By David Dabydeen
Last updated 2011-02-17
The first plate of William Hogarth's series shows a young man, 'T Rakewell', having inherited a fortune from his father - interestingly a stock-jobber who dealt in West Indian stock - as he prepares for an aristocratic lifestyle. The second plate sees Rakewell as a patron of the opera and the arts.
But Plate Three depicts him among prostitutes in a Drury Lane tavern. A stolen night watchman's lantern and stave lying on the floor signify that Rakewell has become a 'Mohock' hooligan. (Night watchmen were the favourite targets of 'Mohock' gangs who fashioned their behaviour after the supposed barbarities practiced by American (Mohawk) Indians.)
A black prostitute (on the far left of the picture) is part of the general debauchery. She laughs in enjoyment of the vulgar antics of her fellow prostitutes. There is a suggestion of obscenity in the way she places her finger to her mouth. A sexual pun is involved, for her laughter evokes the term 'black joke' - 18th century slang for the female sexual organs and also the title of a famous obscene song. In case the pun is missed, Hogarth has the black prostitute looking in the direction of a pregnant ballad seller who enters the room with a copy of 'The Black Joke'.
Many destitute black women drifted into prostitution, but not all worked the wretched taverns and streets of London. Some moved in high society, the most notable being 'Black Harriot', a former West Indian slave whose clients were said to include 20 members of the House of Lords and 50 members of the House of Commons. A contemporary handbook on the sex trade stated that Black Harriot 'had attained a degree of politeness, scarce to be paralleled in an African female'.