Since it's almost Christmas, let us treat you to an early present in the form of another of our wonderful author interviews. Today Caroline Bressey, author of our forthcoming monograph Empire, Race and the Politics of Anti-Caste, tells us about her serendiptous discovery of the scrapbook of Catherine Impey, who from 1888 onwards published radical political magazine Anti-Caste from her home in Street, Somerset. Catherine's campaign against racism in Victorian Britain is an inspirational story which tells us much about the politics of the time, and her scrapbook - parts of which are reproduced in the book - also provides an insight into her private world.
Enough from us, though, and over to the author!
Firstly, tell us about your background and interests as a historical geographer.
I read Geography as an undergraduate at Cambridge. At school I was interested in places, distant and seemingly different places, but especially London where I grew up. I also enjoyed history, and geography allowed me to link the past to the present. I initially planned to work on urban landscapes and public history, exploring what the statues and memorials erected around us say about the histories we tell ourselves and why. How history is remembered in public, on television and in museums is still something I work on, but I found that understanding why Black history gets left out meant uncovering those histories myself, and that became the focus of my PhD research at UCL.
Summarise Empire, Race and the Politics of Anti-Caste in one sentence.
The story of Catherine Impey and her paper’s principled stand against racism in Victorian Britain, why it failed, and the friends Catherine made and lost along the way.
How did you first come across Catherine Impey’s scrapbook and visitors’ book?
Serendipity. I was giving a presentation about Anti-Caste and someone in the audience recognised one of the surnames on a list of subscribers as the family name of a friend. After a few phone calls between friends and family and a trip into an attic, I was invited to view the scrapbook and the Impey’s family’s visitor’s book. Those two books, with worn out bindings and inked filled pages, gave me a chance to see into part of Catherine’s private world.
When did you start to write Empire, Race and the Politics of Anti-Caste?
I first read about Catherine Impey during research for my PhD on Black women in Victorian London. She appears in the memoirs of Ida B Wells, an African-American journalist and feminist who Anti-Caste invited to come to Britain to speak out against lynching. Over the following decade I continued to work on Anti-Caste, visiting archives in Britain, Australia, South Africa and America, trying to uncover the extent of Catherine’s networks and why she established Anti-Caste.
The book is the first comprehensive biography of Catherine Impey. Tell us a little more about her: why is she such a unique and inspirational figure?
Catherine was a Quaker and her religious principles were an essential part of her political activism. She was born in 1847 in Street, Somerset, a town best known for its connection to Clarks shoes. She lived there with her older sister Ellen for her entire life. Catherine never became part of the metropolitan political geographies of Victorian London, but the Impey home in Somerset welcomed international visitors and there she and her sister Ellen talked with men and women who were campaigning against inequality in parts of the British Empire and the United States. When their father died Ellen took over the family farm. Catherine worked with Ellen alongside her philanthropic work, initially for the temperance movement, and then Anti-Caste. Though few people know of her work now, Catherine was well known and respected in her own time. Why she is largely forgotten is probably partly because she was a modest person. That she was not on the side of the victors is also key, but Anti-Caste could still play a role in British political life – the legacy of Catherine and her co-workers has not yet been decided.
Catherine Impey’s activities in Street, Somerset demonstrate that political activism in the period was not limited to urban areas. Is she a unique example of this, or are there other stories out there that have yet to be told?
Within the histories of political activism more generally Catherine was following in a long traditional of campaigning from and in rural Britain. But, because the idea that a multi-cultural Britain began only after World War Two, anti-racist politics is imagined to be associated not only with this period, but also with the urban geography of Britain that is assumed to have been home to post-war migrants. Of course, in the 1950s and 1960s men, women and children challenged racism in all parts of the country. That was also the same in the 1860s, and I am sure there are many more networks to be uncovered.
What does Anti-Caste tell us about the politics of race during the Victorian period more broadly?
When I give talks about Catherine people are always really interested in the breadth of her political imagination and admire her commitment to her principles. People often comment that she was ahead of her time. She did not work alone though, she was part of an international network of people challenging racial oppression in the United States and in the British Empire – from Africa to Australia. It is important to remember they were absolutely of their time, that there are always voices that are determined to speak out and work against actions they believe to be wrong. Similarly they remind us that when the actions of men such as Cecil Rhodes are justified because he ‘was of his time’, we should challenge those who want to argue that support for racism, exploitation and colonial expansion were natural and ubiquitous, as Catherine and her Anti-Caste co-workers did.
Do you have any idea as to why Catherine eventually stopped publishing Anti-Caste?
I have thought a lot about that. It’s hard to suggest a particular event. Her feelings for a fellow activist ended up causing a major split amongst her colleagues and irrevocably weakened the movement. No doubt Catherine felt let down by colleagues who she believed had betrayed the anti-racist cause through their own actions over the years. The final issues of Anti-Caste appeared in 1895 during a dynamic political period, and she would have known that new organisations such were being set up such the African Association formed in 1897. Based in London, and run by men and women from the African diaspora, Catherine may have felt that they were better placed to lead a new generation of activists.
Will writing Anti-Caste affect the direction of your future research?
It has. Working on Catherine has developed my interest in activist communities, the importance of personal networks in their making and why they fail or succeed. While continuing to work on the historical geographies of the Black presence in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, in the long term I am planning to research and write a book on the surveillance of anti-racist activists by the State from formation of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s up to the recent revelations of the Metropolitan Police’s infiltration of anti-racist groups in the 1980s.
What do you think is the most important thing readers should take away from your book?
That individual action is vital to political change, and that small stories reflect far bigger histories than their successes or their archives might suggest.
Caroline Bressey is Lecturer in Human Geography at University College London, UK. Her book Empire, Race and the Politics of Anti-Caste is published by Bloomsbury on 19th December 2013. To find out more and purchase a copy, head on over to the book's page on our website.