Image: An Extract from The 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll featuring John Blanke.
By Leah Conway
Last year for Black History Month, I introduced the origins of Black History Month and analysed its significance. It concluded that while Black History Month remains a necessary and vital platform for education, it also has its constraints.
Black History Month provides a valuable learning opportunity to look back on the history of Britain and to see a range of interweaving histories rather than a whitewashed narrative.
A narrow, oversimplified story of black history has been constructed. Black children shouldn’t have to do extra to learn about black people throughout history.
So, this year as part of Black history Month, I wanted to cover a brief rundown of the history of the black community in Britain before 1948.
1948, with the arrival of Empire Windrush, is often recorded as the pivotal moment in the creation of black communities in Britain and mass migration to the UK. However, the black British story arcs back far before 1948.
The Romans governed parts of Britannia between 43 to 410 C.E. (Common Era). The Roman Empire spanned across multiple territories and countries and was itself multi-racial.
Therefore, it should come to no surprise that, in their occupation of Britain, Afro-Roman soldiers were present.
Peter Fryer explored this in his book Staying Power (1984). He states that there was a ‘division of Moors’ among the troops defending Hadrian’s Wall in the third century C.E. The division was found listed in an official Roman register.
The earliest reference to this unit found in primary sources dates c.253-258 C.E.
Ivory Bangle Lady:
The Ivory Bangle Lady’s remains were found in 1901 in York. Her grave left remnants that confirmed her immense wealth: a stone sarcophagus (a symbol of wealth), jewellery, bone with inscriptions on and, where she gets her name, an ivory bangle.
Through scientific analysis and techniques, scientists have established that it is likely she originated from North Africa and was black or of mixed race.
Tudor England (1485 – 1603 C.E.):
The most notable black Tudor was John Blanke. John Blanke was a black musician, a trumpeter. He was employed in the service of Henry VII and Henry VIII.
Blanke is depicted in a surviving painted roll showing The 1511 Westminster Tournament.
It depicts a black trumpeter mounted on a grey horse, among other white companions – all in uniform and with trumpets.
There are records of John Blanke petitioning to Henry VIII over the fact he is not being paid enough in comparison to his colleagues.
John wanted his wage doubled, and he achieved just that. Henry VIII’s signature can be found on John Blanke’s petition.
There are other records depicting Africans in Britain across the 1500s too.
The 18th century:
The 18th century was a time with a lot of prominent black abolitionists, political radicals, and little known black figures in Britain. Figures you can research include Mary Prince, Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Robert Wedderburn, William Cuffay, Julius Soubise, and Francis Barber.
The 19th century:
Similarly, in the 19th century, there are lots of black figures in Britain whose stories we do not learn. Some you can research include Pablo Fanque, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Sara Forbes Bonetta, George Bridgetower, and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw among more.
1919 Race Riots:
1919 ‘race’ riots occurred in many seaport areas such as Cardiff, Liverpool, Salford, London among more. Seaports were often hubs of minority ethnic communities who worked on the ships or docks. Five people were killed, many injured and 250 people arrested.
Charles Wootton, a 24-year-old black sailor, was a victim of these riots. He did not take part in the riots yet was chased down by a mob and murdered. No one was ever convicted for his murder.
The riots saw crowds of white working-class people target minority ethnic groups. By 1919, Britain was feeling the impact of the war; unemployment was rife, and tensions began to rise over jobs.
A lot of the blame was also placed on ‘racial mixing’, which was looked down upon and caused tension.
The result was sporadic, violent riots throughout the year in various port towns.
The Government blamed black and Asian workers, and their ‘solution’ was to increase repatriation – the coerced return of black sailors to the Caribbean.
Erasure from the World Wars:
First World War
Black soldiers’ part in the First World War has been written out of history.
In WWI, over 4 million non-European and non-white soldiers participated.
This included around 1.3 million Indian soldiers, 400k African-American G.Is, more than 2 million soldiers from French colonies in African and Indo-China, black Caribbean soldiers and 100, 000 Chinese labourers.
Many of whom were not included in the victory celebrations. They were told it would be too expensive to bring over all the foreign soldiers, but it ran deeper than this. It was about maintaining the racial hierarchy of the British Empire.
Second World War
Similarly, many soldiers that fought in the Second World War have been forgotten. Over 10,000 men and women from the Caribbean participated in the Second World War. They had an equal desire to protect the place they saw as the ‘motherland.’
They contributed along with just under 1.5 million Indian soldiers and soldiers from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, among other countries part of the British empire.
These 10,000 Caribbean’s were among many who returned to Britain after the war. Those presented as newcomers, those who many wanted to deter – it wasn’t their first time in Britain, they had been there in the war years fighting for the country as much as the next soldier.
So, what does this show?
Black history has been part of British history long before the beginning of mass migration in post-war decades.
Acknowledging the diversity of the past and histories outside of the spotlight does not negate other histories.
Denying this history is denying the forces at play throughout British history that has led to the country we see today.
‘We are here because you were there.’ – Ambalavaner Sivanandan.
Books I recommend you read:
- Staying Power by Peter Fryer: An essential piece of work on black British history. It was pioneering; the first to compile such breadth of black British history.
- Black people in the British Empire by Peter Fryer: It covers a neglected part of black British history; the histories of the countries within the British Empire.
- Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann: The book focuses on the individual stories of 10 Africans who lived in sixteenth-century England. It is a reassessment of our national story.
- Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England by Onyeka Nubia: This book covers Africans in England, it explores their roles, occupation, skills, and status in Tudor England.
- Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga: A comprehensive exploration and analysis of black British history since Roman Britain. It reveals that the long relationship between the British Isles and those living in Africa and the Caribbean, and it shows that black British history is woven into British history long before most people think. This book has recently been adapted into a children’s version too – to make this history more accessible to everyone.
- African Europeans: An Untold History by Olivette Otele: The book looks at the forgotten past about Africans living in Europe; a history spanning back longer than is widely believed.
Videos I recommend you watch:
- Alt History on BBC iPlayer: Covers short stories of history you don’t learn in school.
- Akala x Black British History on YouTube: Similarly covers an overview of books you can read, people you can research, and aspects of black British history you don’t learn if you don’t look for it.
- Black and British: A documentary adaption of David Olusoga’s book.
KLTV Productions on Black History: