“There’s still this hangover that everything has to be seen through the prism of enslavement”
Hakim Adi speaks to Rhiannon Davies about his wide-ranging study of the experiences of African and Caribbean people in Britain, from the height of the Roman empire to the modern day
Your latest book covers African and Caribbean people in Britain from Roman times right up to the 21st century. Why did you decide to focus on such a long period?
The aim is obviously to create something that is going to be useful to readers, so you do need to present the entire history. And I also wanted to showcase the latest research.
The key book in the recent period is Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which was published nearly 40 years ago, and while lots of work has been done by various people since that came out, the history hasn’t been presented in its entirety.
So I wanted to sum up that research and try and build on it, while also giving recognition to what others had done. Sometimes, people write histories and it appears almost as though they discovered everything. That’s never the case.
Thinking about the wider history, because of the kind of society we live in, all of it is related. Technically speaking, you could say Cheddar Man – the skeleton of a man who lived in Britain about 10,000 years ago – isn’t part of this history in the sense that he came neither from Africa or from the Caribbean, at least not directly.
But he still fits into this history, because he gives us a new way of looking at how black people are perceived, and the relationship, if you like, between Britishness and blackness.
Cheddar Man is one of the earliest Britons that we have physical evidence of. And so when he was discovered, over a century ago, it was a really important find. But the reconstructions and representations of him were always of a blond-haired, blue-eyed person. The latest DNA evidence presents a very different picture of him, however: as a dark-skinned person with blue eyes, rather interestingly.
Britons 10,000 years ago, and indeed Europeans 10,000 years ago, would all have looked like Cheddar Man. So that changes our perspective on what Britishness is, and what Europeanness is.
On the HistoryExtra podcast | The story of African and Caribbean people in Britain goes back to before the Roman empire. Rhiannon Davies spoke to Professor Hakim Adi to discover how their lives and stories have shaped Britain’s history
What story surprised you most in the course of your research?
I uncovered so many surprising and interesting stories, but I think the thing that surprised me most was not necessarily one story, but the levels of racism – what I’d call state racism – in the 20th century in particular, as well as, of course, the opposition and resistance to it.
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At times, it became quite overwhelming, from the colour bar in the armed service during the Second World War to more recent examples, such as the Stephen Lawrence case [a black British teenager who was killed in a racially motivated attack in 1993]. To see the way that millions of people have struggled; the breadth and depth and nature of it – that was something that even I was surprised about.
Why is it that you’ve chosen to use the phrase “African and Caribbean people” throughout your book rather than “black Britons”?
Well, the simple answer is because that’s the best definition of the people whom the book is about.
For many centuries, people came to Britain from the African continent. If we go back to Roman times and talk about the so-called “African emperor” Septimius Severus [reigned 193–211 AD], or those who came with him, they came from Africa, so they were Africans. Or the people who arrived in the 18th century, like the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, and came from the African continent; they were Africans.
- David Olusoga | The extraordinary story of Olaudah Equiano
Of course in more recent periods, people came from the Caribbean, where not everyone is necessarily directly of African heritage, although the vast majority of people are. So it’s an inclusive definition or inclusive use of the term. I think that’s right: people should be presented with their geographical heritage, their cultural heritage and their linguistic heritage, not simply as a colour.
You mentioned the Roman emperor Septimius Severus. Is he the earliest African that we can trace as being in Britain?
He’s one of the earliest that we have as a named individual. Septimius was a man almost certainly of Berber origins, from what is today Libya. And there are several other named African Romans of that period.
There’s a man called Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who originated from Algeria and became a Roman governor of Britain. There was a man called Victor, whose tomb is in the north of England. And in the fourth century there was a woman whose name we don’t know, but we call her Ivory Bangle Lady because she was buried with an ivory bangle in the city of York.
There were numerous other Africans or African Romans in Britain, including many of the soldiers who came with Septimius. Their stories are lost; we don’t know their names, even. It’s almost certain there were Africans here before that period too – it’s just that we don’t know much about them, we don’t have names for them, and we don’t know exactly the connection that existed between the British Isles and Africa in that period.
Do we have a sense of what their reception was like in Britain?
Those who came with the invading Roman army were probably not welcomed with open arms, so it’s difficult to say exactly what reception they would have had. Our interest is mainly concerned with their position, status and so on in society.
There used to be this idea that there might have been a few Africans in Britain but they were probably enslaved – that’s the only way in which they could possibly have appeared or one could possibly think of Africans in that period.
But all the evidence suggests exactly the opposite: that there were people who were emperors, governors, or wealthy women. African people held a variety of statuses and occupations.
You say in your book that in the Tudor period it’s particularly misleading to connect the presence of African people in England with human trafficking. Why is this?
I think there is still this kind of hangover – which is essentially a Eurocentric perspective, and tells us more about those who maintain this view than it does about the history that they are commenting on – that everything has to be seen through the prism of enslavement and human trafficking. That’s clearly not the case. In the period leading up to 1500, we have to think about the status of Africans in Europe as well as Africans in Africa.
Remember that in the Tudor period, England had a certain relationship with Europe, but also a developing trade and diplomatic relationship with Africa, particularly West Africa. The English participation in the human trafficking of Africans was in its infancy and didn’t take off before the 1560s or thereabouts.
So most of the Africans who were in the country during the reign of Elizabeth I probably came from Spain or Portugal, at a time of unrest in that part of the world. Many were skilled craftspeople: needle makers, silk weavers, divers and household servants. Or they may have been royal retainers, accompanying figures like Catherine of Aragon.
- Read more | Were there slaves in Elizabethan England?
Some of them were almost certainly the sons of African rulers who were starting to have a trading connection with English merchants. So African people didn’t automatically arrive in the country through the involvement of English human traffickers in enslaving people in the African continent.
There may have been a few African people who came in a servile or enslaved status, but from what we know of that period it seems that slavery was not an institution that was upheld by the legal system in the country. There are examples of Africans who had a servile status coming from elsewhere and being freed when they arrived in England and so on.
- Read more | How slavery thrived in Renaissance Europe
All the evidence suggests that slavery, generally speaking, didn’t exist in England at that time, and that the attitude that English people had towards Africans wasn’t particularly coloured by the racism that later developed due to the slave trade.
When did racist attitudes develop in the country then?
Racism was certainly occurring by the late 17th century. That was the century in which we can say English – or British if we include Scotland and elsewhere – human trafficking was firmly established. England had already acquired colonies in North America and the Caribbean. These were essentially money-making factories, where the lives of the human labourers weren’t valued any more than an animal might be valued.
But questions were being asked. Obviously, questions were posed by the Africans themselves who were enslaved in the colonies, who resisted, rebelled and ran away, as well as by others who began to question whether it was Christian or legal to enslave other human beings.
A struggle emerged, and by the time Great Britain was formed by the Acts of Union in 1707, that debate had already taken off. It was in the course of the debate that these ideas about whether Africans were human or non-human began.
As the struggle intensified in the 18th century, so the defenders of enslavement developed their ideas much further. Some of the leading philosophers of the time, people including David Hume and John Locke – who had their own connections with human trafficking and enslavement – were the biggest defenders of slavery and racism. We have to remember that human trafficking and slavery were state enterprises, supported by the Church of England, and state monopolies were established by the monarchs from Elizabeth I onwards. This was the activity of the rich and powerful.
At the same time, there were other people who contested the idea of enslavement and said: “Well, that doesn’t sound very Christian to me. As Christians we shouldn’t enslave other human beings, and everyone who’s been created by God are our brothers and sisters.”
By the 18th century, the Enlightenment was emerging in Europe, which almost encouraged criticism of everything, particularly of the established order. That movement was also concerned about the rights of people – what we’d call today human rights.
You often find that those who were defending the rights of workers in England, for example, were also defending the rights of Africans in England or Africans in Africa, because they saw the question of rights as being indivisible. If you defend the rights of one, you must defend the rights of all.
You argue in your book that the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807 didn’t really end Britain’s involvement in the trade. When do you think it did end?
The first thing we need to ask is: why was there an abolition act? Why did the world’s leading human trafficker, kidnapper of African men, women and children in the 18th century, suddenly decide, “Oh, no, this was a terrible idea and it was completely wrong and we should abolish it?” It wasn’t in the interests of the rich and powerful to necessarily end that involvement completely.
I think the key thing to remember is that this was the time of the Industrial Revolution, which was fuelled by the cotton industry – and cotton was produced by enslaved Africans, particularly in North America. So Britain was still, if indirectly, involved and certainly benefiting from the enslavement of Africans after the 1807 act.
The other thing to bear in mind is that important financial interests in Britain were involved with human trafficking in Brazil, Cuba and in other places as well. Those connections continued until slavery was abolished in those nations [1888 in Brazil and 1886 in Cuba], even when the actual trafficking of people gradually began to peter out throughout the 19th century.
Let’s finish by looking at the modern period. Why do you think there’s a tendency for this history to be reduced to solely the Windrush story?
I’ve been involved with this history for around 40 years. Throughout that whole period, there has been a view that everything started with the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush in 1948. I’ve spent most of that time arguing against that view, saying that’s just not true.
African people have been here since Roman times and before. So why did the arrival of this one boat become so mythologised?
It may be because some of the people on the boat became important citizens in Britain – such as Sam King, who became mayor of Southwark. The arrival was filmed and Lord Kitchener sang a nice song, which was covered in the press. That may be it.
But if you actually look at the history, it shows you something else. Firstly, it wasn’t the first time the Windrush appeared in Britain; it was essentially a troop carrier, taking people back to the Caribbean. Then you have to look at the ships that came before in the postwar period. Why ignore those? They also brought people from the Caribbean, as well as other countries.
Then you have to look at exactly who was coming in that period, because a lot of people came from Africa, who I’d say are completely eliminated from this history. For instance, the BBC produced a documentary called Black Nurses: The Women Who Saved the NHS. But nearly all of those interviewed came from the Caribbean. Of course, nurses also came from Africa and are still being recruited by the NHS, but they are often left out of history. So I think it’s very problematic.
You can talk about a Windrush generation if you wish to, but that ship arrived at a time when large-scale immigration wasn’t yet occurring. That didn’t occur until the 1950s. So even as a symbol for what occurred later, it’s not a good one in my view.
If people want to celebrate it arriving, that’s fine. But to present it as a symbol of what happened later is a bit misleading, and as an entry point for the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain it’s incredibly misleading.
What entry point would you suggest, then, for those who are keen to learn more about this history?
Well, you have to start at the beginning. That’s a good place to start, I would say. Let’s look at the beginning, let’s look at the whole history and then let’s see where 1948 fits into it.
The whole point about studying history is partly to understand the past, but also to understand the present and what’s going on in the world. And if we have this truncated understanding of history, or limited understanding of history then, in a way, we have a limited understanding of the world in which we live. Looking at the history in its entirety is very, very important.
Hakim Adi is professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester. He was the first historian of African heritage to become a professor of history in Britain.
His books include African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History (Allen Lane, 2022). Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or Bookshop.org
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