Books interview with David Olusoga: “Black history affects all of us – it is British history”

David Olusoga talks to Matt Elton about his new book charting the story of black people 
in Britain, from the Roman era up to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century

An illustration of slaves picking cotton on a plantation. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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You write that this book is a kind 
of experiment. In what way?

Black history came to Britain in part from an American model, which was largely about uncovering deliberately hidden and forgotten stories. Some very brilliant historians have done that groundwork so, for me, the next stage of black history is to integrate it into what we call ‘mainstream’ British history.

Black history can’t just be a specialist subject, a little clearing in the historical forest that only black people want to go to and that is only about black people. It’s the history of a relationship: some of it tragic, some of it more heart-warming; some of it extremely difficult and some of it – believe 
it or not – more optimistic. It’s a history that affects all of us: it is British history.

You also write that there’s a lot of black history that Britain has managed 
to forget. How has that happened?

The first generations of historians writing black British history were faced with mainstream history books that talked 
about the 18th century without mentioning slavery, which is like talking about the 19th century without mentioning steam or coal. It’s ludicrous. We had military histories that didn’t mention our impact on other parts of the world, or the multiracial nature of the British navy at various times in its history.

A lot of the work those historians were doing was trying to put the black people back into the picture, and some of that still remains to be done. A lot of black British 
history is hidden in plain view in central London: the bronze reliefs on Nelson’s Column, for instance, depict a black sailor with a musket towering over the body of the dying Nelson. That sailor was included not because the Victorians were politically correct, or worried about tokenism or quotas, but because there were hundreds 
of black sailors at Trafalgar.

They were part of the history. It’s not a separate history, it’s right in the centre of our capital city in a national memorial to one of the most important battles in our history. The risk is that it becomes lost or just becomes seen as black history. In many ways we’ve taken the black history out of mainstream history, hence that important and necessary work of the early first generation in exhuming this lost history – because sometimes it was edited out, sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately.

Are there other examples of this editing that particularly stand out?

As someone who grew up in the north-east of England, a great example of this is the industrial revolution. We were told that this history was our history: it belonged to me because my mother is white, British and working class, and I had a tenure in it.

But when I visited those mills, no one ever mentioned that the cotton came from the deep south of the United States, produced 
by 1.8 million black enslaved people. They are part of British history. They never set foot on British soil, but they spent their lives and exhausted their bodies, were beaten and whipped, to produce the raw material for 
its industrial revolution. It’s estimated that, at the start of the American Civil War, 20 per cent of the British population was somehow economically dependent on cotton.

Black British history has to be global and intercontinental because we were an empire. Our history is by its nature imperial and global, so our black British history has to be imperial and global as well.

What do we know about the earliest chapters of that history?

One of the accusations often levelled against people who write black British history is that it’s really a postwar history, and that, for politically correct reasons, we are trying to imagine these deep roots within British history. People have been saying that since the 1950s: it’s a constant refrain.

The reality is that, just as imperialism brought Britain into contact with Africa, Britain itself was once a colonial province of another empire: the Roman empire. The same force that took us to Africa in the 1550s brought Afro-Romans to Britain. We were colonised long before we became colonisers, and among the army that colonised Britain were north Africans and people from below the Sahara who seeped through the Roman empire’s porous borders.

We know that black people got to Britain about a millennia before the first Tudor explorers got to the coast of Africa. That shouldn’t be surprising; it also shouldn’t 
be controversial. It’s inevitable: we were 
a province of the Roman empire, and that empire was intercontinental.

How, then, should we see those 
Tudor expeditions to Africa?

A common mistake by historians is that they’ve been so aware that the history of the Atlantic slave trade has been under-written that they’ve often rushed to talk about it and missed out the first stage. In this first stage of contact, the commodity that England and Scotland were after in Africa was not enslaved Africans but gold.

People in the Middle Ages understood Africa as a land of gold: for centuries the Arab traders had been bringing it across 
the Sahara on caravans. The English and Scottish were desperate to elbow aside 
the Portuguese, who were much better mariners at that point, and get access to 
the legendary, immensely profitable gold trade of Africa.

This was in the hearts and imaginations 
of traders across Europe. We’ve come to see Africa as this troubled, benighted continent, but it was a place of unbelievable potential and promise. They didn’t see it as we see it, and that’s a problem with all black British history: we have to remember that we must not go into it imagining that our ancestors saw Africa and Africans as we do now.

What do we know of how black people were seen at this point?

The medieval mindset was fascinated by black and white and their contrasts and extremes. Black was associated with all 
sorts of diabolical, devilish things, and 
white with purity and virginity. Human blackness was an immensely exciting, exotic and erotic challenge to that colour aesthetic.

When slavery was not the dominant relationship between Africans and Europeans, Africans were seen as challenging to European ideas. There was a nervousness, 
a discomfort, but also an extremely exciting attraction to Africans, partly because of the association with the wealth of their continent.

Now, we know where this was headed and how ideas of inferiority based on skin colour developed. But they don’t develop instantly, and in the period before the Atlantic slave trade there was a much more complicated and, I think, interesting relationship.

Are there any episodes or stories 
that particularly surprised you?

I think we’ve forgotten how proud people in Britain were about the abolition of the slave trade. We’ve often overstated abolition, and wanted to talk about it more than slavery. But there was a period in the 1830s and 1840s when opposition to slavery was seen as part of what it was to be British. Millions of people signed petitions against slavery.

All of these things can be exaggerated. The effort to suppress the slave trade was never, ever nearly enough to what would have been needed if Britain had been seriously interested in ending it. But the British 
did come to see themselves, and look down on other nations – particularly the US – through the experience of abolition.

What is the best way for black 
people to study their history, 
and history in general?

The nature of the black community is changing. There’s an awful lot of intermarriage and we also know that, in the first decade of this century, more black people in Britain came directly from Africa rather than the New World for the first time since probably the 18th century. That’s a huge shift.

What this means is that black British history needs to be more global, but also that it affects more and more people. There are millions of white people for whom black and mixed-race people are now part of their families. When black people first arrived in Britain in large numbers after the Second World War, a wave of racism meant that they were forced into a siege mentality. What mattered was recovering lost history and showing that our roots in this country were deep and long. That’s still really important, but there’s another moment now where we need to see that this is a shared history.

This idea that black history is only 
about, for, and of interest to black people is breaking down. We are too integrated; our stories are now too conjoined for that idea. This is not about challenging mainstream history, it’s saying that black people’s stories are part of that history. When we talk 
about the rebellions of the enslaved that 
were critical to the ending of the slave trade, 
that’s not to say that the abolitionists didn’t matter. There are lots of people in this story who are white heroes of black history.

There’s often been a reflex action in Britain to pretend that the slave trade 
didn’t happen, because it’s difficult and upsetting. We’ve forgotten that there are heroes as well as villains within this history, and a few moments where we can feel positive about ourselves. That’s not to say that this country hasn’t got a long way to go to accept what slavery was, and how central it and imperialism were to Britain’s economic development. But I think we’re a big enough and strong enough country to come to terms with our history. We are missing out if we don’t.

David Olusoga is the author of Black and British: A Forgotten History 
(Macmillan, 624 pages, £25). Olusoga’s previous books include The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (Faber and Faber, 2010) and The World’s War (Head of Zeus, 2014).

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Brought up in the north-east of England, Olusoga is also an award-winning broadcaster and film-maker, and will soon be presenting a major 
BBC Two television series, entitled Black and British: A Forgotten History.