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Silences in the archive: Anti-Caste and fighting white supremacy in Victorian Britain

The fight against White Supremacy is a movement with roots in Victorian Britain. Caroline Bressey explores the role of figures such as Catherine Impey, and her journal, Anti-Caste, in combatting the legacies of slavery, and social and racial prejudice.

One November day, the white anti-racist activist Catherine Impey reflected upon the state of racial prejudice in the United States for the monthly journal Bond of Brotherhood. In her essay on ‘Fear’ she lambasted those in charge for their violent treatment of Black people:

We see America, or at least its governing classes (for, though the great nation is a republic, it is always the few who govern, whether by exceptional ability of person or circumstance, or by choice, or election, of their fellows), striking with deadly blows at the best elements of its coloured population. Why? From fear.[1]

Impey argued that this fear meant that the idea of living with or granting 'civil equality' to Black men and women was met with a deep horror by parts of white America. The alternative to equality was an increasing insistence upon 'white supremacy', a structure of society that would supposedly ensure a reign of justice and morality. Yet, as Impey observed, in reality, this was a social structure that proved itself to be 'cruel, and monstrously, lavishly unjust'.[2]

Impey drew attention to the formal politicisation of white supremacy as she relayed reports from the New Orleans Crusader of a ‘White Supremacy League’ being organised by politicians to gain control of offices at the next election. Violent attacks upon Black people were being reported alongside threats to white people considered to be too friendly with Black families. This, Impey observed, 'is what “white supremacy” means':[3] a society that recognised 'no “human rights” except those of their own white community'. Though the concern and language of her reports are familiar, Impey’s columns were not written recently but in the winter of 1894, for a journal that was the most recent iteration of a radical anti-racist periodical she had founded six years earlier.

The founding of Anti-Caste

Born in 1848, Catherine Impey became the founding editor of Anti-Caste in the spring of 1888. She produced and distributed the monthly periodical from her rural home in Street, Somerset. Her family were Quakers with connections to anti-slavery networks, and Impey founded Anti-Caste to support and inform activists who would join the campaign against one of the legacies of slavery, racial prejudice.

As a woman in control of a publication’s editorial voice, Impey was a rare example of women working as managers in 19th-century journalism. In the editorial spaces of Anti-Caste, Impey had the opportunity to deliberate, suggest and question racism with her readers. Those who joined her as subscribers included the African-American feminist Ida B Wells, Frederick Douglass and Celestine Edwards, who is likely to have been Britain’s first Black journal editor, including his run of Anti-Caste when it was known as Fraternity. The concerns of the movement were focussed not only on legalised racial oppression, but what Impey called ‘social oppression’ – the rules and norms that operated beyond the reach of law but which maintained deep inequality in people’s access to rights of citizenship.

Catherine Impey's race as caste

Impey’s decision to draw an active community together under the banner of ‘Anti-Caste’, rather than ‘Anti-Race’ or ‘Anti-Racism’, lay in her determination to undermine constructions of racial hierarchy in her activism and in her writing. She shunned the word ‘race’ wherever she could. For her, the very use of the word implied a distinction that was unreal when people were of ‘one “race” – the “human race” the world over though of different varieties’.[5] In activating ‘colour-caste’ as a mode of analysis, she drew on an approach to understanding racialised difference that had appeared in writings of pro- and anti-racist writers during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction era. Impey’s understanding of race as caste enabled her to focus on the privileges adopted and maintained by white people in employment, education and general opportunities to live – the social and economic realities of white supremacy.

Accessing Catherine Impey and Anti-Caste today

Impey’s work establishing Anti-Caste marks an important intervention in the histories of anti-racism and anti-racist ideas in Britain. For women’s history more broadly, Impey and her colleagues illustrate how some Victorian women sought to understand the intersection of their lives as women, social reformers, imperial subjects and international activists. The recent resurgence of the BLM movement and debates around Cecil Rhodes in Oxford’s memorialising landscape has refocussed attention on structures of racial prejudice and how we discuss racism, but Catherine Impey’s fight for rights is not present in ‘Unfinished Business’.

This is not surprising, as many women who could have been, indeed should have been included, are not. This is in part because of choices framed by the physical space available for exhibitions within the Library. It is also a reflection of how the contents of museum and archive collections frame the stories that are told. The relatively few administrative papers that have survived from the creation of the Anti-Caste movement are part of the archives of the University of Oxford and are held – with painful irony – in Rhodes House, named in celebration of a man Impey compared to the Devil and whom Celestine Edwards despised.  

Though the system of legal deposit requires publishers to deposit copies of publications with the British Library, as far as we know no full run of Anti-Caste is held by any archive in the UK. The British Library has a limited microfilm copy available – though the last time I tried to access it the request slip returned to me recorded the box was ‘missing’. The shrug of shoulders implicit alongside the ‘missing’ record still pains me. This missing status means that none of the pages of Anti-Caste are currently available as part of the vast digital newspaper archive being created at the British Library. There are many other archives that are missing from the shelves and archive boxes of the British Library stores. The pages of Anti-Caste and its different iterations provide an opportunity to reflect on many questions, including the history of ‘white supremacy’ and how Black and white activists have sought to challenge it; the geographies of radical activism in rural communities; histories of women’s publishing; and the radical potential of reading. Our ability to learn from the experiences of Catherine Impey and others seems likely to become ever more difficult as digital archives exponentially grow, masking their absence from the records and making it ever harder to uncover the histories of their unfinished business.  

Footnotes

[1] Bond of Brotherhood, November 1894, p. 6.

[2] Bond of Brotherhood, November 1894, p. 6.

[3] Bond of Brotherhood, November 1894, p. 8.

[4] Anti-Caste, November 1892, p. 4.

[5] Impey to Albion Tourgée, June 1890, the Albion W. Tourgée Papers, Chautauqua County Historical Society, original emphasis.

Article text: © Caroline Bressey

  • Caroline Bressey
  • Caroline Bressey wrote about the anti-racist reading community drawn together by Catherine Impey in Empire, Race and the Politics of Anti-Caste which won the Women’s History Network Book Prize 2014 and the Robert and Vineta Colby Scholarly Book Prize 2015 and is available in paperback from Bloomsbury Academic.