London dandy and early black celebrity
The historian championing this figureMy name is Natalie Zacek. I'm from the US, but I teach history at the University of Manchester. I'm the historian for Julius Soubise, a man born into slavery in the Caribbean in 1754 who came to London as a child. As an adult he became famous for leading a lavish lifestyle and being a man of style and charm. Some people have claimed that he was Britain's first black celebrity.
Julius Soubise was a freed Afro-Caribbean slave who became well-known around London in the late eighteenth century for living an extremely privileged lifestyle, which was unusual for a Black man living at his time. Some scholars have referred to him as Britain’s first black celebrity.
Although he was born enslaved, Soubise came to London as a child and was brought up as if he were a child of the aristocracy. He learned the elite sports of fencing and riding and soon became notorious amongst the upper classes for his elegance and charm. He began to exaggerate his social status and claim that he was the son of an African king.
However, Soubise’s lavish lifestyle was controversial, as he was a man of colour and it was not clear how he could afford such luxuries, and he received negative attention in the London press and in high society. He was accused of raping a maid servant (which would not have caused as much concern among the public had he been a white Englishman) and also of running up large debts. His protector, the Duchess of Queensberry, died in June 1777 and the next month Soubise was packed off to India.
There he established a riding school in Calcutta, where he trained private students and was paid by the East India Company to break in horses. He died there in 1798, aged 44, as a result of falling from a horse.
Soubise was a close friend of Ignatius Sancho, another man born into slavery in the Americas who became widely known in Georgian London as a writer, musician, and abolitionist. But unlike Sancho, he appears never to have taken an interest in the anti-slavery movement.
What was the time period like?:
Most African or Afro-Caribbean people who lived in England in the second half of the century were either enslaved individuals who had been brought to the city by their owners or impoverished free men or women who struggled to make a living in a city that was hostile to the poor and to people of colour.
Julius Soubise’s life is fascinating because it was so different from that other people of African heritage at that time, especially those who had been born into slavery. Not only did he live a glamorous life focused on shopping, sport, and parties, like that of young male aristocrats of the era, he became famous for doing so.
Even people who approved of slavery were fascinated to meet a young man of colour who was considered extremely handsome, was a skilled rider and fencer, and dressed in extraordinary expensive and trendy clothing.
He became a celebrity less for what he did than how he looked, and elite Londoners were enthralled by him.
What influence have they had on Modern Day UK?:
Julius Soubise was an extraordinary man. While he did not contribute directly to the anti-slavery movement, just by living his life he contradicted negative stereotypes about black people.
He could dance, ride, and fence as elegantly as any aristocrat, and those who met or just saw him were amazed by his glamorous appearance and gentlemanly manners.
By demonstrating than a man of African heritage, especially one who had begun his life as a slave on a West Indian plantation, could take on the lifestyle and win the social approval of the richest inhabitants of Georgian London, he encouraged Britons to alter their ideas about who black people were and what they could be, and showed that the qualities associated with refined aristocrats could extend across lines of race and class.
At a time in which many people who were born poor and/or black had little control over their lives, he was his own greatest creation and lived the life he chose.