Richmond Unchained: exclusive extract

Luke G. Williams
10/05/2016 8:36am

Luke G. Williams’ book Richmond Unchained: the biography of the world’s first black sporting superstar has been short-listed in the Biography of the Year category at the 2016 Cross Sports Book Awards. The first ever full-length biography of slave turned prominent bare-knuckle boxer Bill Richmond (1763-1829), Richmond Unchained recreates the thrilling and dangerous world of Georgian pugilism. Here Boxing Monthly presents an extract from the book, in which we find the remarkable Richmond making an appearance at one of the most prominent state occasions of the 19th Century…

The Coronation of George IV, Westminster, London, 19 July 1821

George IV’s coronation was a lavish affair. Partly this extravagance was a result of George Augustus Frederick’s natural inclination towards profligacy, a characteristic that had earned him much public opprobrium since his teenage years. However the decision to host an elaborate coronation, complemented by a series of public celebrations including a fête in Hyde Park, was also borne of political expediency. As an unpopular and widely mocked member of the Royal family, it was in George’s interests to create a self-consciously colourful event that might infuse the public with feelings of patriotic fervour and loyalty towards their new monarch.

Ten years earlier, George had been appointed Prince Regent, parliament having concluded that his father George III was unfit to rule, languishing as he was in Windsor Castle, his decaying body wracked with rheumatism and his mind beset by mental illness. Rather than acting as a signal for his son to assume greater responsibility and frugality, the Regency merely served as an inducement for ‘Prinny’ - as he was popularly known - to continue the lavish spending and obscene consumption for which he had obtained notoriety as Prince of Wales. In contrast to his modest, dutiful father, the Prince Regent cared more about the trappings of power and fashion than matters of state. While Britain faced a series of seismic political and military challenges throughout the Regency, from the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval to continuing war with Napoleon and France and the Peterloo Massacre, Prinny was more concerned with masquerade balls or with John Nash’s redesign of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that when the 81-year-old George III finally died on 29 January 1820, his son eagerly began preparations for the most expensive coronation in British history. Determined to mount an event that made Napoleon’s elaborate 1804 coronation as Emperor of France look like a minor village fête, George succeeded in securing the staggering sum of £243,390.6s.2d from parliament to satisfy his desire for opulence; £100,000 in the form of direct parliamentary funding while the remainder was creamed off from payments made by France as part of the terms of the 1815 Treaty of Paris following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and second abdication. No item of expenditure was too extravagant for the soon to be crowned King; for example, £8,205.15s was spent on providing foreign ministers attending the coronation with gifts of ornate snuff boxes, crafted by jewellers Rundell & Bridge.

When George arrived at the West Door of Westminster Abbey at 11am on Thursday 19 July 1821 for the ceremony, he was clad in sumptuous robes with a 27-foot long crimson train made of the finest velvet and generously decorated with gold stars. Meanwhile his crown, specially designed and customised, sparkled and shimmered with 12,314 hired diamonds and was described breathlessly by one newspaper as ‘larger, loftier, and more magnificent, than the former Crown,’ and therefore ‘more appropriate to the dignity of the British Empire, and the splendid taste of the sovereign’. Later that afternoon, coronation formalities complete, the massed ranks of invited peers, bishops, Archbishops and foreign dignitaries surged into Westminster Hall for a coronation banquet, all eager for a glimpse of the new King, as well as the chance to feast on meats, pies, fruits and other rich delicacies that had been prepared for their delectation.

Amidst this dizzying panoply of extravagance, pomp and luxury, stood an unlikely figure. Bill Richmond was no more than 5 foot 9 inches tall and was already 57 years old but, in contrast to the corpulent, sweating King (who was just one year his senior), Richmond was still in magnificent physical condition, without an ounce of fat on his defined and wirily muscular frame, which had been once been described by a breathless admirer as ‘a study for the sculptor’. It had been seventeen years since Richmond had first ventured into the glamorous but dangerous world of the London prize ring and he was now retired, but his achievements as a bare-knuckle boxer, or ‘pugilist’ to borrow the Georgian term of choice, were impeccable. Only two men had ever beaten him in competitive combat: the legendary Tom Cribb and the burly George Maddox. Maddox had paid for his impertinence in humiliating an unprepared Bill in nine rounds in January 1804, by being soundly beaten in a brutal fifty-two minute rematch five years later, a contest that ended with both of Maddox’s eyes closed, Richmond having administered a fearful and prolonged beating.

Dressed as a Royal page in the retro Tudor-Stuart finery that George had personally selected to create the aura of ‘Olde England’, Richmond stood proudly alongside seventeen other prominent pugilists. It was a somewhat incongruous group of men to find at the coronation of the monarch of arguably the most powerful nation on earth, yet the unlikely presence of these men had been on the specific orders of George himself. The new King’s unpopularity, coupled with the fact that his estranged wife, the uncrowned Queen consort Caroline of Brunswick, was expected to try and gatecrash the coronation had, understandably, made George nervous. He hoped that the forbidding presence of a group of loyal toughs would deter any troublemakers and ensure order. An enthusiastic patron of the prize ring in his youth, George had therefore turned to the country’s greatest fistic heroes for protection. It was an astute and symbolic gesture, for pugilists were widely seen as the living embodiment of English manhood and the foremost possessors of pluck, grit and guts - or ‘bottom’ as the Georgians termed it. It would also not have escaped George’s attention that the presence of these pugilists would add a layer of celebrity stardust and a soupçon of notoriety to the normally staid coronation proceedings.

Even within this surreal tableau, though, something dramatically differentiated Richmond from his pugilistic comrades and the ranks of nobility in Westminster Hall; namely, the colour of his skin. For unlike the rest of the assembled masses, who were uniformly white skinned, Richmond was a black man. Even more remarkably, he was a black man who, less than six decades earlier, had been born into slavery in America, a country which, even as the coronation was taking place, continued to bear witness to the horrors of slave auctions and was still forty-four years away from the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution which would finally banish the hateful practice to the history books.

By the time of George IV’s coronation, Richmond had, metaphorically and literally, undergone a remarkable journey; travelling 3,500 miles to escape life as a slave in a Staten Island parsonage and carve a life of freedom, glamour, and social acceptance in London. The prospects for a black child born into slavery in America in the eighteenth century were bleak indeed, but through the considerable force of his personality and his unerring eye for social advancement, Richmond had - like a real-life version of a protagonist from a Charles Dickens novel - hauled himself from a potential life of grinding and condescending servitude to sample the rarefied heights of elevated upper-class English society, becoming, in the process, one of the most prominent ‘men of colour’ of the Georgian era.

One of the defining characteristics of great men or women is their ability to transcend the capricious historical contexts within which, by some infinitesimally unlikely cosmic happenstance, they find themselves living. By making the absolute most of the opportunities that, by chance or design, fall into their paths, they thus ensure their place in history. By this definition, Richmond was indisputably great; for a black man to achieve any level of prominence, let alone ‘celebrity’, during the early nineteenth century was a rare feat. Although the British Slave Trade was abolished by parliament in 1807, slavery would not be banned in the British colonies until the 1830s. Moreover, British society’s attitude towards black people was broadly characterised by ignorance, mistrust and prejudice. This was still a society where it was possible for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in 1810, to describe ‘negroes’ thus:

‘Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race; idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion and are an awful example of the corruption of man left to himself.’

It is also hard to forget the words of the philosopher David Hume, a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, who in 1753 summed up the prevailing presumption of superiority among white society: ‘I am apt to suspect,’ Hume declared, ‘the negroes and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites … There are negro slaves dispersed all over Europe of which none ever displayed any symptoms of ingenuity.’

On many occasions after moving to Britain, whether in the boxing ring, while walking the streets or while tending the bar at his public house the Horse and Dolphin, Richmond suffered abuse because of his ethnicity. The bravery he demonstrated to overcome these taunts and live a professional and public life was considerable. Furthermore, Richmond’s pugilistic exploits caught the imagination of the public and were regularly recounted in exhaustive and precise detail in the pages of national and local newspapers, and this at a time when most newspapers ran to only four pages in length. Richmond’s speed, skill and punching power were held in high esteem by members of ‘the Fancy’, the cognoscenti of the pugilistic arts, such as John Wilson, who wrote approvingly of him in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

‘ … it is evident, that at Oxford he would have been a first-class man; and at Cambridge, probably senior wrangler. We scarcely see on what principle he could well be beat. His activity is miraculous. His bounds are without bound, boundless. His right arm is like a horse’s leg; that is, it’s blow like a kick of that quadrupled. So what boxer, pray, seeing it is impossible to hit him, and impossible to avoid being hit by him, could with any safety be matched against the Lily-white?’

The term Lily-white was a popular Georgian epithet for chimney sweep, and was typical of the sort of patronising language that even Richmond’s admirers used to describe him; he was also referred to variously as ‘the black’, ‘Mungo’, the founder of the ‘sable school of pugilism’ and a ‘black devil’. Despite such casually demeaning language, Richmond nevertheless became hugely famous and respected, not only as a fighter but also as a trainer and tutor of both professional and amateur pugilists. For example, he gave lessons to the brilliant essayist William Hazlitt, who admiringly referred to him as ‘my old master’, while Lord Byron was also said to have been one of Richmond’s eager pupils; that the Romantic poet was a Richmond admirer can be ascertained from his presence among the pugilists whose images comprised an extravagant collage which decorated one side of his beloved decoupage screen (theatrical stars, such as Edmund Kean, featured on the reverse).

The extent of Richmond’s considerable fame can also be measured by the fact that artists of the period produced prints of him, such as Robert Dighton’s A Striking View of Richmond, an original of which can still be found in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Furthermore, the coronation of George IV was not his only encounter with royalty, for when King Frederick William III of Prussia visited London in 1814 Richmond was one of the ‘celebrated professors of the fist’ who was commissioned to spar in front of him and other assorted royals and nobility.

Remarkably, given his reputation for athleticism, Richmond spent the entirety of his boxing career, perhaps even his life, labouring under the handicap of a defect in one of his knees, most likely the right one, which, as can be seen in Dighton’s etching, was somewhat unusual in its shape and angularity. The Reverend J. Richardson provided more detail about this ‘deformity’, remarking that Richmond’s ‘lower limbs were the reverse of symmetrical; one leg being bent inward at the knee, and acting as a prop to its companion, which, when the owner was in “attitude” for either assault or defence, it appeared to support, as what is termed a “spur” does a ricketty post.’ Despite this considerable physical disadvantage, Richmond’s agility was so ‘extraordinary’ that he once deputised for an unwell acrobat at Astley’s famed Ampitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road.

As well as his pugilistic and gymnastic excellence, another remarkable characteristic of Richmond was that he was as far removed from the common stereotype of the monosyllabic pugilistic thug as it was possible to be. Those that met him frequently referred to his excellent manners, witty conversation and intelligence, as well as his ability to tell amusing ‘milling anecdotes’ - a series of qualities that put paid to the bigoted but widespread perception that black people were intellectually inferior. Pierce Egan, the legendary writer whose journal Boxiana was one of the key factors in popularising the exploits of Georgian pugilists for the wider public, wrote at length about Richmond’s intellect in an extensive profile of his career in the first volume of Boxiana, declaring:

‘ … we cannot omit stating of our hero that he is intelligent, communicative, and well-behaved; and however actively engaged in promulgating the principles of milling, he is not so completely absorbed with fighting as to be incapable of discoursing on any other subject; in fact he is rather facetious over a glass of noyeau [4], his favourite wet with a SWELL … His experience in LIFE has taught him to be awake to the tricks of it; and there are few subjects upon which he suffers himself to be lulled to sleep.’

In the second volume of Boxiana, Egan would reinforce his positive impression of Richmond’s charisma by declaring of him that ‘a merrier man … I never spent an hour’s talk withal’. In addition to his engaging personality, Richmond was also endowed with the keen business sense and altruistic spirit of a social entrepreneur. For young black men in London during the early nineteenth century, boxing was one of the few routes (albeit a dangerous one) to paid and independent employment and Richmond would often tutor such men; one of his pupils was another former slave, Tom Molineaux, who Richmond mentored and trained for his famous English Championship contests against Tom Cribb in 1810 and 1811. These were arguably the two most significant sporting occasions of Georgian times, attracting huge crowds and unprecedented press attention and Richmond was a key figure in brokering and promoting both bouts.

Given the wide scope of his accomplishments, Richmond has a good case to be recognised as the first black sportsman of national fame and international significance, the trailblazer in a long, illustrious and socially significant line that eventually stretched to include the likes of Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Richmond wouldn’t have known this in 1821, of course, but as he stood at the heart of the coronation festivities - a black man thriving within a bastion of white privilege - he could have been forgiven for pausing to reflect just how far he had travelled, and how remarkable a life and career he had already led. Exactly how he earned the admiration of his peers, the respect of Royalty and the adulation of the public to become a popular hero of the Georgian age, is a story that is as astonishing as it is unlikely.

Richmond Unchained is published by Amberley, RRP £15.99. Buy now.

 Richmond Unchained cover 2