INTRODUCTION

‘Years of Distant Wandering’

About twenty miles upriver from Freetown, the hilly capital of Sierra Leone, is a small oval-shaped island which from a distance looks no different to any of the other small, oval-shaped islands that are irregularly dotted along the Sierra Leone River. When viewed from the water little can be seen of Bunce Island, covered as it is by a dense canopy of trees.* The shoreline is a narrow strip of coarse dark-orange sand, strewn with grey rocks, and it is only when approaching the island that any man-made structures become visible. Two small jetties, only a few metres apart, project from the western shore. One is made of concrete blocks, the other of square-cut blocks of local stone, blackened, barnacled and ancient, while on the northern tip of the island, standing at the crest of a low hill, are the ruins of a large and substantial structure, clearly visible from the shoreline despite the thick undergrowth.

That structure was built there because for a century and a half Bunce Island’s location made it a perfect meeting place. The island is situated close enough to the mouth of the Sierra Leone River for the channel to still be deep enough for ocean-going ships to navigate, but is far enough upstream for the island to be easily accessible by small river craft. As Bunce also sits near the confluence with the Rokel River, it can be reached by river traffic from across a wide hinterland. This position, and the island’s natural defensive qualities, made it the ideal location in the seventeenth century for English traders to establish a slave fortress. Three and a half centuries after it was built the ruins of the citadel remain impressive. Attacked and destroyed on six different occasions – four times by the French (1695, 1704, 1779, and 1794) and twice by pirates (1719, 1720) – the ruins are the remains of the seventh Bunce Island fortress. This litany of destruction and reconstruction is testimony to the importance of the island to the British and evidence of the outrageous profits generated by the trade in enslaved Africans.

The trees of Bunce Island, and the thick vegetation beneath them, make it difficult to imagine what the fortress looked like during its heyday. Believing that malaria was caused by miasmas that emanated from vegetation, rather than by mosquitoes, the European agents who ran commercial operations at Bunce Island had the undergrowth cut back regularly and saplings hacked down. In their day the island was a largely open space over which the great outer walls of the fortress loomed formidably. There was ‘little else but iron, rock & gravel’, claimed a 1773 visitor to the island.1The first fortress was built by the British around 1670. It was what in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was called a slave factory, and was one of around forty slave-trading outposts constructed along the coast of West Africa, most of them on islands in the mouths of rivers, or on promontories jutting out to sea. More than some comparable fortresses Bunce operated like a factory in the industrial sense. It was, in a way, a proto-industrial production line, along which captive Africans were bought and sold, sorted, processed, warehoused and literally branded – marking them out as human commodities, at least in the eyes of their captors. These processes were part of an organized and globalized system designed to turn captive Africans into New World slaves, a process that was completed – for those who survived the Atlantic crossing – on the plantations of the Americas during the ‘seasoning’, a brutal period of punishments, beatings, cultural deracination and instruction designed to break the spirit.

The ‘production line’ at Bunce Island moved from east to west. African captives arrived on a beach on the eastern side of the island. They were landed there by inland slave-traders who had brought them on river canoes. Some of these traders were Africans, others were from mixed-race Afro-Portuguese or Afro-English peoples, powerful coastal communities that were the offspring of European slave-traders and local women. By the time the captives arrived on the ‘slave beach’ they were already profoundly traumatized. Most had been seized in slave raids against their home villages. These typically took place in the early hours of the morning in order to capture people at their most disorientated. The old and very young, whose economic value was negligible and who might slow down the caravan, were murdered in front of their relatives. These killings were intended to shock those taken captive into meek submission. So effective was this tactic that European slave-traders on Bunce Island and elsewhere complained that the captives arrived in a stupor, a condition that was called ‘the lethargy’, but which modern psychologists would recognize as PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. From the slave beach the silent, sullen captives were marched up a short pathway to the Sorting Yard, an open area located directly in front of the main defensive walls of the fortress, not far from the main gate.

This clearing was where the buying and selling was done. Here the slave-traders displayed their wares – captive human beings, but also ivory, gold and camwood, from which a coloured dye was extracted. The British agents came out to meet their trading partners, bringing with them bottles of wine and rum to help lubricate the coming negotiations. In exchange for slaves and other valuable commodities the British offered glass beads, bundles of cloth, gunpowder, European metal goods, tobacco pipes, bottles of liquor and European weapons. Until a few years ago the ground of the Sorting Yard was littered with tiny glass beads and fragments of pottery that had been dropped and discarded by both buyers and sellers centuries earlier. Most of these grim souvenirs have been hoovered up by tourists who travel out to Bunce Island from Freetown, but many more relics of the trade lie beneath the soil, along with iron nails used to attach shackles and chains to African arms and legs, and broken wine bottles. It was in the Sorting Yard, during the early decades of Bunce Island’s history, that the captives, once purchased, were branded with hot irons, and marked indelibly with the initials of the companies that now owned them.

When negotiations were over and sales concluded, the river canoes were loaded up with their newly acquired goods and paddled away. The captives who had been rejected by the agents were taken downstream and offered to rival traders; Bunce Island’s location meant that its agents had first pick of the tens of thousands of Africans who were shipped down the Sierra Leone River during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The non-human commodities bought by the traders were deposited in a large storeroom and the captives were brought up through the main gate and into the fortress itself. In a large and open space, in front of the agents’ house where the Europeans lived, the men were separated from the women and children, tearing families apart, and all were marched off to special holding yards. Accessed through secure double doors, these yards were large open spaces behind walls more than three metres high. Inside were simple wooden shelters. As the slaves were now the property of the companies for whom the agents worked, it was in their economic interests to protect them from the elements. The agents understood that the longer slaves were warehoused in the holding yards the more of them became sick and died, lowering profits. They also knew that once the initial trauma of their capture subsided there was a greater risk that they might recover and combine in violent resistance. Yet the duration of their stay depended upon the arrival of slave ships seeking to make purchases.

The northern wall of the men’s holding yard was also the outer wall of the agents’ house. It was by all accounts a two-storey building in which the agents attempted an approximation of a genteel existence. One visitor described it as being of a ‘respectable and formidable appearance . . . about one hundred feet in length, and thirty in breadth, and contains nine rooms, on one floor, under which are commodious large cellars and store rooms’.2 The front had a full-length veranda and the main entrance was an arched doorway that opened up into a hallway in which had been built a fireplace. In a country in which temperatures almost never drop below 20 °C this was a purely decorative flourish. The faux gentility of the agents’ house was undermined by the fact that the windows of the room in which they and their guests dined and drank looked directly into the men’s holding yard. Today the ruins of this strange villa, far higher than the other structures on the island, look like they could come crashing down at any moment. Fallen bricks and lumps of local stone litter the ground and there are sections of wall that remain upright more out of habit than structural integrity.

The holding yard in which the women and children were imprisoned lies to the south of the men’s yard and is much smaller, a reflection of the fact that the majority of the captives were men as they attracted higher prices in the slave markets of the Americas. Built into the western-facing wall of the women’s holding yard is a small structure. The remains are held together by a row of three trees. Tall and thin, their finger-like roots have colonized the stonework, but the door that once opened out into the holding yard can still be passed through, and on each side of it are two small square windows. The room inside is only a few square metres in size. No similar structure was built in the men’s holding yard. On the right-hand side of the door, when entered from the women’s holding yard, there was, it appears, a rudimentary bathroom and to the left some sort of chamber. The historians and archaeologists who have explored Bunce Island have speculated over what its function might have been. The appalling conclusion that some of them have reached is that it was what Miss Isatu Smith, the formidable Director of the Sierra Leonean Monuments and Relics Committee, calls the ‘rape house’ of Bunce Island. It was one grim feature in a section of the fortress dedicated to ‘recreation’. Behind the ‘rape house’ was an orchard which, as one late-eighteenth-century visitor to the island tells us, was planted with orange trees. This little heaven, just metres from where slave women were assaulted, was where the agents met to relax and drink. The island is strewn with broken eighteenth-century wine bottles, and written accounts of life on the island describe sumptuous dinners and heavy drinking. The agents were able to enjoy their drinks chilled as this most luxurious of slave fortresses had its own ice store. Henry Smeathman, a British botanist, whom we shall meet again in later chapters, came to Bunce Island in the 1770s. The account he left us speaks more about recreation than any other subject. While on the island as a guest of the slave agents, Smeathman spent a day playing golf on the island’s two-hole golf course, the first ever built on the African continent. The players wore white cotton and were accompanied by African caddies clad in tartan loincloths made from woollen cloth imported from Glasgow. After a day’s golf Smeathman joined the slave-traders for a game of backgammon, then it was time for dinner. This consisted of antelope, wild boar, river fish and ape.3 The feast was accompanied by Madeira wine and Virginia tobacco. Another guest of the agents, who came to the island in 1791, described spending a ‘day in comfort and pleasantry, under the hospitable roof of Bance Island house’ and on several occasions noted how much drinking went on there.4

In the final hours of their captivity on Bunce Island the Africans were marched out of the holding yards, through the main gates and down a stone pathway towards the jetty. Without knowing it they were already heading westwards in the direction of the Americas, where those who survived the Middle Passage were to spend the rest of their lives. On their way to the water’s edge, on a bend in the pathway, it appears that a blacksmith was stationed. There shackles were fixed to the legs of the ‘slaves’ – as they now unquestionably were. At the jetty they were loaded into small boats and ferried out to the ocean-going slave ships assembled in the deeper waters of the river channel. The whole operation was carried out under the gaze of a huge cannon. It is still there, blackened and encrusted to the stonework of the jetty. It was on those stone blocks that between thirty and fifty thousand Africans took their last step on the continent of their birth.

In 1808, when the slave trade was abandoned, Bunce Island’s location, which had been so important and so advantageous for so many years, became a liability. The centre of British activity in Sierra Leone shifted to Freetown at the mouth of the river and although the British colonial authorities were reluctant to abandon the collection of expensive and extensive buildings, no long-term use for them could be found. The fortress was briefly converted into a barracks and training ground for locally recruited African regiments, and after that became a sawmill, where valuable African teak wood was cut and planed for use in ship-building. But in the early 1840s, with the main fortifications and the walls of the agents’ house already crumbling into disrepair, the whole island was abandoned. The vegetation that had been for so long tamed now rioted across the holding yards; great trees pushed their roots into the foundations and vines and creepers spread their tendrils across the old walls.

As the island now had no economic raison d’être there was no reason to visit and few people did. Slowly consumed and concealed by the trees, the fortress was forgotten. Generations later the rumour emerged that the ruins were of a Portuguese slave factory – as the Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive on the Guinea Coast anything conspicuously old in Sierra Leone tended to be described as Portuguese. When, in the 1970s, American archaeologists arrived on Bunce Island they were able to instantly establish the true nationality of the ruins. On the battlements that defended the northern and western edges of the fortress they came across several abandoned cannon on which, beneath the symbol of a crown, were initials ‘G R’ – George Rex, the cipher of the British King George III.5

The most dedicated of archaeologists who have worked on Bunce Island is Joseph Opala. He once described the island as the ‘Pompeii’ of the Atlantic slave trade. Opala linked Bunce Island to the history of the United States in a way that was both remarkable and unique. It regarded the story of the Gullah people, sometimes called the Geechee. These African American communities were formed in isolated coastal settlements in South Carolina and Georgia. Thanks to genealogical research and well-preserved records of the transportation and sale of enslaved Africans in that part of colonial North America, members of the Gullah communities are among the tiny number of African Americans who can know with some certainty which parts of Africa their ancestors came from. A handful have even been able to trace the names of their ancestors.6 Many were people who had been sold to the owners of rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia from the infamous slave market at Charleston in South Carolina, to which the ships that left the jetty at Bunce Island regularly travelled. After the abolition of American slavery in the 1860s, the Gullah were largely left to their own devices and were able to preserve aspects of their original African languages and cultures. When historians and archaeologists like Joseph Opala began to trace the lineage of these communities, the branches of their family trees led, time and again, to Bunce Island.

Since 1989 Bunce Island has witnessed several Gullah ‘homecomings’, in which members of Gullah families from South Carolina and Georgia travelled to Sierra Leone and visited the slave fortress. These visits have been raw, emotional and visceral – as well as unique. During the 1989 homecoming some Gullah people reported being so overcome they said they could ‘see’, not merely ‘feel’, their ancestors when they entered the holding yards. Most of the people who travel upriver to Bunce Island today are from the United States. Despite interruptions caused by Sierra Leone’s disastrous civil war of the 1990s and more recently by the 2015 Ebola epidemic, Bunce Island has become a place of pilgrimage for African Americans. Some visitors have carved their names, the names of their home towns or simply the word ‘Gullah’ into the bark of the trees that have grown up around the former agents’ house.

Most people who come to Bunce Island, even those with no family connection, find it an eerie and disturbing place. A few years ago a caretaker was hired to maintain the ruins, and a concrete house was built for him on the island. He found himself unable to be alone on Bunce Island at night, and took to leaving each evening and commuting to work by boat. As dusk falls and the trees begin to cast long shadows over the walls of the holding yards and the ‘rape house’, the urge to get on a boat and leave Bunce Island is almost irresistible. Too much has happened here for this island ever to be inhabited again, even by a solitary caretaker.

If the ghosts of the slaves perhaps linger on Bunce Island then they are not alone. The presence of the agents and the slave-traders is just as strongly imprinted. Many of what look like rocks on the beaches are in fact the heavy, concave bases of eighteenth-century wine bottles. The glass is a dark brown, its surface opaque having been ground down by two centuries of daily tides and ceaseless currents. They are in their greatest abundance on the far northern tip, directly under the fortifications, in front of the agents’ house. There it is possible to pick up the remnants of a bottle that was, perhaps, thrown into the sea two centuries earlier, by a man who traded in enslaved human beings.

Bunce Island has been dramatically rediscovered. It is studied by historians, examined by archaeologists and now sacred to the Gullah people. But, at the very moment of its exhumation, it is at terrible risk. The tides and currents of the Sierra Leone River that thousands of years ago created Bunce Island are slowly destroying it. The island is being eroded away, year by year. In 2008 the fortress was placed on the World Monuments Fund’s list of the world’s ‘100 Most Endangered Sites’. It is almost as if the Sierra Leone River, a waterway on which so many thousands of Africans were transported into slavery, is trying to wipe Bunce Island off the map and wash away its own dark past. As the river eats away at its foundations, the trees continue their long offensive against the stonework. Great cracks have wrenched apart whole sections of the main defensive walls; doorways and windows are being held up only by temporary wooden supports. Sierra Leone’s Monuments and Relics Commission is energetically gathering funds and securing partnership to save Bunce Island, and if that money is found it seems probable that much of it will come from the United States.

Each year more African Americans learn of Bunce Island, and more arrive to commune with their ancestors. When, in 1992, General Colin Powell visited the island he stated that there he came to see himself as an African as well as an American. ‘I feel my roots here in this continent,’ he told his hosts. More recently a team from the US National Park Service have carried out a survey of the island and generated a 3D model of the fortress. There have been books written and documentaries filmed about the island, and about what is known as the Gullah Connection. Bunce Island has come to be regarded as the most significant site on the African continent for the study of African American history. Yet, through all the stages of its bleak history, Bunce Island was linked umbilically to another island three thousand miles to the north.

All four of the companies that managed the fortress were British. The money made there flowed back to British investors. Even the bricks that were used to build the walls of the fortress were fired in Britain and carried to Africa in the bellies of British slave ships as ballast. Most of the men whose bones lie crumbling in the European graveyard were British-born and most of the ships that dropped anchor off Bunce Island, firing their cannon in a seven-gun salute to the agents in the fortress, had set sail from British cities: Bristol, Liverpool and London. Other ships arrived from ports in Britain’s North American colonies.

Bunce Island, hidden for so many years behind a screen of trees, is an extreme example of a wider phenomenon. The history of Britain’s long, complex and traumatic relationship with Africa and her peoples has been and remains largely obscured. The most difficult chapters in that history, those that record the age of slavery, were largely expunged after the 1830s. When the moral climate changed and slavery was abolished, the families and dynasties who had grown wealthy from it airbrushed it out of their family histories. Likewise the worst crimes of the age of empire, of which Africans were not the only victims, are little discussed, as the empire itself has become reduced to little more than images of explorers in pith helmets, romantic ideas of railways and the Raj and some vague notions of the spread of English values and language. But there is more to it. This is not simply a case of historical amnesia. The parts of British history in which black people were active participants, as well as those in which they were the exploited victims, have been erased and the story of the black presence in Britain remains obscure and even disputed despite more than fifty years of archival discovery and historical scholarship. In the 1990s the African American historian Gretchen Gerzina was informed by an assistant in a London bookshop that there ‘were no black people in England before 1945’.7 Around the same time a correspondent writing to the Independent newspaper complained of ‘20th-century multi-culturalists’ who ‘invent a spurious history for black settlement in Britain before the Fifties and Sixties.’8 The denial and avowal of black British history, even in the face of mounting documentary and archaeological evidence, is not just a consequence of racism but a feature of racism.

On St George’s Day 1961 a man who is to play a significant role in our story gave a speech that never attained the notoriety of one of his later sermons.9 Seven years, almost to the day, before his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, the Conservative MP Enoch Powell, the former Health Minister, gave a lecture to the members of the Royal Society of St George. Formed in the 1890s and dedicated to the promotion of English history and traditions, the society still exists today and every British monarch since Queen Victoria has accepted the role of patron. Speaking a little over a year after Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech, Powell’s subject was the loss of empire and what it meant for Britain, though it was England rather than Britain that really interested him. In his own contrarian way Enoch Powell had once been an enthusiastic advocate of the British Empire. But by 1961 the Wind of Change had blown much of it away. India was gone and in Africa Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan had followed. By the end of the year Tanganyika had become a nation rather than a colonial ‘Territory’ and British Cameroon and French Cameroon had been amalgamated to create the independent Republic of Cameroon. Even as Powell was delivering his speech, Queen Elizabeth II was on board the royal yacht travelling to Sierra Leone. Five days later she was in Freetown to witness the lowering of the Union flag and the birth of the Republic of Sierra Leone, marking the end of the Sierra Leone Protectorate, the territory that had been Britain’s very first West African colony.

In a remarkable speech that has been largely forgotten, Enoch Powell asked what all this meant for Britain. He began by making a startling claim. He suggested that the British Empire had been unique in a way that few commentators had noted. ‘There was this deep, this providential difference between our empire and those others’, he suggested. What was special was ‘that the nationhood of the mother country’ had, according to him, ‘remained unaltered through it all, almost unconscious of the strange fantastic structure built around her’. Despite having assembled the greatest empire the world had ever known, Britain had somehow remained, in Powell’s word, ‘uninvolved’ in the whole enterprise.10 During the colonial period a ‘brief conjunction of cheap and invincible sea power with industrial potential’ had allowed much of the world to be brought ‘under the spell of England’.11 But the experience had not been reciprocal. The conquered territories had not cast any similar spell over the English, and the deep, inner core of the English character and essential nature of England’s national institutions had passed through four centuries of empire-building largely unchanged and unaffected.

To England, the empire had been a dream from which the nation was only now, in the post-war era, awakening. At this historic juncture, with the colonies breaking away one by one and at a disconcerting rate, England had the opportunity to rediscover her true, inner self; ‘our generation’, Powell claimed, ‘is one which comes home again from years of distant wandering. We discover affinities with earlier generations of English who felt no country but this to be their own.’12 Awoken from the colonial dream and home once again, the English could now commune with their distant ancestors and perhaps even revert to being the people they had been before the ships of Elizabethan and Stuart England had set off to forge the foundations of the first British Empire in the Americas and on the shores of Africa. In his most romantic passage Powell said, ‘backward travels our gaze, beyond the grenadiers and the philosophers of the eighteenth century, beyond the pikemen and the preachers of the seventeenth, back through the brash adventurous days of the first Elizabeth and the hard materialism of the Tudors and there at last we find them [our English ancestors].’

Powell spoke in beautiful, elegiac prose that conjured up evocative myths of Britishness, continuity and belonging and did so with as much lyricism and eloquence as any of the famous speeches of Winston Churchill; although even Powell’s most thorough biographer concedes that it was a moment in which ‘the romantic took over’.13 To thousands of colonial administrators, soldiers and their families, who were returning from former colonies and arriving ‘home’ to a Britain they hardly knew, it was stirring stuff; a deeply emotional appeal to romantic ethnic nationalism. But it was also a vision of England that did not match the realities of the nation as it was in the early 1960s, and a vision that required much of the history of the past four hundred years to be set aside.

At the heart of Powell’s theory was the idea that despite having been for so long an imperial power, in the case of England, ‘the continuity of her existence was unbroken’. This continuity had been preserved by Britain’s unique and uniquely ancient institutions: the law, the monarchy and particularly Parliament. These great constants had forged what he called the ‘homogeneity of England’, which he believed had survived the Age of Empire essentially unaltered. This sense of continuity was sacred to Powell and he believed that in the post-colonial moment, as the ‘looser connections which had linked her with distant continents and strange races fell away’, it was essential to the forging of a new post-imperial nation.

By the early 1960s Powell’s gaze had resolutely turned inwards, towards his ideas of English ‘continuity’ and ‘homogeneity’. Powell was not one of those Conservatives who nursed delusions that the Wind of Change might abate, or that any significant scraps of the empire could be retained. While there were some in his nation and in his party who reconciled themselves to the loss of empire by boasting that Britain had introduced her ancient institutions to previously backward peoples, bestowing them as wondrous gifts, Powell spoke of the need for a ‘clean break’ from the colonial past. He regarded the invention of the Commonwealth as an institution that complicated and delayed the severing of links between the former colonizer and formerly colonized that was urgently necessary.

In a section of the speech heavy with allusions to classical antiquity – as was Powell’s habit – he compared the English, as they abandoned their colonies and returned to their home islands, to the people of Athens who returned to their city in the fifth century BC after it had been sacked by the Persians. There they supposedly found, within the city, ‘alive and flourishing in the midst of the blackened ruins, the sacred olive tree, the native symbol of their country’. ‘So we today,’ said Powell, ‘at the heart of a vanished empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory, seem to find, like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap still rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring, England herself.’

Among the many problems with this analogy was that in post-war, post-colonial Britain – as opposed to fifth-century Athens – not all of the ‘Persians’ had gone home. The ‘strange races’ from ‘distant continents’ who had been drawn into Britain’s empire over the preceding four centuries did not ‘fall away’. Powell’s St George’s Day speech was delivered near the peak of Caribbean migration to Britain. Around sixty thousand Caribbean immigrants arrived in Britain that year and these newest arrivals joined the estimated two hundred thousand already here. By the end of the decade that community would number more than half a million.14 While these waves of post-war migration were unprecedented in scale, they were not an historical aberration. At the end of the previous war there had been around twenty thousand black people in Britain. Before that Britain had been home to small communities of black Edwardians, black Victorians and a larger population of black Georgians. There had been black Stuarts and black Tudors and in the 1960s, across the Americas and the Caribbean, lived millions of people of African descent whose ancestors had been transplanted into the New World from their home continent by British traders. In the middle of the twentieth century, X million Africans spoke English and twenty-three of the independent nations that were to emerge on that continent from the ruins of the British Empire chose English as their official national language. The economic, commercial, linguistic, cultural and familial links between Britain, Africa and the West Indies that had been forged over four centuries did not simply ‘fall away’. But the existence of these interconnections, and the presence in Britain of thousands of black people who claimed British citizenship, like the existence of a similar Asian community, was profoundly at odds with Powell’s vision of a return to some pre-colonial England of village churches and Norman architecture.

Black Britons were to Powell and those like him a constant reminder of the lost empire and the connections and interconnections that had made Britain powerful. But more than that they profoundly undermined another idea that was sacred to Powell; that whiteness and Britishness were interchangeable, and always had been.15 The idea, already current in the early 1960s, that the nation should change, adapt to the presence of black and brown Britons, denounce racism and pass anti-discrimination laws, was counter to Powell’s conception of England. These ethnic outsiders, as he saw them, should not be accommodated but marginalized and ideally expelled; he called it ‘re-emigration’, and described them as the ‘immigrant-descended population’. If this was not possible then a new definition of Britishness and British citizenship had to be established, one that viewed Britishness in racial terms, something that English law had rarely done. With the exception of a couple of minor inter-war ordinances, the English common law had – in letter if not always in practice – been colour-blind. In one of his most emphatic and disturbing statements, made late in 1968 and several months after he had predicted that ‘rivers of blood’ would flow in British streets, Powell dismissed utterly the concept of integration and rejected the notion that it was ever possible for a non-white person born in Britain to become British in a true or meaningful sense. ‘The West Indian or Indian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still . . . he will by the very nature of things lose one nationality without acquiring a new one. Time is running against us and them.’16

Powell’s vision of a Britain purged of the empire, freed from the past and re-energized by a new national and racial self-consciousness was a fantasy and a dangerous one. In order to save the imagined homogeneity and continuity of England, the non-white Britons who had emigrated from what was then called the ‘New Commonwealth’ had to be treated differently, denied full British citizenship and ideally expelled. It was a strain of what has been called ‘insular and defensive racism’.17 A less confident credo than the racism of the high imperial period, but one that disfigured the lives of thousands of black and Asian Britons. Ultimately these beliefs led Powell throughout the 1960s and 1970s to ratchet up his rhetoric, which led ultimately to his predictions of ‘rivers of blood’ and ‘civil war’.

Enoch Powell is remembered as the man who signed the political warrant for the racial prejudice and wave of racial violence that were unleashed against Britain’s post-war black and Asian populations. What is less well remembered is that what became known as ‘Powellism’ was also a call – made by a scholar of the classical past – for the denial and disavowal of parts of four hundred years of history. The loss of the empire, in Powell’s view, made jettisoning imperial history necessary, as only through this amputation could his vision of England as an ethnic and racial state be realized and continuity with the past ensured. Counter-intuitively it was only by turning their back on English history could the English save themselves. Yet the history that was to be jettisoned was the very history that explained where the ‘immigrant-descended population’ had come from, who they were, what they had been through and why they were here. When in later decades the Jamaican-born British intellectual Stuart Hall explained to his British readers that the immigrants ‘are here because you were there’, he was seeking to remake the connections that Powell and others had sought to break. There had been and still existed what Professor Hall called ‘an umbilical connection’ between Britain and the empire, and there could be ‘no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions’.18

Whatever else can be said about him, Enoch Powell was certainly a man who knew his history. Consequently he understood just how far backwards our collective gaze had to be directed in order to fall upon the sort of England he was looking for. But the further back that journey took him the more preposterous became his notion that people of mid-twentieth-century Britain could commune with ancestors so distant. Furthermore, each phase of the British past through which Powell asked his St George’s Day audience to time-travel had the effect of reinforcing the opposite view – that the Age of Empire had been so significant and so transformative that it could not simply be excised from memory or the national story. In each of those epochs Britain’s relationship with the outside world had expanded and deepened. And throughout the four imperial centuries, whose memory Powell now regarded as toxic, Africa and her people had been part of the British experience and imagination.

To take what Powell described as ‘the brash adventurous days of the first Elizabeth’, this was an age in which the Elizabethan imagination was fired by the idea of Africa, her supposed youth, her potential wealth and the gold that for centuries had trickled across the Sahara. But Africa’s people too were a fascination. In those Tudor years, some of them – both North Africans and people from the regions below the Sahara – appeared in the midst of Elizabeth’s subjects. In the same years some of the ships on which England’s brash adventurers set sail headed for the coasts of Guinea and Sierra Leone, where they traded in gold, pepper, ivory and captured slaves. In 1590, one hundred and thirty-five Africans were brought to Bristol aboard a single English privateering ship. But England’s explosion onto the stage of global power politics did not just lead to the arrival and settlement of Africans in England; some of these Africans became themselves players and pawns within that Age of Discovery.

There were black men on the English ships that encountered new peoples and new lands. Sir Francis Drake’s mission to circumnavigate the globe in 1577 was achieved with a crew that was what we today would call inter-racial. Drake was – in fits and starts – a slave-trader, inspired by his cousin Sir John Hawkins, the infamous pioneer of the English trade. But in a way we find difficult to relate to he was capable of enslaving black people while seeing other black men as his comrades-in-arms. Among Drake’s crew in 1577 were four Africans. In an earlier expedition to Panama, Drake had formed an alliance with the ‘Cimaroons’, mixed-race Africans who had escaped from the Spanish and intermarried with local peoples. Their local knowledge was invaluable and helped ‘El Draco’ capture a fleet of Spanish ships carrying silver back to Spain. A few of the Cimaroons chose to join Drake and return with him to England as part of the crew; one of them was named Diego. As is the case repeatedly throughout our story, moments like this in which African people and white Englishmen found common cause are interspersed with more tragic events. Diego died during the circumnavigation and another of the Cimaroons, a woman, was abandoned on an Indonesian island mid-voyage, while heavily pregnant.19 While Drake was at sea, Queen Elizabeth herself was seeking to cultivate relationships with Africa. Seeking allies against Spain she entered into correspondence and traded arms with the Moroccan leader Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur. In all sorts of ways relationships with Africa and Africans appeared critical to England’s survival in her existential struggle against the Catholic superpower that was Spain under Philip II.

Drake’s alliance with black former slaves, who became ‘black Englishmen’ of sorts, and England’s ambitions in the Atlantic world are perhaps hinted at in the ‘Drake Jewel’, which was presented to him by Queen Elizabeth in 1588. It shows the head of a black African man, carved in ivory and superimposed over that of a white European woman. Inside is a miniature of Queen Elizabeth herself. Although the jewel had many meanings it shows how the black African, perhaps in this case a black emperor, had become part of the visual culture of the age, a figure in the English imagination.20 Drake is depicted in his most famous portrait wearing the jewel. In that image he stands beside a globe, on which the continent of Africa has been turned to face the viewer, indicating perhaps the focus of future English ambitions. Without understanding the presence and the impact of people of African descent it is impossible to fully understand the character and mindset of the Elizabethan age. Africa and her people were not only the focus of enormous excitement and curiosity, the continent came to represent a sense of limitless possibility and perhaps destiny to that expansive, mercantile, piratical, heretical England, as it exploded across the oceans during the reign of the Virgin Queen. The black face on the Drake Jewel was in that sense a perfect symbol of the age.

Even when Enoch Powell’s gaze had taken him all the way back to his lost England, his imagined pre-colonial ‘year zero’, the isolation he sought could not be found. Sixty years before Powell spoke, a number of skeletons had been discovered near Sycamore Terrace, a nondescript street in Bootham, near York – one of Britain’s most ancient settlements. As Powell gave his lecture, peppered as it was with references to classical antiquity, those skeletons were lying in anonymous storage. In 1961 the stamp of their racial origin was invisible to the archaeologists but modern isotope testing reveals to us in the early twenty-first century that some of these citizens of Roman Britain were mixed-race people of African heritage, whose families had come from the warm southern limits of that intercontinental empire. Among them was the now famed Ivory Bangle Lady.

Enoch Powell was right, there is some continuity in British history, but it is in large part the continuity of contact, globalism, empire, interaction, migration, alliance-building, travel, exploration, exploitation, slavery, trade and intermarriage. This is not to deny that the era through which he lived, the post-war age, was one in which the levels of immigration and integration were unprecedented, but the England he cast his gaze backwards to find had never truly existed.

Powell’s appeal to an imagined past was only possible because when he gave his speech in the early 1960s two distinct processes of historical forgetting had largely removed black people from the ‘island story’ version of British history. In the first of those processes the chapters of British history in which the fates, status and humanity of black people had been critical and central – those dealing with British slavery and empire in Africa – had been marginalized and quarantined into historical specialisms. In the second process the story of the long presence of black people within Britain itself had been rendered almost invisible.

The most effective and remarkable of these had been the almost surgical excision of slavery and the slave trade from the histories of Britain of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here geography, coupled with a strong urge to focus on abolition rather than slavery, had made the process easier. The cotton plantations of the American South existed on the soil of the United States itself; British slavery took place an ocean away on the islands of the Caribbean or the plantations of the North American colonies. As a result even today many people in Britain have a more vivid image of American slavery than they do of life as it was for enslaved Africans on the British plantations of the Caribbean. Slavery for them conjures up images of cotton fields and whitewashed plantation houses at the end of long avenues of tall trees – the imagery of RootsGone With the Wind and 12 Years a Slave. Fewer people find their mind’s eye drawn to images of the semi-industrial process of sugar cultivation in Jamaica, Guyana or Barbados in the eighteenth century, and fewer still think of the British slave fortresses like Bunce Island through which the Africans who worked those plantations were channelled.

The second process cannot, of course, be explained by geographic distance. That process concealed not only the reality that black people were not only continually present in Britain from the sixteenth century onwards but also the fact that they played a role in many of the pivotal moments of British history. The black history of Britain and the biographies of notable black Britons run through mainstream British history like a rich but underworked seam. At times it is close to the surface, at others deeply buried. Black history is everywhere but repeatedly and often intentionally it has been misfiled, recategorized or sidelined. At times black British history is hidden in plain view.

At the very centre of our capital city stands one of the most sympathetic, humane and heroic depictions of a black Briton. The memorial in question is situated on a London intersection from which can be seen the Houses of Parliament, the Cenotaph, the National Gallery, Admiralty Arch and Buckingham Palace which is just visible through the trees at the end of the Mall. Yet the black Briton represented in this famous work of public art is almost entirely unknown and rarely commented upon, despite having been on public display for well over one and a half centuries. He can be found within one of the great brass reliefs that adorn the base of Nelson’s column, four huge panels of bronze that were forged from captured French cannon. The south-facing relief is entitled The Death of Nelson. It freeze-frames the moment just after Nelson has been struck down by a French sniper. The admiral lies mortally wounded in the arms of his men and fellow officers. To the left of them stands a black sailor holding a musket. His head is tilted upwards as he scans the rigging of the enemy ships. The man’s features are unmistakably and unambiguously African. Not only was this black seaman included in the relief, which was cast thirty-five years after the battle, he was both acknowledged and celebrated. When the reliefs were unveiled one contemporary reviewer was particularly drawn to what he called ‘the figure of the negro’, whom he described as ‘a perfect work of art, full of character – the distended nostrils, strained eye-balls, and the firm manner in which the gun he has is clasped in his hand, clearly tell the emotions which might be supposed to occupy the mind under such circumstances’.21 There was no suggestion in this effusive review, written near the high-water mark of British anti-slavery sentiment, that the mind of this black sailor might be inferior to that of his white comrades, or that the emotions that surged in his heart during the heat of battle might be less noble than those of Europeans.

The artist who cast the brass relief was the Irish sculptor John Edward Carew. He included this depiction of a young black sailor not out of some nineteenth-century sense of ‘political correctness’ or as some gesture of ethnic tokenism. The black sailor is there in bronze because men just like him were there in flesh and bone, on the ships that fought at Trafalgar. The evidence for their presence can be found in the muster books of the ships of Nelson’s fleet held at the National Archives in London. These documents list the names, pay-book numbers, ages and places of birth of every man who did his duty under Admiral Nelson that day.22 Among them are men from across Britain but also others from India, Malta, Italy and the former American colonies. There are also eighteen men listed as having been born in Africa and another hundred and twenty-three in the West Indies. One African and six West Indians are listed as serving under Nelson on HMS Victory. Among the Africans at Trafalgar were John Amboyne, who was twenty-seven years old and had been born in Guinea. He served as a landsman on HMS Defiance. George Brown, also born in Guinea, was a boy of just thirteen at the time of the battle. He fought on HMS Colossus alongside two other African-born shipmates, the twenty-year-old William Cully and thirty-five-year-old Jean Moncier, who had been born in Sallee in Morocco. Ordinary Seaman George Butler was twenty-six in 1805 and fought on HMS Orion. John Ephraim, who had been born in Africa’s Calabar Coast, in what is today Nigeria, served on board HMS Temeraire, the 98-gun ship of the line immortalized thirty-three years later by J. M. W. Turner, who painted her being solemnly towed up the Thames by a steam-powered tug on her way to the breaker’s yard. Ordinary Seaman John Cupide was a twenty-year-old African who served on HMS Minotaur while twenty-three-year-old African William Hughes faced the French fleet from the decks of a British warship fittingly named HMS Africa, which had served in the American Revolution, another war in which black men fought for Britain. We know from his service records that William Hughes was discharged from the Royal Navy’s Haslar Hospital in Portsmouth on 14 January 1806, three months after the battle in which he presumably received his wounds. As far as we can tell it seems that against the odds all the Africans identified in the muster books survived the Battle of Trafalgar. After that, and like so many of the black people in our story, they fade from the official record and disappear. The sculptor John Carew might have reasonably presumed that this depiction of a black sailor, the young black man whom he had cast in bronze and affixed to a national memorial at the very centre of the imperial capital, would become similarly fixed within British historical memory. But that was to underestimate our capacity to forget and our ability to unlearn.

If the presence of black people within some of the most celebrated events of the British past can be forgotten, then it is perhaps little surprising that their involvement in other aspects of the national story has been lost or expunged. Time and again events and phenomena that we think we know and understand contain within them lost or camouflaged connections to Africa, slavery and black history.

Each year two of the most prestigious horse races in the British calendar take place at Newmarket. The Two Thousand Guinea Stakes and the One Thousand Guinea Stakes have been run each year since 1809 and 1814 respectively. The prize money paid to the winners is today far in excess of the titular sums but Newmarket’s strong sense of tradition and continuity has made it perhaps the last place in twenty-first-century Britain where the guinea is still used. The guinea was a gold coin officially worth twenty-one shillings, or one pound sterling and five pence, although its value fluctuated with the price of gold. Despite being replaced by the pound in 1816 the guinea has remained a part of British national culture and business long after that date. Throughout much of the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth it was the favoured denomination for companies and professionals who provided upmarket services to the wealthy – lawyers, doctors, accountants and hoteliers. It retained strong aristocratic overtones and was widely regarded as an indicator of exclusivity and quality. It was also traditionally used in buying and selling horses, hence its continuing association with the world of horse-racing. The Newmarket bloodstock auctioneers Tattersalls still conduct their business in guineas, as they have done since their foundation in 1766. Yet the origins of the guinea and the source of the gold from which the original coins were minted have been largely forgotten. The guinea was so named because it was made from gold bought on Africa’s Guinea Coast. On one side of the coins was the head of the King and on the other the symbol of an elephant and castle – the trademark of the Royal African Company.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the Royal African Company traded off the coast of West Africa predominantly in gold, ivory and slaves. The Royal African Company transported more Africans into slavery than any other British company in the whole history of the Atlantic slave trade. Between the 1670s and the 1730s around a hundred and fifty thousand men, women and children passed through the company’s coastal fortresses on their way to lives of miserable slavery. Among those fortresses was Bunce Island. The Royal African Company was a royal chartered monopoly and as such was able to call upon the services of the Royal Navy to protect its monopoly, defend its fortresses and intercept the ships of so-called interlopers who attempted to muscle in on its trade. Protected from competition, the company was able to freely trade and thereby generate large profits for its investors. The ‘Royal’ in the company’s title was not a mere honorific. Among the company founders were King Charles II and his brother James Duke of York, the future King James II (the man after whom New York was named), who was actively involved in its administration. His name appears among shareholders who attended company meetings and on lists of those who drew profits and dividends. Among the other shareholders was the philosopher John Locke, whose sixteenth-century ancestor had been among the very first English traders to reach the coast of West Africa. So profitable were the activities of the Royal African Company that when in 1689, after he had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution and replaced with William of Orange and his wife Queen Mary, James II dispatched a representative to London to liquidate his shares, the former king’s profits amounted to £5,730,23 and were used to help fund his comfortable exile in Paris.

Just before the Africans purchased by the agents of Bunce Island were herded into the male and female holding yards, they were taken to an area in front of the agents’ house. There the company initials – ‘RAC’ – were branded onto their chests. At other times the company preferred to brand Africans with the letters ‘DY’ – for Duke of York. Literally and figuratively these were the company’s ‘brands’ and they were intended to be indicators of quality. It was with the same intent that two centuries later Victorian lawyers and doctors issued bills to their wealthy and aristocratic clients in guineas rather than pounds sterling. The involvement of the British monarchy in the slave trade is little known today yet the Stuarts were not unique in this respect. Queen Elizabeth I had invested in the early English slave-trading expeditions of Sir John Hawkins in the 1560s, and both the pirate Hawkins and his queen profited greatly from his successful slaving missions to the coast of West Africa.

The origin of the guinea is one of numerous aspects of our collective past that have been de-tethered from their links to black history and Africa. The story of the South Sea Company and the speculative bubble that brought it down has been similarly sanitized. The South Sea Bubble is remembered today as one of the great cautionary tales of British history, an economic parable that warns of the perils of financial mismanagement and uncontrolled speculation. Reduced to historical colour, it is dutifully wheeled out by journalists and economic commentators in the aftermath of every economic crash, acting as a reminder that market crashes, booms, busts and speculative bubbles are nothing new. Few retellings of the history of the South Sea Bubble however mention the chief commodity the South Sea Company failed to profitably trade. In 1713, under a clause of the Treaty of Utrecht, Britain was awarded the ‘Asiento’, the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. This valuable concession was handed over to the South Sea Company. Although the causes of the company’s spectacular and ruinous crash are complex and multiple, its rise and fall are rarely acknowledged or understood as part of the history of Britain’s slave trade. To complete the disconnect it has also been forgotten that in the year of its implosion the honorary governor of this inept slave-trading company was another British monarch, King George I.

A different story from the same era has, in a very similar way, been stripped of its connections to Africa and slavery. The War of Jenkins’ Ear is certainly the most bizarrely named of Britain’s many eighteenth-century wars. It raged intermittently from 1738 to 1749, but its name is derived from a gruesome incident in 1731 which occurred when the British brig Rebecca was intercepted by the Spanish ship La Isabela off the coast of Cuba. The captain of the Rebecca, the English smuggler Robert Jenkins, was accused of piracy by Julio León Fandiño, the captain of the Isabela, who emphasized his point by cutting off Robert Jenkins’ left ear. The British later added Fandiño’s impromptu auriculectomy to a dodgy dossier of excuses and pretexts that was used to justify a declaration of war against Spain. It was a century later that the conflict was named by the Victorian writer and apologist for slavery Thomas Carlyle. In Spain it is known more soberly as ‘La Guerra del Asiento’ – the war of the Asiento, as it was fought not to avenge Robert Jenkins for the loss of an ear but over the contract to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies that had been agreed at the Treaty of Utrecht. On the eve of war in 1738, Robert Jenkins testified before Parliament and recounted the incident. In an engraving made of his day in parliament he is shown standing before the seated figure of the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. The captain’s wig is being removed to reveal his left ear, or rather its conspicuous absence. The man removing Jenkins’ wig in the engraving is a black man. He wears a liveried coat, the uniform of the enslaved black servant of the mid-eighteenth century.

Thomas Carlyle, the man who gave the War of Jenkins’ Ear its strange name, was the author of a common phrase which has become similarly de-tethered from its origins. Like the story of the South Sea Bubble, Carlyle’s description of economics as ‘the dismal science’ is deployed with obvious relish by journalists and celebrity economists in times of economic turbulence. Carlyle coined that term in his 1849 essay ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’, a near-hysterical denunciation of the humanity of black people which became an influential assault upon British anti-slavery politics. The phrase is often reused without remembering the essay from which it came. So complete was the decoupling of the phrase from Carlyle’s toxic writing on race that over time an alternative genesis myth emerged. This suggested that the phrase arose from Carlyle’s essays on the great eighteenth-century political demographer Thomas Malthus. This alternative origin story, being conveniently free from any association with the history of slavery and racism, has often been favoured.24

With black history and black people largely expunged from the mainstream narrative of British history, we have been left with a distorted and diminished vision of our national past. Black history, in one sense, is a series of unwritten chapters that together make sense of the wider history of Britain. Our understanding of Victorian Britain, for example, is incomplete without a chapter explaining how slavery – both British and American – impacted upon the Victorian imagination and shaped the national economy. Take the history of the Industrial Revolution. It is constantly replayed in our national imagination as a history of coal and iron, of factory towns and mines, and has rightly become a central feature of our national self-image. It is commemorated and perpetuated by a huge industry of working mills, heritage sites and recreated model communities, often replete with re-enactors and working steam trains and traction engines. At these sites and in our classrooms generations of Britons are transported back to those frenetic, dynamic and inventive decades when this small island became the ‘workshop of the world’. Central to this history is the story of the mills of Lancashire, and the great industrial rivalry that was fought between Liverpool, the great port of the Atlantic-facing empire, and Manchester, the world’s first industrial mega-city. Between them these two industrial giants dominated the global production of cotton cloth and cotton clothes and by the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign the cotton industry employed almost one and a half million people. Millions more worked in ancillary industries or were dependent upon the cotton economy. What is remembered today are not these startling employment figures, or the wealth generated by cotton, but the social history of Factory Acts, child labour, spinning jennies and water-frames. Yet this is a history that is usually silent about the source of the cotton that was processed in Lancashire’s 4,500 mills. The great bulk of that essential raw material came from the Mississippi Valley and the ‘white gold’ of the Deep South was harvested by the black hands of enslaved Africans. In the first half of the nineteenth century it was possible for slaves in the Southern states to spend most of their stolen lives producing the cotton that stoked Britain’s Industrial Revolution. By the time of America’s Civil War in 1861 almost two million slaves laboured in the cotton fields, and New Orleans was linked to Liverpool by a ceaseless flow of slave-produced cotton. The black men and women of the American South are the missing persons in the popular retelling of our industrial heritage. As we today lament the suffering of the Victorian mill workers we forget that many of them felt a comparable sense of sympathy for the slaves of the United States. The more educated and radical of the Lancashire mill workers were well aware that the hands which had tied the bales of cotton that arrived in their mills were those of black men and women who were the legal property of others. Any honest, comprehensive and full-blooded retelling of the history of the Industrial Revolution cannot fail to acknowledge their plight.

The list of lost connections continues and unwritten chapters goes on. The hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, beloved by generations of Britons, was written by the British slave-trader John Newton, whose religious conversion eventually led him to condemn the trade in which he was once enthusiastically engaged. Our alternative national anthem, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, with its declaration that ‘Britons never shall be slaves’, has links to black history and slavery that are glaringly obvious and yet hardly noticed. Across the country, on heritage plaques and in guidebooks, the grim careers of Britain’s slave-traders and slave owners are disguised behind the sanitizing euphemisms ‘West India Merchant’ and ‘West India Planter’.

The whitewashing of British history and the wilful forgetting of slavery has now lasted almost as long as British slavery itself. We have developed what amounts to a cultural blind spot about these chapters of our past, and our collective squeamishness that prevents us from openly discussing British slavery and the darker aspects of British imperialism has rendered us unable to properly appreciate the place of black people and Africa in our national story. The importance of Africa at various junctures in British history is little examined and the presence of black people in Britain although increasingly accepted has been partially obscured by a celebration of the post-war immigration that, although welcome and positive, tends to drown out the longer more complex story.

Black history is too often regarded as a segregated, ghettoized narrative that runs in its own shallow channel alongside the mainstream, only very occasionally becoming a tributary into that broader narrative. But black British history is not an optional extra. Nor is it a bolt-on addition to mainstream British history deployed only occasionally in order to add – literally – a splash of colour to favoured epochs of the national story. It is an integral and essential aspect of mainstream British history. Britain’s interactions with Africa, the role of black people within British history and the history of the empire are too significant to be marginalized, brushed under the carpet or corralled into some historical annexe.

More than any other factor it is the new demographics of Britain in the early twenty-first century that make the call for a new appreciation of black British history more pertinent. The 2011 census revealed that the fastest-growing ethnic group in Britain is people who are racially mixed, and Britain has higher levels of mixing than any nation in Europe. America’s melting pot – predicted by liberal optimists in the 1960s – has failed to emerge: London, more than New York or Chicago, has become the model of an ethnically diverse and inter-mixed city. More than any other ethnic group, it is the black British population who are mixing. Today, 48 per cent of black Caribbean men and 34 per cent of black Caribbean women are in relationships with partners of a different ethnic group. We are moving to an age in which the ‘black community’ could end up being smaller than the mixed-race community. We might, in decades to come, be a country in which black families in which all the faces are black will be rare, or they will be the families of recent immigrants. It is too easy to be over-comforted by these statistics and there are worrying signs that testify to the resilience and persistence of racism but the change in attitudes is profound. Black and white couples, with brown babies, whose presence sparked race riots on the streets during the 1950s and were the stuff of scandal in the newspapers of the 1960s, have become one of the defining features of twenty-first-century Britain. Mixed-race Britons are a new normal, an integral part of Britain’s self-image. Racial mixing is one of the great constants of this history.

The current patterns of racial mixing are different in scale but are not out of step with our longer history. The modern black populations are doing what their Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian predecessors did – amalgamating and integrating. That longer, wider and deeper history helps explain the present. It sets modern trends within context and discredits the notion that the history of ‘black Britain’ can be understood as a separate or marginal one. Most of the black Britons whose stories were exhumed by the pioneers of black British history were men who married white women. Olaudah Equiano, James Gronniosaw, Ira Aldridge, John Blanke the trumpeter at the court of Henry VIII, Francis Barber the servant and surrogate son of Samuel Johnson, George Africanus the eighteenth-century black entrepreneur – all of them intermarried. Knowingly or unknowingly their mixed-race ancestors carry on their blood-lines.

For them and for Britain today racial mixing is not just a story of inter-racial couples and mixed-race children but of their families and extended families. Mixed-race children have cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Through intermarriage and racial mixing, millions of white Britons have become part of the black British story. As the barriers between black and white break down, the divisions between so-called black history and so-called mainstream British history become unstable and unhelpful. For me there has never been a separate history exclusively about and for black people in Britain. Black British history cannot be understood solely as the history of the black experience. It has always also been the story of encounter. It is a history populated by the black Britons whose lives were recovered by the first writers of black British history, but also a history of white people, both the notorious architects of racism and slavery and of the millions of ordinary British people who, despite the ebb and flow of race and racial theory, welcomed people of African descent into their lives and their families. Black British history is everyone’s history and is all the stronger for it.

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