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Billy Waters, a one legged busker, in a crowded London street. Coloured aquatint, 1822. Source: Welcome Collection.

Black in New York City: The Story of Billy Waters

Mary L. Shannon—

How do you tell the story of unrecorded Black lives in early New York City? This was the problem confronting me when I tried to uncover the early years of William “Billy” Waters (c. 1778-1823), once a famous Black busker in Regency London, born in America in the dying years of the eighteenth century, now largely overlooked by history. Sailor, immigrant, father, lover, and extraordinary talent, exploring the life of Billy Waters allows us to celebrate his creativity and to understand a diverse transatlantic Regency world.

Waters had a hit song, a famous street performance, a well-known costume and was depicted in a play that toured Britain and America. He was a Black, disabled, poor man in an era when to be any of those things was at best challenging, and usually downright dangerous. Yet Waters shaped his life on his own terms as far as he could—he joined the British Navy, got promoted to a petty officer, turned the accident which disabled him into the start of a new career as a performer, and fought hard to defend his family and his livelihood. Waters was a versatile and skillful man.

Where did he learn these skills and this resilience? I began the process of researching and writing his life story with a hunch that his early years as a child in America must, like for any artist, have shaped both his skills and attitude to life. But how could I find out for sure? I knew he was American because British naval records told me so: how frequently as Waters’ biographer did I have cause to feel gratitude towards the Navy clerks and lieutenants and captains with their scratchy quill pens! These Navy men painstakingly recorded birthplaces for newly-arrived sailors, kept scrupulous logs of what happened on any ship on any given day, and obsessed almost as much as I did about the fine details of when Waters was paid his naval pension, how often, and how much. Most of the hard facts I could verify about Waters were gleaned from the crumbling pages of British Navy record books from around the time of the War of 1812. They told me he was born in New York (probably the city rather than just the state) sometime around the years of the American Revolution. Beyond that, however, they told me nothing about Waters’ childhood and adolescence.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Billy Waters.” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

How was I to find one small boy amongst the crowd in post-Independence New York? Harder still, how was I to find one Black boy? In New York’s slave-holding economy, birth records for Black Americans were not kept. Existences were erased and voices were silenced on paper as well as in real life. Census data recorded the names of white property owners but not their human property. Occasional names appeared in newspapers: “RUNAWAY! My negro boy Sam.” Sam’s own perspective, however, was unrecorded.

Scholar Imtiaz Habib calls this “the arc of invisibility.” In other words, when people are deliberately excluded from the archival record, and stereotyped in popular culture, they are more than absent from history, they are erased from it.1 Waters was drawn by numerous artists, and fictionalised versions of him turn up in books, plays, and cheap print. One eye-catching picture was done c. 1821 by George and Robert Cruikshank (George later illustrated Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist). The picture shows Waters in the middle of a crowded pub in London’s St. Giles, fiddling for some dancers as drinking, fighting, and flirting unfolds around him. His caricatured features and his costume are what we see: feathered military hat, sailor jacket, white wig, and the shaft of his wooden leg. But none of these representations are by Waters himself. They all look at him through nineteenth-century eyes.

As a biographer I wanted to look with him, to imagine his world from his perspective, as much as I could. Time to look for help.

I am, of course, far from the only writer about lives from the past who has confronted the problem of archival violence. Saidiya Hartman’s work on Black women’s histories and the histories of enslavement led her to develop the idea of “critical fabulation,” or the use of creative yet research-informed approaches to telling stories where hard facts are missing or contradictory.2 This gave me the permission to imagine, to surmise, and to bring the techniques of the novelist to the problem of biography. Alain Corbin’s phrase “the evocation of a life”—used to describe his book The Life of an Unknown about a clog-maker from France for whom only the barest of records survived—helped me to see how historical context can also build up the picture of a person.3 And Marion Turner’s “biography” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fictional character The Wife of Bath (which draws upon the lives of medieval women) made me realize that characters, too, can help us to access overlooked lives.4

So I began to think about Waters’ street persona and costume. What information did Waters leave us there about his life? Waters’ later life in London was much more easily traceable than his early years: this is the problem for a biographer researching Black history in early New York. Waters left no papers, diary, or letters. But eventually I realized those caricatured, racialized Regency images of Waters are stereotyped, to be sure. The print by Thomas Busby from 1819 is an excellent example of this. But in depicting his chosen costume in great detail, they are also a window into Waters’ own choices. They were a clue to his creative influences and early life experiences. They are all we have of autobiography.

The images, then, were where I began. I started with that extravagant feathered hat. Where did that idea come from? What was Waters referencing? In the musical world of early New York, I found some clues. I came across the Pinkster festival, held at Pentecost across New York State (including in New York City) where ordinary New Yorkers, enslaved and free, Black and sometimes white, danced to the music of the Pinkster drums. They paid court to the Pinkster King, a Black man in a military-inspired costume, all gold lace and military hat. Performance was key at Pinkster: drums, feathers, fiddles, footwork, and shouts upended the norms of this slave-holding society for a few short days and cried noisy defiance in the slaveholder’s faces. No wonder Pinkster celebrations were eventually banned. No wonder a young Billy Waters learnt that performance could be power, if you did it right.

If we look again, then, at the pictures by Busby and the Cruikshank brothers, we might begin to see new things in them. Beyond the caricature and the racialization, we might see the creative influences of Waters’ rich life standing out on the page. In his feathered hat we can see the echo of the Pinkster King, of the lively song and dance culture in early New York, and of Black New Yorkers fighting with everything they had to preserve, develop, and transmit the rhythms of their ancestors. Perhaps what these Regency artists depicted (without knowing it) was Waters’ response to the history and heritage of forced migrations that he lived through, and lived with. I realised that I didn’t need to develop a creative way to overcome the gaps and silences in the archive. Billy Waters had already managed that long ago.

  1. Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible. 2008 (18). ↩︎
  2. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals. 2019 (xiii) and “Venus in Two Acts”, Small Axe 12:2 (1 June 2008): 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1215/-12-2-1-12. ↩︎
  3. Alain Corbin, The Life of an Unknown: The Rediscovered World of the Clog Maker in Nineteenth-Century France. 2001 (212) ↩︎
  4. Marion Turner, The Wife of Bath: A Biography. 2023. ↩︎

Mary L. Shannon is a writer, broadcaster, and senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Roehampton, London, where her research focuses on nineteenth-century literature and culture. She is author of the award-winning Dickens, Reynolds and Mayhew on Wellington Street.

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