‘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.

Legislation abolishing the British slave trade was passed in 1807, but Britons continued to profit from slave ownership until the Abolition of Slavery Act, passed in 1833, ended the practice in the Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. Even then, an apprenticeship scheme permitted the use of unfree labour for five more years. The manumitted received no compensation but around 46,000 slave-owners were paid a total of £20 million for the loss of their legal property, around £17 billion in today’s money. John Gladstone, the father of the prime minister, received the largest sum: £106,769 for the loss of 2508 slaves. You can find out if your own ancestors received a share by consulting the online database of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project. The tool draws on new research that supports the argument made in Capitalism and Slavery (1944) by Eric Williams, the future prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, that the wealth generated by enslavement contributed to 19th-century industrialisation and thus to the reshaping of British culture and society.

In the Victorian era black people weren’t an unusual sight in the city. Occasionally, they seem to have been stopped by strangers and asked about their history. You could watch African men, women and children performing supposedly authentic songs, dances and ceremonies in theatres, museums, galleries and the international expositions that followed the Great Exhibition of 1851. Many looked with disgusted fascination at people they believed were ‘uncivilised’; others were intrigued by the performers’ intelligence and skill. Critics condemned the shows as legalised slavery but crowds continued to fill venues that seated thousands. Savage South Africa, put on at Earl’s Court in 1899, featured a mock kraal populated by more than two hundred Africans, who re-enacted scenes from the Ndebele Wars of 1893 and 1896. Some of the earliest film footage of Africans shows these performers arriving at Southampton docks and, on a separate reel, performing a battle scene. The most famous of them was Peter Lobengula, said to be the son of King Lobengula of Matabeleland (now Zimbabwe), who attracted considerable attention by marrying a white woman called Kitty Jewell. Troupes of minstrels toured Britain, creating a genre so popular that it remained a staple of television light entertainment until 1978.

On 12 August 1914 Lance Corporal Alhaji Grunshi of the British West African Frontier Force was the first soldier in the British army to fire a shot in the land campaigns of the Great War. He was one among many thousands of African and West Indian men who fought for the Allies. (The War Office had originally rejected proposals for a West Indian regiment on the grounds that allowing black and white troops to fight side by side might undermine settler colonial segregation, but relented after King George V intervened.) As Allied losses mounted, the colonial contribution came to seem increasingly important: Major Darnley Stuart-Stephens called for a ‘Million Black Army’. Churchill lent his support, fearing a verdict from ‘historians of the future’ that ‘Great Britain was forced to make an inconclusive peace because she forgot Africa.’ As the war went on, black volunteers were sent to the 12 battalions of the British West Indies Regiment, which over the course of the war had 397 officers and 15,204 soldiers. In 1916, the 3rd and 4th battalions were sent to France and used primarily to do labouring work; other battalions were deployed in Africa. When 15,000 soldiers paraded through London on 19 July 1919 to commemorate the end of the war, the West Indian and black African soldiers who had volunteered – not been conscripted, like many of the white British soldiers – were barred from marching.

In 1919, around twenty thousand black people lived in Britain, many of them in port towns. Some were recent arrivals but many were descended from generations of black Britons. The population wasn’t any greater in 1948, when the Empire Windrush docked, though in 1944 it had temporarily reached 150,000 thanks to the African-American GIs stationed in Britain. White American soldiers found it difficult to adapt to the relative informality of the ‘colour bar’ in their host country. Olusoga writes that one pub landlady in Bristol incensed white Americans by treating African Americans as equals. ‘Their money is as good as yours,’ she retorted when challenged, ‘and we prefer their company.’ Anecdotes like this can easily be read as evidence of British tolerance but Olusoga reminds us that the impeccable manners of African Americans – much commented on by white Britons – were survival strategies learned in the face of oppression and segregation at home. Although the British authorities consistently discouraged relationships between African-American men and white women, interracial relationships weren’t uncommon. Many ended in marriage, but some children born from such relationships were never told of their parentage.

In June 1948, the Empire Windrush carried 492 West Indians from Kingston, Jamaica, to Tilbury in Essex. Many of the passengers, British subjects bearing British passports, had served during the Second World War and were coming to Britain in search of work. The number of colonial migrants remained stable at between one and two thousand per year from 1948 to 1952, at which point the US imposed heavy restrictions on West Indian immigration. After that there was a dramatic increase: a total of 195,000 arrived in Britain between 1953 and 1959, and a further 194,000 in 1960 and 1961. Many found jobs in industry, the armed forces and the NHS.

The relatively open borders that made immigration on this scale possible were fenced off by increasingly restrictive legislation over the course of the 20th century. The Aliens Act of 1905 had introduced immigration controls to Britain for the first time, prompted by the arrival of large numbers of Jews fleeing pogroms in tsarist Russia: it allowed for the exclusion of ‘undesirable aliens’.[*] The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act of 1914 clarified who the desirables were by granting the status of ‘natural-born British subject’ to anyone ‘born within His Majesty’s dominions and allegiance’ and, if born outside the dominions, to anyone whose father was a British subject at the time of the child’s birth. Thus Britain was formally declared open to any inhabitant of the empire, the population of which was recorded in 1901 as 354 million, rising to 383 million by 1911. After dominions such as Canada introduced their own citizenship, the British Nationality Act of 1948 made anyone who had been classified as a British subject a Commonwealth Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies with the freedom to enter and settle in Britain. Its primary purpose was to allow white citizens to move freely between Britain and the ‘old dominions’ of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, but hopes that settlers would return to the ‘mother country’ were unfulfilled.

As it turned out, it was migrants from the West Indies and South Asia who made use of their rights. Their arrival aroused surprise and apprehension even as, at the same time, European immigrants were welcomed (there was a manifest labour shortage and Europeans were overwhelmingly white). In 1954, Churchill fretted about the tensions he assumed an influx of ‘coloured workers’ would generate, raising in cabinet the possibility of introducing legislation to make it easier to deport British overseas subjects if they were convicted of a serious criminal offence or were dependent on public funds. A year later, he favoured adopting an election pledge to ‘Keep Britain White’. Also that year, Anthony Richmond argued in The Colour Problem that the public could be divided into three camps: ‘extremely prejudiced’, ‘mildly prejudiced’ or ‘tolerant’. He suggested that ‘most people think others more prejudiced than themselves’ and that ‘discriminatory practices consequent upon prejudices are nearly always attributed to a need for deference to the views of others.’ Such denials of responsibility indicate how racism could persist despite white Britons’ consistent claims that they were unconcerned about immigration. Meanwhile, politicians began to speak of Britain being ‘swamped’ – the unchanging nature of anti-immigration rhetoric is one of the most depressing things about it – and demanded legislation to manage the ‘colour problem’.

The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 obliged Commonwealth citizens who did not have a passport directly issued by the UK government to apply for work vouchers that were subject to quotas. Previously, any British passport, whether issued by the UK government or by a colony, would have been enough; the new controls implicitly discriminated on the basis of skin colour. Migration spiked in 1961 as citizens rushed to ‘beat the ban’. In 1968, another Commonwealth Immigrants Act extended controls, via work vouchers, to migrants whose parents or grandparents weren’t born in Britain or weren’t citizens of Britain. This ‘grandfather clause’ privileged the ties of white kinship over the rights of political citizenship. The Immigration Act of 1971 replaced work vouchers with temporary work permits and finally repealed the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to live in the UK. Politicians insist that it isn’t racist to be concerned about immigration; perhaps it isn’t always, but a cursory glance at the history of British immigration legislation makes clear that Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia had their freedoms progressively limited by legislation responding to racist panics which, according to Olusoga, ‘are as old and established a British tradition as immigration itself’.

Postwar migrants’ memoirs and recollections are characterised by disappointment and frustration: finding housing and employment was often difficult. In 1965, the Race Relations Act outlawed discrimination on the ‘grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins’, and criminalised the incitement to racial hatred. It became illegal to refuse housing and employment to people of another race or colour in 1968. A further act in 1976 outlawed all forms of discrimination on the basis of race. It was as amendments to the Race Relations Act were being discussed in 1968 that Enoch Powell delivered his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. His call for drastic immigration controls, including repatriation, to avoid violence did not lead to his indictment for ‘incitement’ to racial hatred.

Many aspects of this complex and lengthy history are little known and little understood. Historians, archivists, archaeologists and activists, many of them working outside academia, have for decades been uncovering details of the black presence in Britain from parish registers, legal records, private papers, artworks, artefacts and human remains, but their discoveries remain largely the concern of specialists. Black Tudors, Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians tend to be absent from historical surveys and the period dramas that do so much to shape popular understandings of the past. Meanwhile, the struggle for civil rights in Britain and the social history of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s have been somewhat neglected. This historiographical unevenness obscures deep continuities and is reflected in the ignorance routinely displayed in debates about British history. When Michael Gove was secretary of state for education he proposed rewriting the national curriculum in history around a triumphalist narrative of British progress that barely featured women, the working classes or people of colour. The subsequent furore forced significant changes, but the elitism, sexism and whiteness of the original proposal was as disappointing as it was predictable.

Olusoga’s account challenges narrow visions of Britain’s past. By tracing the triangulated connections between Britain, America and Africa, he presents black British history in global terms and shows that a version in which black Britons are marginalised or absent is partial and fractured. Olusoga is unavoidably constrained by gaps in the archive but his subjects, even those who barely figure in the historical record, appear as individuals who matter, both in their own right and as historical exemplars. At more than six hundred pages, Black and British is the first substantial overview of black British history since Peter Fryer’s volume; a companion BBC series presented by Olusoga was screened late last year. A British-Nigerian raised in the North-East, Olusoga grew up amid the racial tensions of the 1970s and 1980s. His family, like many others, was abused and harassed. A brick thrown through their living-room window was wrapped in a note demanding that they go ‘back’. After they were moved to emergency housing, their empty home was tagged with a swastika and ‘NF Won Here.’ Demands that immigrants ‘go home’ resurface to this day. Four years ago, when Theresa May was home secretary, the Home Office launched a campaign to scare people living in Britain illegally into leaving the country. Large white vans were driven around the country carrying posters bearing the injunction ‘GO HOME OR FACE ARREST.’

Olusoga believes that in the 1970s and 1980s ‘many non-white people felt that while it was possible to be in Britain it was much harder to be of Britain.’ That sense of dislocation seemed to ease somewhat in the 1990s, and many today will confidently describe themselves as black British. But the feeling of belonging is nevertheless constantly undermined. One of the most common experiences shared by people of colour is to be asked ‘Where are you from?’ Many of those asking don’t expect the answer to be ‘Here’, or accept that as a response. ‘Where are you really from?’ they demand.

Theresa May euphemistically described Britain’s history as ‘profoundly internationalist’ in a speech outlining her plan for Brexit. To offset the damage inflicted by leaving the European single market, the government hopes to make new trade agreements with Commonwealth countries, a scheme some officials have facetiously labelled ‘Empire 2.0’. Nearly sixty years after the first Commonwealth Immigration Act, the government is again considering who might be stripped of their right of residence now that Article 50 has been triggered.

Late last year, a quiet, kind, middle-aged South Asian woman headed home on the same bus she had taken for more than twenty years. Her presence prompted an elderly white woman to shout at her – ‘Go home!’ – and to issue a tirade about how her country had changed. Not one person intervened or posted footage online. The abused woman sat in silence. When she got to her stop, she went home and for days didn’t tell anyone what had happened. Eventually she mentioned the incident to her children during a conversation about poor manners on public transport. I am her eldest daughter and I worry about the next time something like this happens to her. For this is Brexit Britain, politicians across the spectrum are pandering to anti-immigrant feeling, and there will be a next time.

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