Britain’s black trailblazers: 7 pioneers who changed British history
Black British history has been marginalised for far too long, argues Angelina Osborne, co-author of the book 100 Great Black Britons. Below, Angelina celebrates black people’s contribution to the nation’s past and profiles seven pioneers whose stories deserve a wider audience...
If any moment captured longstanding attitudes to the contributions of black and Asian people to British history, then it perhaps arrived in 2002, when the BBC unveiled its quest to find the ‘100 Greatest Britons’. The campaign, which was based around a TV series, invited viewers to vote for the historical Briton they thought most deserving of the tag ‘great’.
The 100 names put forward by the public were, in some ways, hugely varied – ranging from rock stars and royalty to occultists. Yet, in another respect, the choices were depressingly homogeneous: with the exception of Freddie Mercury (originally from Zanzibar and of Parsi heritage), each and every one was white.
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It was a familiar story. ‘100 Greatest Britons’ reinforced the narrative that celebrates British invention, exploration, political and cultural innovations, while making no mention of the contributions of black and Asian citizens. The exclusions said something important about how British history was being taught and told: that black and Asian people had no part to play in it.
The lack of a black and Asian presence in the 100 Greatest Britons poll provoked a great deal of frustration. But it also elicited a response – and that came in 2003 in the form of the 100 Great Black Britons campaign. This public poll focused on 100 black people whose lives showed that British history is, at its essence, multicultural. The results were announced live on Channel 4 News in 2004, with nurse and war hero Mary Seacole voted as the Greatest Black Briton.
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Earlier this year, the campaign was relaunched, accompanied by a book, 100 Great Black Britons (of which I am a co-author). This relaunch is part of the ongoing efforts to transform how we interpret and produce history – made even more pressing in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The 100 Great Black Britons campaign does what historians and activists have been doing for many years: highlighting stories of the African and Caribbean presence in Britain. It sheds new light on key events and celebrates individuals who played important roles in some of the most momentous periods in British history.
There is evidence of an African presence in Britain since the second century AD. Forensic analysis of the Beachy Head Lady, discovered in East Sussex in 1953, concluded that she was a woman of sub-Saharan African ancestry, who had lived in that region around AD 200–250. Further archaeological discoveries around the UK have shown that Africans were present in various levels of Roman society: African soldiers marched and fought in the Roman army that occupied Britain, and parts of the country were governed by Roman Africans, including Quintus Lollicus Urbicus (hailing from present-day Algeria), who supervised the building of the Antonine Wall in what is now Scotland.
And an African presence continued to be felt in Britain. In the 16th century – before black populations were established as a consequence of Atlantic slavery – people of colour from Africa, Europe and the Spanish Caribbean lived and worked in Britain. There were black servants for royalty, as well as black sailors, royal pages, needle makers and soldiers.
Britain’s dominance in the transatlantic slave trade meant that the African population in Britain increased exponentially. They came to Britain to work as servants, craftsmen or entertainers, being brought by merchants, sailors and plantation owners from Africa and the Americas. Many of the arriving Africans, believing that slavery was outlawed in Britain, escaped their bondage and established communities here.
Some, such as Mary Prince (see below), penned influential works to help abolish the system of slavery in Britain’s colonies, leaving behind evidence of shrewd political campaigning and testimony of their own enslavement. One cannot discuss the abolition of the slave trade without including the roles black people played. Similarly, the radical working-class reform movement of the 19th century takes on an anti-colonialist dimension when the activism of black people, including William Cuffay (see below), is recognised.
Black people have made an immense contribution to this country’s history. Over the page, I have profiled seven examples. All were trailblazers; all lived lives of particular merit, be it for their political activism or pioneering careers. Yet most have been omitted from mainstream historical narratives. It’s high time that changed.
Lucius Septimius Severus
WARRIOR-EMPEROR, c145–211 AD
Africans were among the people who helped establish the might of Roman civilisation in its many territories – including Britannia. Lucius Septimius Severus, born in Leptis Magna in Tripolitania (present-day Libya), was of African descent, but the part he played in extending the empire was far greater than that of his peers. He was chosen as emperor by his troops at the legionary fortress in Carnuntum (present-day Austria) in AD 193, and went on to make his mark in Britain.
Severus was descended, via his father, from the Phoenicians who had settled in Africa from the ninth century BC and eventually integrated into the indigenous African population. Coming from a wealthy family of the political class known as equestrians, Severus arrived in Rome aged 18 and moved through a series of high-ranking appointments under Emperor Marcus Aurelius. When Marcus Aurelius’s son, Commodus, became emperor in AD 180, Severus’s star did not diminish: he became consul in AD 190.
However, Commodus’s assassination in AD 192 ushered in a period of instability; within a year, five emperors had claimed imperial power. This uncertain political climate fanned Severus’s political ambitions, and, supported by formidable legions, he marched into Carnuntum from Pannonia (modern-day Hungary) and claimed imperial power for himself in AD 193. But it took four years of political manoeuvring, power plays and ferocious battles for his ambitions to be finally realised. In AD 197, he was confirmed as emperor of Rome after the battle of Lugdunum (now Lyon) – the largest engagement ever fought by Roman forces.
When Severus and his troops arrived in Britannia in AD 208, he was welcomed and hailed as the deliverer from the Gauls and the Germans who continually ravaged and pillaged the island. The emperor was concerned with upholding this image and protecting his lands from foreign invaders: he supervised the refurbishment, repair and upgrading of Hadrian’s Wall.
Throughout his reign, Severus understood that having a strong military could make or break a ruler – indeed, without his faithful legionaries, he likely would not have become emperor at all. He told his sons on his deathbed: “Be good to one another, enrich the soldiers, and damn the rest.”
TUDOR TRUMPETER, Late 15th–16th century
John Blanke is one of the most widely recognised Africans of Tudor England. It’s thought he arrived in England with Catherine of Aragon, when she came to marry Henry VII’s eldest son, Arthur, in 1501. Historically, his presence has been explained as part of the trend for European royalty to employ Africans as musicians, entertainers and servants. However, in reality, a number of Africans were living in England at the time and working in a range of occupations – both in the royal courts and beyond – living unremarkable lives.
But Blanke’s life certainly cannot be described as unremarkable: he was a witness to several of the most important royal events in the Tudor period. Clad all in black, he was one of eight royal trumpeters whose doleful music sounded at the funeral of Henry VII in May 1509. A month later, he was dressed in a brilliant scarlet tunic when he played at the coronation of Henry VIII. And two years after that, in 1511, he was invited to help celebrate another milestone in the Tudor dynasty: he played at the special tournament in Westminster to celebrate the birth of Henry and Catherine of Aragon’s short-lived son.
Blanke’s likeness was even depicted on the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll, a piece of artwork that Henry commissioned to celebrate the event. Scholars spotted the figure that appears to be Blanke in the 1950s, and in the 1980s the roll was featured in an exhibition entitled Roots in Britain: Black and Asian Citizens from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, which historians Audrey Dewjee and Ziggy Alexander developed for Brent Council.
From entries in the royal records, it is clear that Blanke held a prominent position within the royal household. He had attained this by petitioning Henry VIII for the position of a deceased trumpeter and boldly asking the king to double his wages from 8 to 16d per day. He complained his current wage was “not sufficient to mayntaigne to doo your grace lyke service as other your trompeters doo” and asked that his “true and faithfull service” be considered. His cheek paid off: he was the first African known to have successfully petitioned for a pay rise in Britain.
FREEDOM FIGHTER, c1788–c1830s
Mary Prince’s narrative The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself (1831) was a fierce anti-slavery message which provided a compelling rebuke to the slavery apologists. It made her the first black British woman to call for immediate emancipation. The book was a cause celebre, one that arguably advanced the passing of the Slavery Emancipation Act in 1833.
The Bermudan-born Prince’s story is made even more remarkable by the fact that, at the time, enslaved men and women had practically no opportunity to share – let alone publish – their experiences. Consequently, when Prince wrote her History, she was voicing not only her own experiences of slavery, but those of the entire enslaved population in the Caribbean. She often spoke out bravely against the horrific treatment she endured, which included severe beatings and floggings “from the whip, the rope, and the cowskin”.
Most enslaved workers had one or two owners in their lifetime; Prince, however, had five. This suggests that she had a strong will, which meant although she still experienced terrible violence at the hands of her owners, she had the courage to challenge their behaviour. “I have often wondered,” she wrote in her History, “how English people can go out into the West Indies and act in such a beastly manner. But when they go to the West Indies, they forget God and all feelings of shame, I think, since they can do such things.”
Mary Prince travelled to England with her last owners, the Woods, in 1828, where she was exposed to the debates on slave emancipation taking place in parliament and the agitation this caused across the country. In London, the Woods’ continued monstrous treatment of Prince led her to leave them. She sought refuge in a Moravian missionary church in Hatton Garden and later with the Anti-Slavery Society, who, upon hearing her story, published it.
In the face of terrible odds, Prince refused to submit and constantly fought against extreme physical and psychological trauma and hardships. She provides an insight into how enslavement affected human beings, both the enslavers and the enslaved, and how the enslaved used their environment to have some control over their futures. Her History highlights not only the indignities and suffering of that terrible institution, but also ways in which the human spirit could triumph.
CHAMPION OF THE DOWNTRODDEN, 1788–1870
Within the various movements for political reform and workers’ rights in the early to mid-19th century, William Cuffay was one of the causes’ most militant and prominent contributors. Originally a tailor by trade, Cuffay swapped sewing for activism when he became a leader of the London Chartists.
His father was born enslaved in St Kitts, an island in the West Indies, and later worked as a cook on board a warship. Raised by his mother in Chatham, Cuffay was born with deformities in his spine and legs. But although he was branded an outsider by virtue of his disability and ethnicity, neither hindered his determination to succeed.
Cuffay’s political awakening occurred when he took part in the tailors’ strike in 1834, which cost him his job and his shop. Not long after that, he joined the Chartist movement – which campaigned for political reform and working-class male suffrage – and quickly became prominent within the London leadership. Proud of his working-class roots and his trade, he intensely disliked the middle classes, the aristocracy and industrialists.
In 1842 Cuffay chaired a “Great Public Meeting of Tailors”, and, following the arrest of the Chartist movement’s national leaders, he was appointed president of a five-man interim executive.
The press frequently attacked him for his militancy, often working race into their commentary. He was racially lampooned in Punch and The Illustrated London News. The Times referred to the London Chartists as “the black man and his party”.
Cuffay nevertheless rose to become one of the most dynamic representatives of the English working class. Appointed to the Master and Servants Bill Demonstration Committee, he vigorously opposed the power given to magistrates to imprison workers for two months purely on their employers’ word. He was a supporter of the Chartist Land Plan, which proposed to take the unemployed out of the slums and to allocate families two acres of land each. He cared deeply for the plight of the working classes and was committed to improving their lives and the conditions they lived in. Cuffay had a reputation for advocating direct action, having little time for “useless and unnecessary speeches”, and was committed to “[securing for] the people their just and inalienable rights”.
To the ruling classes, Cuffay was a dangerous man, and police spies kept a close watch on his activities. In 1848, after one of the last significant Chartist demonstrations, in Kennington Common, he was arrested and convicted of conspiring to levy war against the queen, based on the unreliable evidence of police informants. In his final speech to the jury at his trial in September 1848, he remarked: “I do not want any pity. No, I pity the government and I pity the Attorney General, [who] ought to be called the Spy General... I am not anxious for martyrdom, but after what I have endured this week I feel I could endure any punishment proudly.”
Condemned to transportation to Tasmania in 1849, Cuffay continued his political activism there until his death in 1870.
FATHER OF AFRICAN EMANCIPATION, 1903–59
The interwar period saw the emergence of activism out of Africa and the Caribbean that contained new forms of anti-colonialism and Pan-Africanism, advocating the political union of all the indigenous inhabitants of Africa. George Padmore (born Malcolm Ivan Meredith Nurse) was one of the key figures of these movements. He was part of a new wave of activists and intellectuals living in Britain who were deeply committed to critiquing and eventually breaking the power of colonial authority.
Born into a radical-thinking family in Trinidad, Nurse was exposed to racial politics as a student in the US, where he joined the Communist party and changed his name to George Padmore. After moving to Hamburg, he became editor of the Negro Worker, a communist trade-union newspaper written for working-class black people around the world, writing about the conditions of black people in Africa, the Caribbean, the US and Europe. He also helped organise the first international conference of black workers in Moscow, which inspired his book The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers (1931). In this work, Padmore discussed how millions of black workers were being exploited throughout the US, the Caribbean and Africa, which he described as “one of the most degrading spectacles of bourgeois civilisation”.
In the 1930s Padmore became disenchanted with communism and grew more interested in Pan-Africanist activism. Angered at Italy’s intention to invade Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia), he joined the International African Friends of Abyssinia, established by his friend the writer CLR James in London. James introduced Padmore to activists including Amy Ashwood Garvey, co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and Jomo Kenyatta, the future president of Kenya. The group played a major role in the struggle for decolonisation and Pan-Africanism, and in 1937 they founded the International African Service Bureau, to address the oppression of black people globally.
After the Second World War drew to a close, Padmore’s role in Pan-Africanism continued to grow. He was part of the organising committee for the 5th Pan African Conference, for instance, which convened in October 1945. More than 200 delegates, representing trade unions, farmers, political organisations, students and black organisations in Britain, attended. Empowered by the event and eager to shape the future, many of the delegates became leading political activists against colonial rule in their countries.
As well as indirectly influencing hundreds of activists through the conference, Padmore also held sway over key individuals who were working to wrestle control away from colonial powers. He advised Kwame Nkrumah, revolutionary and future president of Ghana, before and after Ghanaian independence. For this and his other extraordinary efforts, today Padmore is remembered as “one of the fathers of African emancipation”.
COMMUNITY HEALER, 1915–64
In the 1950s and 60s, Claudia Jones committed herself to campaigning on behalf of the Caribbean community in Britain. As a journalist she created a political voice for Caribbeans through the West Indian Gazette, Britain’s first newspaper aimed at black people, and helped create the London Carnival, precursor of the Notting Hill Carnival, to use cultural expression and celebration to tackle racism.
Jones, born Claudia Vera Cumber-batch in Port of Spain, Trinidad, joined her parents in Harlem, New York (where they’d moved in search of work) when she was nine. As a young woman, she yearned to help liberate black people and believed that socialism held the answer. Accordingly, she joined the Young Communist League, eager to do her part for the cause.
By 1937, at the age of 22, Jones was on the editorial staff of the Daily Worker (a newspaper published in New York by the US Communist party). Over the next 10 years, her understanding and interpretation of Marxist theory and her skills as a speaker, writer and organiser saw her rise quickly though the party ranks, becoming national director of the Young Communist League in 1941.
After many years battling immigration charges as a consequence of her activism, in 1955 Jones lost the right to remain in the US and was deported to Britain. When she arrived in London, she became painfully aware that the experiences of black people in Britain were often uncomfortable and oppressive – drawing disturbing parallels with the country she had been forced to leave behind. In particular, Jones noticed the alienation and discrimination that Caribbean immigrants were facing. She saw London as another site of struggle, and almost immediately began organising the London Caribbean community.
One of the major tools of mobilisation was the West Indian Gazette, which was founded in 1957 and launched in March 1958. This newspaper reported on the gains of various independence movements in the Caribbean, Pan-Africanism and anti-colonial struggles.
The ‘race’ riots in London and Nottingham in 1958 helped conceive the idea of a carnival as a way to heal the community through its common African ancestry. The first carnival was held in St Pancras Town Hall in January 1959, and four subsequent carnivals had a significant impact in making Caribbean culture central to the British experience.
Jones felt that Caribbean traditions had much to offer the world in terms of creating a culture of human happiness that would dwarf the ignorance and pain of racism. Through the medium of carnival, the different black British communities could educate one another and develop self-awareness about their cultural histories. “There is a comfort in this effort,” wrote Jones, “for all West Indians, who strain to hear and feel and reflect their idiom… to transplant our folk origins to British soil.”
Jones’s death from a heart attack at the age of 49 ripped a hole in the fabric of British-Caribbean society. In the nine years she had lived in England, her finger was firmly on the pulse of British society, and she had used her remarkable gifts to create unity and strength within black British communities.
FEMINIST TRAILBLAZER, 1952–79
By the late sixties, black communities in Britain were under siege, finding themselves the victims of popular and institutional racism. Discrimination in housing, employment and policing was having a destructive impact on their lives.
Racism was becoming more forceful and permissible. Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, an incendiary attack on Commonwealth migration, influenced white supremacist groups such as the National Front to incite violence against these communities. Black children were being classed as “educationally subnormal”, and unemployment was rife among African-Caribbean youth. Consequently, black organisations promoting collective action against these injustices began to emerge, advocating self-defence and self-reliance.
It was within this period that Olive Morris came of age politically. Aged 17, while hanging out with friends outside of Desmond’s Hip City, one of the first black-owned record shops in Brixton, she was caught up in an incident of police brutality.
Clement Gomwalk, a Nigerian diplomat, was arrested and beaten by two policemen after they pulled him over in his Mercedes and accused him of stealing it. In the words of the journalist Aymo Martin Tajo, Morris “broke through the crowd to the scuffle… and tried physically to stop the police beating Gomwalk”. The police, believing her to be a man (she was wearing men’s clothing and had short hair) turned on her, viciously kicking her and raining down blows until she fell to the ground. Morris recalled that, while in police custody, “they made me take off my jumper and my bra in front of them to show I was a girl”. Her brother, Basil, described her injuries after the incident, saying he “could hardly recognise her face, they beat her so badly”.
- Read more | Black British history: a timeline
She was charged with assaulting a police officer and engaging in threatening behaviour, and received a suspended sentence.
Morris began to contest injustice, joining the British Black Panther Party Youth League and learning to arm herself physically and intellectually against police violence and racism. She understood the need to address the dual oppressions of being black and female, co-founding the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent. Both of these organisations provided advice and guidance for women about issues that affected their lives, such as housing, education, employment and welfare. They also brought together black and Asian women from different backgrounds and political perspectives across Britain, encouraging them to set up their own study and self-help groups.
When, in 1975, Morris enrolled at Manchester University to study social sciences, she juggled the pressures of being a student with her personal call to activism. She got involved with community groups in Moss Side and was an active member of the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative, before continuing her campaigning work back in Brixton.
Morris died of cancer in July 1979, aged just 27. She left behind an extraordinary legacy of community activism, committed to the struggle against race, sex and class oppression.
Angelina Osborne is a researcher and heritage consultant. She co-authored 100 Great Black Britons with Patrick Vernon
This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine