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18 Dec 2020

A tale of two champions: the fight for freedom

Written by Sarah Beattie, Regional Curator, Ayrshire & Arran / Dumfries & Galloway
A close-up detail of a watercolour illustration of a boxing match, mostly in sepia and grey tones. Two boxers deliver blows to each other's face in a fenced-in boxing ring, with two trainers behind each boxer. A large crowd is shown watching the fight.
In the second part of our blog, Regional Curator Sarah Beattie takes a closer look at the lives of Molineaux and his trainer, and their experiences as black boxers in Britain in the early 1800s.

Last time, Heather Carroll explored the growing popularity of bare-knuckle boxing in Britain during the 1800s through two drawings from Brodick Castle that record the famous bouts between Tom Cribb and Tom Molineaux.

A tale of two champions: the Cribb and Molineaux boxing drawings at Brodick

In this second instalment, on the 210th anniversary of Cribb and Molineaux’s first fight and the 155th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in America, we delve a little deeper into the lives of Molineaux and his trainer Bill Richmond to explore the opportunities, and challenges, that boxing created for the two formerly enslaved black men.

A glossy figurine of a boxer is displayed against a plain grey background. The boxer is shown with his fists held in front of him. The figure stands on a green oval base.
Tom Molyneaux [sic], Staffordshire earthenware figurine painted with enamels, c1815, purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Staffordshire Fund, C.130:2-2003, © V&A Museum, London

There is very little written evidence about Molineaux’s early life, but later accounts suggest he was born into enslavement on a plantation in Virginia around 1784. It was reported that he was forced to box for the entertainment of the plantation owners, and he is believed to have won his freedom by competing against another enslaved boxer from a neighbouring plantation.

After gaining his freedom, Molineaux is thought to have lived in Baltimore and then New York, where he is believed to have spent some years boxing and assumed the title ‘Champion of America’. His early career in America is rarely mentioned in the contemporary newspapers but it’s said that he left for Britain around 1809 (although possibly as early as 1803), presumably either purchasing his passage across the Atlantic with his winnings or working as a deckhand.

The growing popularity of pugilism in Britain, and the huge sums of money that were bet on fights during this period, created opportunities for wealth and fame for pugilists from many different backgrounds. Boxing could potentially provide Molineaux with a level of wealth and prestige that was not available to the majority of black men in Britain and America in this period.

An illustration of a boxer, standing in a sparring position, with text written below: A striking view of Richmond. The boxer is shirtless and wears cream trousers tied at the knee, meeting long white socks. He has a patterned scarf tied around his waist.
Bill Richmond (‘A striking view of Richmond’), by and published by Robert Dighton, hand-coloured etching, published March 1810, NPG D10726, © National Portrait Gallery, London

On arriving in England Molineaux met Bill Richmond, another successful professional black boxer who had started life in New York. Richmond had been born into enslavement in Staten Island, British America, in 1763. He was freed from enslavement by Hugh Percy, later 2nd Duke of Northumberland (1742–1817), who was an officer of the British army during the American Revolutionary War. Percy reportedly witnessed Richmond fighting Redcoat soldiers in a pub brawl. Percy was impressed by Richmond’s talent and arranged subsequent bouts. Later, he paid for his passage to England around 1777 and arranged for his education and apprenticeship with a cabinetmaker in York.

While in Yorkshire Richmond appears to have fought in a few bouts against local men but focused on his career as a cabinetmaker. In 1791 he married a local woman called Mary (dates unknown). The journalist Pierce Egan (1772–1849) suggested in his book Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (published in four volumes from 1813) that at least one of Richmond’s Yorkshire fights was in response to the abuse he and his wife experienced as an interracial couple in late 18th-century England. Egan claimed that Richmond ‘was accosted by one Frank Myers, with the epithets of “black devil” etc and who otherwise insulted the young woman for being in the company of a man of colour’.

In 1795 Richmond and his family moved to London where he was employed by the naval officer Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford (1775–1804). Pitt was killed in a duel in 1804 whereupon Richmond returned to professional boxing. He is thought to have used his winnings to purchase the Horse and Dolphin pub, near Leicester Square. By the time Molineaux arrived in London, Richmond had established his reputation as one of the most respected and accomplished boxers of the era. It’s thought the younger American may have been encouraged to seek Richmond’s support and protection.

Richmond began training Molineaux and after a handful of successful fights, Molineaux challenged the reigning English champion Tom Cribb for the title in 1810. Recalling one of these earlier fights, Egan wrote that the ‘the punishment he [Molineaux] dealt out was so truly tremendous, and his strength … so superior, that he was deemed a proper match for the champion.’ The gruelling contest took place on 18 December and extended through many hard-fought rounds. Eventually, after some commotion and a distraction created by Cribb’s second, Joe Ward, Cribb was finally declared the winner.

The odds against Molineaux had dropped drastically as the rounds progressed and the underhand manoeuvres of Ward were most likely motivated by greed – huge sums of money had been bet on Cribb winning. However, Egan claimed that Molineaux’s ‘colour alone prevented him from becoming the hero of that fight’, and some modern historians also attribute the rumoured match-fixing to Molineaux being black and American.

A mounted watercolour illustration of a boxing match, mostly in sepia and grey tones. Two boxers deliver blows to each other's face in a fenced-in boxing ring, with two trainers behind each boxer. A large crowd is shown watching the fight. Above the illustration is a handwritten paragraph of notes. Below the illustration are two darker labels on the mount.
Samuel Alken, Cribb beating Molineaux, Dec 18th 1810, c1810, pencil and watercolour, with notes added by a later hand, Brodick Collection

The language and general tone of many of the contemporary newspaper accounts suggest that the sneaky tactics of Ward were at least partially motivated by race. In the run-up to the fight, the Chester Chronicle reported that ‘many of the noble patronizers [sic] of this accomplished art, begin to be alarmed, lest, to the eternal dishonour of our country, a negro should become the Champion of England!’

Molineaux himself appears to have believed that he had been unfairly treated because he was black. Three days after the bout, he published an open letter in the London papers requesting a second fight. The letter finished ‘I cannot omit the opportunity of expressing a confident hope, that the circumstance of my being of a different colour … will not in any way operate to my prejudice.’

A mounted ink drawing of a boxing match, mostly in sepia colours. It shows a large crowd surrounding a fenced boxing ring outdoors, with hills in the background. The boxer to the left is punching the boxer on the right in the face, and he is shown falling.
Thomas Rowlandson, The Boxing fight between Cribb & Molineaux, c1811, ink and wash, Brodick Collection

After his subsequent second defeat by Cribb in September 1811, Molineaux’s reputation declined. For the next few years he earned a living from lectures and touring exhibition fights, before succumbing to alcoholism. He died in 1818 at just 34 years old.

Richmond, on the other hand, continued to box, despite having lost a lot of money on Molineaux’s fight and having to sell his pub. Aged 50, he won bouts against men half his age. He retired from fighting in 1818 but continued to train boxers at his academy in London, including Lord Byron (1788–1824). In 1821, he was selected as one of the pugilists to be an usher at George IV’s (1762–1830) coronation. He died in December 1829 at the age of 66.

Despite the similarities in their early lives and their obvious boxing prowess, Molineaux and Richmond had very different experiences and careers once in Britain. By comparing the lives of the two men we can see how important it still was at this time for black boxers to have the support of wealthy, white patrons. Boxing had won Molineaux and Richmond their freedom from enslavement and a new life in Britain, but it couldn’t protect them from the racist attitudes of many of their contemporaries.

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