Black British history: key questions answered
Historian Hannah Cusworth answers questions about the lives of black people in historical Britain
Q: What do we actually mean by ‘black British history’?
A: It’s an important question to start with, because it’s a really broad topic. In its simplest terms, we’re looking at 2,000 (maybe more) years’ worth of history in Britain. But we also need to think about what we mean by the word ‘black’, which is a term that has changed over time. When I use that word, I’m specifically referring to people from Africa and the wider African diaspora, and that is the definition that applies to the use of the word throughout this Essential Guide.
I consider myself part of the African diaspora: my dad’s family are from the Caribbean, but they were originally from somewhere in west Africa. Therefore, when I’m talking about black British history, I’m talking about people whose heritage is in Africa, but whose history is within Britain itself.
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Recently, historians such as Professor David Olusoga have been influential in expanding black British history to include areas of the world that Britain was involved with because of its empire. If we adopt this viewpoint, black British history also encompasses Caribbean history and the islands that Britain colonised, as well as Britain’s involvement in Africa, which goes back centuries, and, of course, includes the slave trade. So it’s important that we also think about black British history in wider terms than just Britain.
Q: When did black people first arrive in Britain?
A: You could argue that there have been black people living in Britain even before the Roman conquest began in earnest in AD 43. ‘Cheddar Man’, a Mesolithic skeleton discovered in 1903 in southwest England, lived around 10,000 years ago and DNA analysis suggests that he had dark-to-black skin with blue eyes. It’s difficult to put a precise date on it, but we know there were black people living in Britain during the Roman occupation.
Q: What was the impact of the slave trade on Britain’s black population?
A: There’s been quite a lot of work done by scholars on the black presence in Tudor England, which pre-dates Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. We know of individuals like John Blanke, who was a trumpeter for Henry VII and Henry VIII, and several other black people in the Tudor court who may have come to England with Catherine of Aragon in 1501. And we know that a Guinean diver named Jacques Francis led an expedition to salvage guns from the Mary Rose in 1545.
There were a variety of black people living and working in Britain before the 18th century, but the nature of that presence changed when Britain became more involved in the slave trade. In the Georgian era, we think there was a black community of more than 10,000 people in London, which was much larger than that seen in the Tudor era or before. The numbers definitely increased as Britain’s involvement in the slave trade grew.
Q: The Netflix series Bridgerton depicts black people living as members of Britain’s Georgian elite, including Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. Is there any historical truth to this?
A: Yes, definitely, although opinion is divided about the exact heritage of Queen Charlotte. The historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom argues that she had black ancestry through the Portuguese line of her family; indeed, if we look at images of her, some of her features do resemble those we might associate with black mixed-race people. Other historians disagree.
But there are many other examples of black Georgians right through the social classes. Dido Elizabeth Belle is one of the most well-known. The daughter of a British naval officer called John Lindsay and an African woman named Maria Belle, Dido was raised by Lord Mansfield and his family at Kenwood House in London. Another example is Nathaniel Wells, the son of a sugar plantation owner and an enslaved woman, who inherited his father’s plantation in Saint Kitts and a significant amount of money.
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When mixed-race children were born in the Caribbean to wealthy families, they were often sent to Britain to be educated; there are several examples of such children attending schools in Yorkshire and Scotland. So, although Bridgerton is exaggerated in terms of its elite black presence, it’s not completely in the realms of fantasy.
Q: Are there any differences in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland in terms of their black histories?
A: Often when we talk about black British history, what we’re really talking about is black English history, but the different nations all have interesting black histories of their own. For example, there’s some amazing work going on at the moment looking at Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade, particularly plantation slavery. In fact, many of the plantation overseers in the Caribbean – the people running the plantations – were Scottish.
Ireland, too, has a distinct history of colonialism, both through Irish people who were forced out to the colonies as indentured servants, as well as those who were involved in the running of Caribbean plantations. There were also a lot of Anglo-Irish military leaders – one individual I’ve been working on is Edward Despard, a colonial administrator who refused to prioritise white settlers when allocating land and married a mixed-race Jamaican woman.
A lot of black Welsh history is centred around Cardiff, notably Butetown – sometimes known as Tiger Bay – which has a very strong Somali community. Many Somali people who settled in the area in the 19th century were sailors who, as part of the empire, were legally allowed to settle in Britain. It’s so important to bring these histories to the fore and not to assume that black people of the past only lived in London.
Q: What do we know about the history of queer black people in Britain?
A: There is a lot of work being undertaken by a new generation of black British historians who are particularly interested in queer black life, primarily in the 20th century, and are using oral histories to bring that history to light.
A favourite historical example of mine is a Jamaica-born bisexual woman called Pearl Alcock, who ran a gay bar in Brixton in the 1970s. I’ve heard descriptions of how people would go downstairs into the basement where there would be queer black men dancing together. To me, this is a particularly powerful example because, sometimes when we think about queer history, we often hold up individuals as being exceptional. But the story of Pearl and the kind of bar that she ran shows that there was actually a gay black scene – albeit a small one – of ordinary Londoners coming together to dance and have fun and meet people. These are the kinds of stories that I’m hoping will come through with this new generation of historians.
Q: Was there the same push for equal rights in 1960s Britain as there was in countries like the United States?
A: When I was growing up, I had the sense that that there was a civil rights struggle in America, but nothing equivalent happened in Britain. And that’s not the case at all. It was different, but black people in Britain still fought against what was then described as a ‘colour bar’.
There wasn’t the same full-blown segregation as there was in the US, but there were many, many instances of black and Asian people wanting to go into a pub to have a pint after work, for example, and being told that they couldn’t enter, or that they had to sit in a separate room away from the white patrons. There was discrimination in housing, employment and socialising, and black people in Britain were constantly fighting against it. In 1963, when the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to employ black or Asian bus crews, a bus boycott was staged, and the company ultimately backed down. The leaders of the boycott referenced what was going on in the US at the time and said that they took some inspiration from it.
- Read more about the Bristol bus boycott
So, I think there was a real awareness of the struggle for civil rights that was going on in the US, in the same way that there was an awareness within the black British community about apartheid South Africa and the struggles there, as well as decolonisation in west Africa. And black civil rights leaders from the US were visiting Britain at this time, including Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Q: Do you think too much attention is given to the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush in 1948?
A: The arrival of the Windrush (which brought one of the first large groups of postwar West Indian immigrants to Britain) has become an iconic moment in UK history. But it’s important to remember that several other ships arrived in the 18 months or so prior to Windrush, so it wasn’t the first by any means.
I think, as humans, we like to ascribe a ‘beginning’ to historical events, and it would be wrong to ignore the big wave of postwar migration and not acknowledge that this did effectively change the face of Britain. But it’s important to remember that the black presence in Britain did not begin with Windrush, and actually goes back a lot further.
What I’ve found heartening about the last few years is that there is a growing appetite for black history that’s not just centred around the Windrush and the stories of the people who arrived in the years after 1948. We’re really starting to branch out in terms of the black history that we’re telling our children, and that’s a great thing. It’s time to hear some new stories.
Hannah Cusworth is an historian who specialises in black British histories. Formerly a schoolteacher, she is currently completing a PHD with English Heritage looking at mahogany, race and the 18th-century Atlantic world
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
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