In-depth blog about former slave and boxing legend Bill Richmond (1763-1829); subject of Luke G. Williams' biography, published by Amberley in August 2015.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Why Bill Richmond? And who is he anyway?

Bill Richmond: Illustration by Trevor Von Eeden
My forthcoming biography of Bill Richmond, Richmond Unchained, is a project that I've been planning and researching for over a decade now.

I can't quite believe that it is finally nearing completion and in less than a year's time will be published.

I started researching Richmond Unchained in 2003, during an otherwise idle afternoon at the British Newspaper Library in Colindale. There were two initial inspirations: one was the novel Black Ajax written by George MacDonald Fraser, and the other was the Channel 4 / Juniper TV documentary Bare Knuckle Boxer, which had been broadcast a few weeks earlier and spurred me to look up Richmond in the library's archive.

By the end of the day I'd found a fascinating article which convinced me that I simply HAD to write a full biography of Richmond's life. It's an article which I've never seen referred to in print anywhere before or since ... and you'll have to buy Richmond Unchained to read it in full and discover why I found it so fascinating! 

Now, some of you reading this blog may have no idea who Bill Richmond was. If that applies to you then I suggest you head to his Wikipedia page for a crash course and also watch the video links at the bottom of this page to the documentary mentioned above (although beware: both Wikipedia and the documentary contain several errors and perpetuate several myths which Richmond Unchained will be exploding next year).

As a companion to your crash course in Bill's background, here are five reasons why I believe that it's vitally important that you find out more about his amazing life ... and why, by extension, I decided to write this book in the first place ...

1. Bill Richmond was the first black sporting superstar:
Forget Jack Johnson, Joe Gans, Jesse Owens, Peter Jackson, Jackie Robinson etc ... well, don't forget about them, but place them to one side for a moment and take this fact on board: before Bill Richmond no black sportsman had achieved national significance or fame. At a time when slavery still existed in the USA (to a horrifying extent) and was also still legal within the British Empire, Richmond (a former slave himself) succeeded in becoming a respected and accomplished pugilist. His life and achievements are not only thrilling and fascinating, but tell us an awful lot about the social and cultural mores and context of the age in which he lived.

2. Bill Richmond has been traditionally overlooked:
Quite simply, not enough people know who Richmond was, what he achieved and why he is so important to our shared social, sporting and cultural heritage. Considering the form and content of (white dominated) history that we are traditionally fed through the school system and the mainstream media this is unsurprising, but that doesn't mean it's right! Bill Richmond and the many other pioneers of 'black history' are worthy of far more attention than they have been given in the past.

3. No one has ever written a biography of Bill Richmond:
Even given the inherent flaws and biases of historical discourse in the UK (and USA) I find this unbelievable. When I first found out about Bill Richmond I assumed there must have have been several books already written about his life, but in fact there have been none.
Yes, we can buy all manner of books about former Big Brother contestants and X-Factor winners and runners-up, but there has never been a book about one of the most significant figures from black history.

Throughout the eleven long years that I've been researching Bill Richmond's life I lived in constant expectation that a Richmond biography would emerge, hit the book shelves and gazump my plans. But one never did.

And that's why, despite its seemingly interminable gestation period, Richmond Unchained will be the first Bill Richmond biography to ever be published. I'm proud of this, but also sort of ashamed.

4. We need to know more:
As you'll discover when you (hopefully) read Richmond Unchained there are still some mysterious gaps in his personal and familial history. I've uncovered LOTS of information for my book that has never before been revealed, discussed or discovered, but I'm sure there's more out there, hidden in dusty archives and locked trunks in mysterious attics which I'm hoping might see the light of day once Richmond Unchained is published and more people become interested in Bill's life.

5. It's a ripping yarn:
There are so many twists and turns in the Bill Richmond story that, regardless of its vast historical significance, it was a story that was begging to be told, purely on the basis of its dramatic potential.

Family mysteries and fairy-tale benefactors ... the scandal of 'inter-marriage' during an era characterised by rigid social barriers ... the thrill of combat in the bare-knuckle prize ring ... controversial championship fights ... racial abuse ... financial fallings-out ... encounters with Royalty ... yes, the Bill Richmond story has a narrative of which Charles Dickens would be proud!

Stick with this blog for more insights and background to Richmond Unchained over the next few months in the lead-up to the publication.

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