‘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.

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