I have been researching and writing about black British history for over 30 years but never before have I been fortunate enough to review a 600-page book on the subject, published to accompany a recent major BBC documentary. The book and the four-part series give some indication of the extent of a history which David Olusoga presents as ‘forgotten’: the subject, he argues, has been largely excluded from the mainstream narrative of British history. Why it should be forgotten, and who might have forgotten it should give us all pause for reflection, since the denial of black British history by those who should know better could be considered tantamount to racism.
Olusoga reminds us that Britain’s ‘island story’ cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the world and certainly not from Africa and other parts of what was once the British empire. He also demonstrates that Africans were often a central part of Britain’s history centuries before the empire, going back to the Roman period and beyond. Indeed, he argues that black British history is not just about black people but about encounters between blacks and whites, including intermarriage or the ‘mixed relationships’ that have been commented on since Elizabethan times.
The latest archaeological techniques and historical research show that in Roman Britain there were many individuals of African heritage of all classes. We are now becoming more familiar with the fourth-century ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ of York and ‘The Beachy Head Lady’ from sub-Saharan Africa, thought to have lived in East Sussex c. 200 AD. It seems likely that soon we will have more conclusive evidence that Africans were travelling to Britain long before the arrival of the Romans.
Black and British also builds on the work of previous historians for its depiction of the African presence in Tudor England, including individuals becoming better known, such as the royal trumpeter John Blanke and the diver Jacques Francis. Olusoga explains the conditions that led to this African presence in Shakespeare’s time but curiously makes no mention of Shakespeare’s alleged friendship with an African woman.
But he is certainly at pains to remind us of Britain’s links with enslavement and empire, with Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. It is perhaps not surprising that, when describing the centuries of imperial expansion, historians have underplayed the fact that Britain then led the world in human trafficking. But it is impossible to understand the industrial revolution, the creation of Sierra Leone, the use of the guinea and much else besides unless Britain’s history is presented in its entirety.
In the 18th century there was an obvious connection between the transportation of Africans to North America and the Caribbean and the thousands of Africans who resided in Britain, some of whom were also evidently slaves. Britain’s great homes, its financial system, its major ports and textile industry were all based on the enslavement of African men, women and children.
It is for this reason that Olusoga includes the travels and travails of the 18th-century Black Loyalists, enslaved Africans who had fought for the crown against American independence and then found their way to Britain, Canada and eventually also to Sierra Leone. Their story, he maintains, is as much part of black British history as the postwar settlement of Brixton. For similar reasons, he devotes considerable space to the abolitionist campaigns of the 19th century, including Britain’s naval interventions in the Atlantic, as well as events that might not normally be thought of as part of Britain’s history, such as the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.
There can be no doubt that Black and British is an ambitious attempt to provide a ‘re-examination of a shared history’. This has been long overdue and Olusoga delighted many with his BBC series. Time will tell whether his book is as influential as Peter Fryer’s Staying Power proved to be. Black and British certainly demonstrates that this shared history extends not only back in time for at least 2,000 years but can be extended geographically to include parts of Africa, America and the Caribbean.
Hakim Adi is professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester.