In 1829, the Irish-born writer Edward Mangin (1772-1852) had thirteen half-penny chapbooks just 83 mm tall bound up for a present. Twelve published by Philip Rose in Bristol and one by J. and C. Evans in London. His printed gift inscription, “This Book, containing two hundred and five Engravings, was given to Samuel W. Mangin; as a Reward for Diligence and good Behaviour by his affectionate Father E.M. Ilfracombe August 24, 1826,” imitated the layout of a title page. His five-year-old son Samuel was still young enough to appreciate a book with a picture on every page, even if the cuts of soldiers, Jack Sprat and Joan Cole, boy tossing balls, and Cinderella were far below the standards set by London children’s books publishers.
One of them really stands out because of the highly unusual subject: a Black girl in a white dress dancing for joy, having heard the news of that the slave trade is abolished. There is nothing political or radical about the half-penny chapbook’s contents, however. “Miss Blackey,” as she is cruelly designated, appears the last page of Fire-side Amusements, what was sometimes called a picture book because it was a collection of half-page illustrations with captions. The miscellaneous contents are supposed to be appropriate for little children with short attention spans for whom variety improves focus. What might this illustration have signified to contemporary readers, especially ones as young as Samuel Warrington Mangin?
One way of figuring out how the dancing Black girl might have been read is to study the images surrounding her. Fire-side Amusements includes a number of comic national types, the brave but impecunious British tar, the stolid, pipe-smoking Dutchman skating against John Bull, who will outpace him shortly. There being no evidence that “Miss Blackey” is being compelled by an overseer’s whip to frolic, her figure embodies the stereotype of the simple Black soul expressing happiness through movement. The paternalistic caption that explains that she dances out of gratitude because “good massa do slave trade away” is in broad dialect, but it is unclear who is speaking. That racist language is used to describe the reaction of an enslaved person celebrating the end of transatlantic traffic in black bodies with the passage of Slave Trade Abolition Act in March 1807 is unsettling, but not unexpected. The real irony is that she would not be free until 1833 when Parliament passed the Slavery Abolution Act.
Two hundred years later, we feel such an image should elicit approval for this first legal step towards righting a terrible wrong, not invite the reader to laugh at the girl as a comic type that could be on the dramatic stage, The contrast with the illustration of Ben the sailor, a blind paraplegic led by a dog reduced to begging is striking because the old veteran is presented with greater compassion than the enslaved girl. Somehow it does not mitigate the feeling that she is portrayed as not quite fully human to take into account that the block reflects the cutter’s lack of skill rather than satiric intent or that it could have been recycled from another text, with a new caption written just for this page.