white women, albeit illicit, that may have existed prior to the advent of racial capitalism--an equality clearly unavailable to Dido and her cousin in the middle of the 18thc when England’s role in the transatlantic slave trade was approaching its apex. That reading, however, ignores critical shifts in the way race and illicit sexuality were already being deployed to advance and consolidate a conservative political imagination for England. I would suggest, on the contrary, that the portrait is indicative of the way Blackness was becoming aligned with radical challenges to English political stability, more familiar in the conflation of “common women,” the colloquial term for prostitutes and “women of the commons,” who were integral to the dissident communities urging radical political reform in the 1640s. Viewed from this wider political perspective, the 1650s portrait evinces not only moral panic over the vanity of patching, but an already deep political fear that Black women might forge political alliances that would politically debase white, aristocratic and genteel Englishwomen and transform them into women of the commons.
Above the sitters’ heads, the painting offers viewers the following moral: "I black with white bespott y white with blacke this evil proceeds from thy proud hart then take her: Devill." The sentiment, as art historians have noted, correlates with an act introduced in parliament, but never passed, prohibiting the wearing of patches in 1650. However, it also correlates with a story that appeared in the The Moderate Intelligencer five years earlier, at the tail end of the first civil war. Taking a rare hiatus from its usual repertoire of military news, the newsbook offered readers the following story on Sunday April 13, 1645:
It's a strange custome in Lincoln’s Inne-fields, not far from the Portugall Ambasasours house; the practise we conceive every way as bad, as any that were used when the book of Recreations commanded or permitted maygames, and revellenings: but not to keep you from the matter any longer: There gathers many hundreds of men, women, maids, and boyes together, then comes Negers, and others of like rankes, these make sport with our English women and maids, offer in the Venetian manner, by way of introduction to that used in their Stewes: why these black men should use our English maides and women upon the Lords day, or any other, in that manner, we know no reason for: but the truth is, the fault is wholy in those loose people that come there, and in the Officers of those Parishes where it is done.
Though April 1645, witnessed the establishment of the New Model Army, Parliament’s victory was not yet assured and MPs remained worried about a fracturing and fractious political landscape. Early attempts to crack down on dissident writing included the 1643 Licensing Act which had done little except further infuriate and raise the suspicions of radicals that if Parliament gained power, it would avoid enacting meaningful political reforms. Not only did John Milton write Areopagitica (1644) in opposition to the act, but future Levellers, William Walwyn, Richard Overton, and John Lilburne wrote similar treatises. Indeed, mere months after the story about illicit relations between African men and English women appeared, John Lilburne was imprisoned for unlicensed publications. In the context of this ambient anxiety about political and cultural disorder, it's clear that the “threat” of African men corrupting English women functioned to emphasize the dangers of disorder. What is less obvious is that the civil wars became the crucible in which the alignment of African identity with political radicalism began to take shape. For not only are the women above corrupted, they are corrupted in a way that makes them suitable for the “Stewes.” Thus transformed from English women to “common women,” the English “maides and women” are also politically degraded to women of the commons, the subject of anti-democratic political ridicule and satire throughout the 1650s and 1660s.
Though the portrait seeks to displace the emergent tropological intersection between Blackness, illicit sexuality, and rebellion into a purely moral register, it would have been unable to do so in the early 1650s. Having recovered Barbados from a Royalist plot to install Francis Willoughby as governor and concluded the first Anglo-Dutch war, Cromwell, named Lord Protector in 1653, devised what would come known as the “Western Design,” a plan to establish an English foothold in the Caribbean. In 1654 a fleet left England for Barbados. Suffering from internal conflict and repulsed from Hispanola, the English invasion force nonetheless found success on Jamaica and claimed the island for England in 1655. Though it would take several more years, the acquisition of Jamaica would radically alter the lives of countless enslaved Africans, among them Dido Elizabeth Belle’s mother. As the demand for slave labor in the English Caribbean and North American colonies accelerated exponentially, settler culture was further elaborated as an expression not only of English patriarchy, law, and order, but as a defense against the disorder and rebellion of the 1640s with which Blackness had become aligned.
We may never know who sat for the 1650s painting. What we can say is that the sitters became part of a complex web of relationships and events that aligned Blackness both with illicit sexuality and illicit politics, ultimately connecting the unnamed seventeenth-century women with Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray.
 Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Routledge, 2007), 53.
Melissa Mowbry is a Professor of English at St. John's University in New York where she teaches and writes about the literature and politics of 17th and 18th c Britain, particularly as it affected those at the literate margins of society: criminals, prostitutes, as well as indentured and enslaved peoples.
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