- Bare-Knuckle Britons and Fighting Irish: Boxing, Race, Religion and Nationality in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries by Adam Chill
In this lively social history, Adam Chill guides his audience through the rise, fall, and rebirth of bare-knuckle boxing in Britain and Ireland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like many scholars of modern British boxing history, the author's interest in the subject stems from nineteenth-century journalist Pierce Egan's foundational work Boxiana: Or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism. Chill, now an associate professor of history and global studies at Castleton University in Vermont, has built on this initial interest to craft a well-written and expansive study of bare-knuckle boxing as one of the Georgian and Victorian eras' most popular phenomena. He largely relies on coverage provided by British newspapers of the period, although he also makes good use of archival material from institutions such as the British Library, the British Museum, the National Archives, and the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
Two central assertions underpin the text. First, Chill contends that boxing's popularity in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries "was not preordained but, rather, was actively cultivated by a variety of characters" (1), including journalists, boxers, working-class spectators, and aristocratic patrons. Second, the author asserts that bareknuckle boxing provided a critical window into the formation and reformation of ethnic and racial identity, as well as the often-fluid relationship between self and nation. In a sport that was habitually split into heroes and villains, these roles became intimately connected to representations of white Protestant British masculinity and the ethnic, racial, or religious "other." Of particular interest to Chill here are the experiences of Irish, Jewish, and black [End Page 408] pugilists, whose utility as "foils for Britishness" helped frame British attitudes toward racial and religious "others" at home as well as abroad. At the same time, Chill demonstrates how pugilism became a way for Britain's racial and ethnic minorities to "express solidarity and pride in their respective communities, even as the sport in which they participated (as combatants spectators, or patrons) loudly proclaimed its Englishness" (5).
The book is organized in eight broadly chronological chapters complemented by an array of images taken from Egan's Boxiana and other contemporary pugilistic accounts. Chapters 1 through 4 explore the development of bare-knuckle boxing and prize-fighting from the early eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. Chill argues that this period witnessed the parallel development of bare-knuckle boxing as a sport and the growing association between boxing and nationalism. Peaks in boxing's popularity during this period can be mapped onto the real or perceived threat of conflict abroad, such as during the Napoleonic Wars. Geopolitical tensions were also compounded by an influx of Irish and Jewish fighters into British boxing ranks during the last third of the eighteenth century, with "'ethnic conflict" becoming an important way of framing and promoting boxing matches. Focusing on key individuals such as flamboyant Jewish prize-fighter Daniel Mendoza, Irish brawler Peter Corcoran, and African American combatants such as Bill Richmond and Tom Molineaux, Chill demonstrates how fighters from ethnic and minority backgrounds became the adversaries of genteel white pugilists such as Richard Humphries and John Jackson, who were lauded as the "epitome of English manliness" (37).
Chapters 5 through 8 track the professionalization and commercialization of British boxing during the nineteenth century and its subsequent impact on sporting notions of nationhood and the experiences of minority pugilists. As bare-knuckle boxing became less dependent on the funds of aristocratic patrons, enthusiasm for the sport was maintained by journalists and promoters who relied on existing racial and ethnic stereotypes to generate excitement among their respective audiences. However, as minority boxers gained greater control over their public image, they were able to utilize their racial, ethnic, and religious identities in innovative and entrepreneurial ways. Some fighters, such as Anglo-Irish boxer Ned Neale, were able to code...