Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

182 : Joseph Jenkins or Selim Aga, an African Prince – London 1850s

The African American author and anti-slavery activist William Wells Brown (ca 1814-1884) lived in Britain for five years from 1849. His Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave was in a fourth edition by 1849, and income from its sales helped Brown promote understanding of the lives of America’s slaves and ‘free people of color’ in Britain and Ireland. When he returned to America his The American Fugitive in Europe: Sketches of Places and People Abroad was published in Boston in 1855. A chapter towards the end details ‘a good-looking man, neither black nor white, engaged in distributing bills [advertising flyers] to the thousands who throng that part of the city of London [Cheapside]’. A few days later Brown saw the same man sweeping a crossing in Chelsea. Then some days after he heard the same man singing a psalm in the street in Kensington, and selling religious tracts. One week afterwards he went to see Othello at a London theatre, which had a major role played by ‘Selim, an African prince’. It was ‘Mr. Jenkins, the bill-distributor from Cheapside, and crossing-sweeper from Chelsea!’.

Absent in the provinces, Brown returned to London more than a year later, and attended a small chapel where the preacher was a ‘colored brother’. Guess who? Walking home together afterwards Brown was told by Jenkins that he was ‘a native of Africa’ from the Dafur region of southern Sudan ‘two thousand miles in the interior of Africa’. Seized by slavers and taken on the Nile to Cairo, he ‘became the property of an English gentleman’ and was brought to Britain and put in school. The death of his patron left him to scuffle a living. He had a son who was now distributing those bills for a barber in Cheapside, and said his daughter had married three months before. He gave the Chelsea crossing to his son-in-law: ‘worth thirty shillings [£1.50] a week, if it is well swept’. He was now a band leader, performing at parties and balls, and three times a week at the Holborn Casino’. The Casino was well regarded in its day.

The American Fugitive in Europe was republished, edited by Paul Jefferson, by Edinburgh University Press in 1991 (The Travels of William Wells Brown). It does not expand on Jenkins/Selim. The first modern biography of Brown (William Edward Farrison, William Wells Brown, Author and Reformer, University of Chicago Press, 1969) noted that Brown left Jenkins ‘in the shadowland between the real and the imaginary’. Ezra Greenspan’s William Wells Brown. An African American Life (New York: Norton,  2014) says that Brown’s story of Jenkins was ‘an amazing story, spellbindingly told’ (page 285) and explains that Jenkins was modelled on ‘a Sudanese native named Selim Aga’. Aga’s autobiography had been published in Aberdeen in 1846 and reprinted in London in 1850. Brown was ‘intimate with the text’.

Aga had reached Scotland in 1836, and in the 1860s he was involved, in western Africa, with British explorers including Richard Burton. Some of his African craft purchases are in the possession of the Liverpool museums. James McCarthy, Selim Aga: A Slave’s Odyssey was published by Luath Press of Edinburgh in 2006.  McCarthy has discovered that Aga was killed in Liberia in 1875. The registration of the birth of a Mary Ann Aga was made in Penrith in 1845.

What is clear is that William Wells Brown, whose 1853 Clotel is generally regarded as a pioneering black American novel, cannot be relied on for the exploits of ‘Mr. Jenkins’ as a black Londoner. But my research into the activities of black males in 1850s Britain has uncovered enough evidence to suggest that Jenkins may well have existed although we could agree that his acting career (and the style African Roscius) was that of Ira Aldridge.