What might have come to mind when a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century White Londoner encountered a Black person named Othello? Shakespeare’s play had nurtured an image of Othello as a man defined by an immutable blackness, “sometimes imagined as bodily and sometimes as metaphorical or metaphysical.” His “dark skin is a sign of his difference, or his membership in a group, Moors, that share a somatic mark and a set of undesirable behavioral tendencies.” 1 Othello was not always a fictional character in seventeenth and eighteenth-century London: even White Britons with little knowledge of Shakespeare’s play who encountered a Black boy or man named Othello may well have drawn on an understanding of blackness encapsulated so powerfully in this tragic story.
In the colonies it was far from unusual for enslavers to impose a wide variety of names on enslaved people, including British place names, heroic classical figures, and even the names of mythological characters. Yet Othello appears to have been a name that was very rarely applied to enslaved people in the American colonies. A database of more than thirty-two thousand colonial newspaper advertisements for enslaved people who had escaped contains only two examples of freedom seekers named Othello, both occurring around the turn of the nineteenth century. 2 We cannot know for sure why this name was uncommon in North American and Caribbean colonies. These were slave societies, and in some the population of enslaved people massively outnumbered their White enslavers, and the former were kept in place by the latter through fear and violence. Although Othello was a name that associated blackness with flawed and inferior humanity, it nonetheless was the name of an African who had—for a while at least—flourished in White European society, even marrying an elite White woman. This was anathema to White British colonists.
However, Othello was a far more common name for enslaved males in London than it was in the colonies, despite the fact that the colonial enslaved population was a great deal larger than England’s. The first was a sixteen-year-old “Negro” who escaped on January 1, 1685. He spoke English but was “slow in Speech,” and was wearing a handsome livery with pewter buttons, a cap, and a coat, a uniform reflecting the status of the man he served, Sir Phineas Pet, a major shipbuilder and eventually Navy Commissioner who was knighted in 1680. 3
In total seven young men named Othello appeared in at least ten advertisements in London newspapers between 1685 and 1766, and the name appeared once for a different individual in the parish register of St Johns church in Hackney. 4
Why then was the name Othello so unusual in the colonies while it was far more common in England? One of these men, twenty years old and “lusty and well made” served a ship captain, and just like Olaudah Equiano he may well have lived and worked aboard ship since he was a young boy. He was fluent in both English and French, providing further evidence that this young man was well traveled. 5 But all of the other Othellos were personal servants and attendants, well dressed in smart liveries that reflected the wealth and power of those they worked for. For example, when “a young Negro Fellow, named Othello” eloped from Bell Yard, opposite London’s Monument, he was very smartly attired in “a light Cloth Coat, turn’d up with blue Cuffs and Collar, lined with Blue, plain white Metal Buttons, blue Cloth Waistcoat, with blue and white Lace, Doeskin Breeches, ribb’d Worsted Stockings, Silver Buckles in his Shoes and Knees, and an old Silver-laced Hat.” 6 Similarly, a teenaged Othello who escaped from his enslaver in Knightsbridge “had on a Crimson-colour’d Cloth Coat with Silver Twist Buttons, a striped Cotton Waistcoat lapell’d, Buckskin Breeches, grey ribb’d Stockings, and a black Velvet Cap with Silver about it.” The advertisement for this freedom seeker indicated that he had been seen since his escape, having exchanged or sold at least some of these clothes, and was now wearing a ragged brown coat. 7
Perhaps it should not surprise us that almost all of the enslaved or bound boys and men named Othello were personal servants and attendants. In surviving seventeenth- and eighteenth-century portraits we see handsome and well-dressed enslaved attendants functioning as adornments of men and families made wealthy by empire and commerce, including the trafficking of enslaved Africans and the trade in goods that they produced. With his body turned to show his smart and expensive livery, and his head turned to show due deference and attention to those he served, the unnamed enslaved boy in the portrait below embodied the colonial power and wealth of the four men to his right.
Many of the men and families who held such enslaved boys and men would have been educated and familiar with English and classical literature, and they were filling their homes with classical art. Perhaps more than any other name Othello had come to signify all that White English society understood blackness to mean. Naming enslaved attendants Othello may have been part of the process of justifying slavery as it existed in their own homes and families, identifying attractive boys and young men as inherently flawed, and marked as different and subservient to White English society and culture.
Yet these Black people resisted both the name Othello and their enslaved or subordinate status. Several had either chosen another name for themselves or secured baptism by another name. When in February 1749 “a Black, whose Name was Othello” escaped from his enslaver in London, an advertisement seeking his capture and return noted that upon arrival in England Othello had “been christened by the Name of Richard Hurly, in order, as he thinks, to be free of his said Master’s Service.” 8 Another who escaped was “named Othello” yet “the said Negro was christened some Time ago at London Stone Church, by the Name of Robert Ward,” while another escaping “black Man, named Othello… calls himself Richard Pott.” 9 Thousands of people of African descent secured baptism in London churches, aligning themselves with Christian British society in ways that were impossible for enslaved people in the colonies. English and Scottish legal authorities tended to agree with enslavers that baptism did not bring freedom, and Sir John Fielding was the author of a legal commentary condemning any who might “corrupt and dissatisfy” enslaved black people in Britain “by getting them christened or married, which they inform them makes them free, (‘tho’ it has been adjudged by our most able Lawyers, that neither of these Circumstances alter the Master’s Property in a Slave).” 10 Yet the many runaway advertisements like these that indicated baptism as a precondition and perhaps even cause of escape suggest that enslavers did not have it all their own way. While naming African boys and men Othello reflected the casual racism of English enslavers, the resistance to these names and the frequent bids for freedom of those who were thus named suggest that both the name and all that it represented were contested, sometimes successfully.
- Patricia Akhimie, Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World (New York: Routledge, 2018), 68, 53.
- See “Twenty Dollars Reward. RAN off, a young likely NEGRO FELOW named OTHELLO,” The City Gazette (Charleston, S.C.), March 28, 1796, and “Ten dollars reward… RAN AWAY… a Negro Fellow named OTHELLO,” Wilmington Gazette (Wilmington, N.C.), April 23, 1801. Freedom on the Move database (accessed February 27, 2023).
- “RUN away… Othello,” London Gazette (London), January 5, 1685.
- April 20, 1766. Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, St John of Hackney, 1538-1812. London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: Z/Project/BAL/M/P79/JM1/026/1218. Switching the Lens: Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous Heritage, 1581 to 1840, London Metropolitan Archives.
- “RAN away a Negro Boy,” Daily Advertiser (London), April 1, 1766.
- “RAN away, a young Negro Fellow,” Daily Advertiser (London), January 28, 1761.
- “ELOPED from his Master at Knightsbridge,” Daily Advertiser (London), June 26, June 27 1759.
- “LEFT his Master’s Service,” Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer (London), April 13, 1749.
- “RAN away, a young Negro Fellow, named Othello,” Daily Advertiser (London), January 28, 1761; “RAN away on the 2d of May last, a black Man, named Othello,” Daily Advertiser (London), July 21, 1761.
- Sir John Fielding, Extracts From Such of the Penal Laws, As Relate to the Peace and Good Order of this Metropolis (London, 1768), 144.
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