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Humbug and a ‘Welsh Hindoo’: A Small History of Begging, Race and Language in Mid-Nineteenth Century Liverpool

Martin Johnes Orcid Logo

Journal of Victorian Culture

Swansea University Author: Martin Johnes Orcid Logo

Abstract

In 1849, a Liverpool newspaper printed a letter about an encounter with a lascar who was selling hymn sheets. The same newspaper had recently reported the arrest of someone similar for drunkenness and the letter writer, a migrant from Wales, confronted the hymn seller angrily in Welsh. To his surpri...

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Published in: Journal of Victorian Culture
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URI: https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa58949
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Abstract: In 1849, a Liverpool newspaper printed a letter about an encounter with a lascar who was selling hymn sheets. The same newspaper had recently reported the arrest of someone similar for drunkenness and the letter writer, a migrant from Wales, confronted the hymn seller angrily in Welsh. To his surprise, the man responded in the same language and eventually confessed to being from Anglesey rather than Bombay. Much about the incident is unclear. Had the hymn seller coloured his skin? Why did he regard passing as an Indian as a useful sales technique? Why was the letter writer angry and why did he confront the man in Welsh? Did it even happen? Attempting to answer such questions can provide pointers to much wider historical issues. A ‘small history’ of this incident offers an opportunity to explore the dynamics of class, language and race in the middle of the nineteenth century. The incident reveals the anxieties the middle classes had around their position and whether their goodwill was being exploited by the poor. It points towards the impact of racism on people of colour and the significance of ethnicity for white migrants too. The incident also illustrates how the working classes and people of colour were not without agency, however they were thought about by those whose attitudes and power shaped their lives. Yet all these interpretations rest on a degree of supposition and the article concludes that historians too can engage in a degree of deception in their writings.
College: College of Arts and Humanities