Black British history: a timeline
From African soldiers in Roman times to the Windrush generation, black people have always been part of the fabric of Britain – often in the face of prejudice and adversity
3rd century AD
The Hadrian’s Wall fort at Burgh-by-Sands (known to its occupants as Aballava) becomes home to a troop of African Romans. The so-called “Aurelian Moors” hail from what is now Morocco, north Africa.
An early depiction of a black person in Britain appears in an abbreviated version of the Domesday Book, in the entry for Derbyshire.
Royal trumpeter John Blanke – the only black Tudor for whom we have an identifiable image – plays at the celebration of the birth of Henry VIII’s son. Blanke disappears from the records after January 1512.
Captain John Hawkins captures around 300 African people in Sierra Leone and transports them to Spanish plantations in the Americas, where they are traded for goods. This marks the opening stages of Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
The Royal African Company (RAC) is founded, led by Charles II’s younger brother, James (the future James II). The company is granted a monopoly on British trade with Africa, including the slave trade. Between 1680 and 1686, the RAC will transport an average of 5,000 enslaved people a year.
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The black writer, composer and abolitionist Ignatius Sancho becomes the first known person of African descent to vote in a British general election. He will vote again in 1780, a few weeks before his death.
The Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade bans the trade in the British empire, but many continue to trade illegally and hundreds of thousands of people remain in bondage.
The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act comes into force, making slavery illegal in most British colonies.
Plantation owners receive a share of £20m (around £17bn today) by way of compensation; in contrast, freed slaves receive nothing and are forced into apprenticeship schemes for up to six years.
The First Pan-African Conference is held in London. American civil rights activist WEB Du Bois plays a leading role in the event.
Tens of thousands of men from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as Britain’s black communities, join the war effort. Among them is professional footballer Walter Tull, the first British-born black army officer and the first black officer to lead white British troops into battle.
Tensions over jobs, exacerbated by demobilisation after World War I, leads to race riots across Britain, with some people accusing ethnic minorities of “stealing” work. Unrest breaks out in port cities, with Liverpool seeing the worst violence, in June.
The relaxation of a military ‘colour bar’ sees 10,000 Caribbean men and women join the armed forces in World War II, along with hundreds of thousands of enlistees from Britain’s African colonies. Despite this, some restrictions remain: black men are banned from becoming officers, for example.
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On 22 June, HMT Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury Docks in Essex, with some 800 West Indians on board. Although not the first ship to bring black migrants to Britain, its name comes to refer to the immigration boom experienced in the next few decades.
Claudia Jones, founder of the West Indian Gazette, organises a ‘Caribbean Carnival’, the predecessor of the annual Notting Hill Carnival.
On his way to collect the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, American civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr visits London and delivers a stirring sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral. Afterwards, he gives a press conference on the worsening race relations in Britain.
Nine days before his assassination, fellow US civil rights figure Malcolm X visits Smethwick, near Birmingham, where locals have been suffering from racist abuse.
Inspired by the Black Power movement in the US, the British Black Panthers are formed by the Nigerian-born writer and activist Obi Egbuna. At its peak in the early 1970s, it has around 3,000 members.
A bill to impose greater restrictions on immigration to Britain – introducing the ‘right to abode’ that most in the Commonwealth are not eligible for – is met with opposition and protests. It passes, forming the basis of immigration law to this day.
The Black Parents Movement (BPM) forms to advance the rights of black people in Britain. Angered by the arrest of a black youth outside his school, the grassroots organisation tackles issues like jobs and housing, but primarily education.
Racial tensions in Brixton, south London, erupt into violence, with three days of rioting. More than 300 people are injured.
Although Labour fail to take power in the 1987 general election, it is a landmark moment for the party and British politics as four black MPs take their seats. Among them is Diane Abbott, the first black woman elected to the House of Commons.
Black teenager Stephen Lawrence is murdered in a racist attack in Eltham, southeast London. A public inquiry uncovers substantial failings in the police investigation, as well as institutional racism, and will eventually lead to major changes in the law.
Anti-racism protests take place in Britain following the killing, in the US, of George Floyd by a white police officer. The protests also criticise the way the authorities have handled incidents closer to home, such as the Grenfell Tower fire (2017) and the Windrush scandal (2018).
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Charlotte Hodgman is the editor of BBC History Revealed and HistoryExtra's royal newsletter. She was previously deputy editor of BBC History Magazine and makes the occasional appearance on the HistoryExtra podcast
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.
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