‘We prefer their company’

Sadiah Qureshi

  • Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
    Pan Macmillan, 624 pp, £25.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 1 4472 9973 8

In the early 1990s, the historian Gretchen Gerzina went to a London bookshop looking for a copy of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984). When she asked the shop assistant for help she was told ‘Madam, there were no black people in England before 1945.’ In fact, as David Olusoga’s remarkable book shows, people racialised as black have been in Britain for more than two thousand years. During the third century, North African Roman soldiers formed part of the occupation of the British Isles: ‘Aurelian Moors’ were stationed at Aballava at the west end of Hadrian’s Wall, near the Solway Firth. In the fourth century a number of people with North African ancestry seem to have lived in York, including a woman now known as Ivory Bangle Lady, who was buried in a sarcophagus together with bangles made of Whitby jet and African ivory. The remains of a nearly complete skeleton found in a box labelled ‘Beachy Head’ in Eastbourne Museum were recently identified as belonging to a woman from sub-Saharan Africa. This woman, who was alive between 125 and 245 CE, is the first known black Briton.

By the 1500s there were more than three hundred black people living in Britain. Many had been on Iberian slave-trading ships headed for the Americas that were seized by English or Scottish privateers. Most of them worked as servants in London or in southern port towns. John Blanke was a trumpeter who performed at court. In 1509 he was present at the funeral of Henry VII and performed at Henry VIII’s coronation. Two years later he performed in the celebrations heralding the birth of Prince Henry, the longed-for son of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, who survived for only ten days. Blanke got married, probably to an English woman, a year after that. He is the first black Briton for whom we have a contemporary likeness – he is depicted in the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll, an illustrated manuscript – but his absence from the many representations of Henry VIII’s court is telling.

Two hundred years later, the black population of Georgian Britain was made up of sailors, street-sellers, servants and slaves. Its size was estimated at between three and forty thousand by contemporaries; historians have put the figure at around ten or fifteen thousand. Most of them, still, lived in London, and they were overwhelmingly male – men were preferred by buyers in the Atlantic slave trade. Nelson’s fleet included 18 men born in Africa and 123 born in the West Indies, seven of whom served on HMS Victory. Newspapers advertised slaves for sale and carried notices from owners seeking the return of runaways. Some fugitive slaves were lucky enough to find work but others drifted into poverty and remained vulnerable to capture and forced transportation to plantations in the New World. Two ex-slaves, Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, made literary careers for themselves by writing bestselling abolitionist works about their experiences. Their social mobility was made possible by a rare combination of circumstances: they were both educated and free.

Many black men married white Englishwomen. Diatribes against intermarriage appeared, written by men such as the plantation owner Edward Long. This shouldn’t be taken as clear proof of widespread hostility to interracial couples. Their descendants also intermarried and assimilated; within a few generations, many identified as white. This explains, at least in part, the less visible black presence in 19th-century Britain. Many Britons probably have a black ancestor without knowing it.

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[*] Antony Lerman wrote about the Aliens Act in the LRB of 7 November 2013.