Thoughts on Segregation from its Cradle

London is perhaps the most important cradle of modern urban segregation. It was here, in the late seventeenth century on the city’s West Side, that aristocrats and later wealthy merchants first sought to create class-exclusive zones, first by legislation, which failed, then by insertion of covenants into their land-use deeds that stipulated that houses built on the West End’s squares all had to look as palatial as those “on the Pall Mall”–where the city’s richest lived.

Such covenants, and the extensive jurisprudence they inspired in English courts, later inspired a key practice among race segregationists in South Africa and the U.S among other places, namely racial restrictive covenants.

Also, of course, London was the seat of the two greatest segregationist institutions in world history, the British East India Company and the British Empire. From 1700, when East India Company colonial officials first divided the South Asian city of Madras into the world’s first black town and white town, to the 19th century when British conquerors replicated segregated towns across India, China, and then Africa–and culminating in South Africa–British officials mulled over, and most often approved, segregationist policies in more places than any other government.

These thoughts will be a part of a lecture series I will begin tomorrow October 17th at Cambridge University, which will be continued at Leicester University on the  18th, Sciences-Po in Paris at 10 am on 22nd, the Socialist Society of Edinburgh at 8pm on the evening of the same day, and finishing at Edinburgh University on Thursday the 23rd.

The main theme of this lecture series is why American style segregation outlived apartheid. It answers this question, much like in the book Segregation, by placing the connections that linked South Africa and the US to Britain into the context of the broader paradoxes and dialectics of the broader history of city-splitting that takes us much further back than 17th century London, to the very dawn of cities in Southern Mesopotamia.

London is a good place to contemplate even such ancient roots of segregationist urban planning. Thanks to roving architecture buffs who worked for the British Empire, the British Museum contains terrific stone carvings from ancient Assyria showing some of the earliest city walls under fierce siege. Both such walls, which divided city dwellers form the country dwellers and locals from foreigners, and the monumental architecture inside those wall,s which divided god kings from mere mortals, represent the most elemental forms of unequal divisions of urban space.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Segregation from its Cradle

  1. You make an interesting comment about London being the cradle of modern urban segregation. Of course the devil is in the detail, so whilst class separation may have been exported to the British empire (as your book so clearly shows), this generally was not the case in the capital. Charles Booth’s maps clearly show how in 19th century London classes were separated only marginally, with in most cases the poor and the rich living only a street turning or two away (athough poverty still corresponded with spatial disadvantage).

  2. Dear (sub)urbanite:

    You are absolutely correct that class segregation probably did not work as well as its seventeenth-century proponents would have liked. They were of course long dead when Booth’s maps came out so they wouldn’t know just how unsuccessful their project was! Still, what we would later call “slums” developed already in the eighteenth century at such West-End addresses as Soho Square and the Seven Dials. That said, their work in the West End was very significant in that they actively sought to keep the Squares exclusive by means of land-use covenants in deeds that at least sought to keep–as they put it–“the lackeys and pages” away from the area’s famous squares. These covenants specified that houses built on the the plots had to be grand affairs, in “the style of Pall Mall.” In the history of class segregation this was significant, for it’s the first time anyone tried to band together with other elites to keep their neighborhood exclusive. In premodern cities, elites were ambivalent about class segregation: for them class prestige at least sometimes depended on surrounding themselves with their social inferiors as a way of showing off how many people were dependent upon their patronage. Also, as I put it in my post, the West End restrictions became central to a body of jurisprudence in property law that was essential to similar covenants across the English speaking world, including n the U.S. and South Africa, where segregation by race (and class) is a lot more successful.

    Best, Carl Nightingale

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