History of black people in Britain
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Race & Racialism
|Hating thy neighbour|
|Divide and conquer|
A lot of racists get really upset by the idea that Britain has had a Black and ethnic minority population for hundreds of years. Recently a number of TV programmes and films set in the past have included Black or mixed-race characters or actors, which has for some reason upset a few people who cling to a myth of Britain as a white nation. These racists deny that there were Black people in the past and claim to find such representations unrealistic or unbelievable, calling them an attempt "to re-write history to achieve [the left's] unhinged political agenda" according to far-right website Infowars.
Historical evidence shows that Britain has had a small Black population for much of its history: in the Roman era, soldiers from all over the Roman Empire (including Africa) were posted there. Since the late Medieval era, when Britain was trading with, exploring, and exploiting much of the world, people of all races came or were brought there: as slaves, sailors, traders, diplomats, travellers, anthropological "specimens", or for other reasons. Some stayed there, married locals, and started families, while others died tragically, returned home, or traveled elsewhere in the empire.
- 1 Blacks, Amazigh, Moors, Ethiopians?
- 2 History
- 3 Media depictions
- 4 Colourblind casting
- 5 Classic literature with Black characters
- 6 Questionable tales
- 7 References
Blacks, Amazigh, Moors, Ethiopians?
The matter is complicated by changing notions of race and Blackness (race is a social construct not a biological fact). Classical and Renaissance sources often refer to Africans indiscriminately as "Moors" whether of Mediterranean or sub-Saharan origin. Documents from the Elizabethan era may refer to people as negra, niger, or similar forms, which we suppose means the same as "Black". In some cases, there are records of origin and ethnic group that are sufficient to identify ethnicity with reasonable accuracy, or personal accounts in which people provide a self-description. In other cases we may have descriptions of someone's appearance, which may or may not be accurate (a "swarthy" appearance can be elevated to "Beethoven was Black" memes).
The debate doesn't include the southern European or Jewish people, because nobody would deny their presence (except when Edward I threw the Jewish people out). But it's clear that people from much further afield lived in what is now the UK for centuries.
The Roman army recruited from throughout its empire and often posted soldiers far from their homeland. Historical figures include Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a north African Amazigh who was governor of Roman Britain from 139 to 142 CE, and an unnamed Ethiopian recorded as meeting the emperor Septimius Severus at Hadrian's Wall (Septimius visited Britain in 208-211 CE). Other records include a tombstone in South Shields of a 20-year-old freed slave "Moor by race", and a unit of 500 "Moors" posted at the fort of Aballava near Burgh by Sands in Cumbria in the 3rd century CE. As noted above, "Moor" is a vague term but they certainly weren't Anglo-Saxon.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Black enslaved people were brought from colonies such as North America to Britain. Slavery was formally abolished in England and Wales in 1772, with upwards of 10,000 slaves (mainly of African origin) freed as a result.
Various freed slaves also made their way from the colonies. Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729-1780) was in his youth a Black enslaved man in Greenwich, England, but later a shopkeeper, composer, and man of letters who lived with his family in London and corresponded with leading literary figures of the age. Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745-1797), taken by slavers from Imo state, Nigeria, bought his freedom and moved to England around 1768, later living in Cambridgeshire and Middlesex, married to a British woman.
A group of 17 north Africans visited Britain with ambassador Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun in 1600. Realms including the Barbary Coast, Ottoman Empire, and Ethiopia sent ambassadors to Europe in the Renaissance and early modern era, sometimes linked to the Prester John myth (Pepin the Short entertained an Abbasid envoy as early as 768 CE). Elizabethan Britain had diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire. Joseph Jenkins Roberts, President of Liberia, made an official visit to the UK in 1848.
A number of people were brought to western Europe from distant lands as "living exhibits" or "living specimens" to be studied or shown to the public like animals in a zoo. These included Omai, brought from Tahiti to George III's court, and Saartjie Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus", displayed in London in 1810.
As trade routes opened up, it became increasingly possible for travellers not only to go from Britain around the world, but to make the opposite journey, and visit the British Isles from distant lands. Michael Shen Fu-Tsung, a Chinese convert to Christianity, visited Britain in 1685 as part of a Jesuit mission and met King James II; he is reportedly the first person from China to have visited what's now the UK. The Ojibwan missionary Peter Jones (aka Kahkewāquonāby) visited Britain in the 1840s raising money to spread the Christian message in North America.
The pioneering nurse Mary Seacole, the child of a free, Black Jamaican woman and a white Scottish soldier, spent several years in London in the mid 19th century. Hans Zakaeus aka John Sakeouse was an Inuit who stowed away on a whaling ship and arrived in Leith, Scotland in 1816; he became a celebrity with his displays of canoeing prowess before accompanying John Ross on an unsuccessful voyage of exploration to the Arctic (Ross thought he saw mountains blocking his path through Lancaster Sound and turned back, thereby failing to discover the Northwest Passage) and later dying in Edinburgh.
Historian Miranda Kaufmann found evidence of Black people in the 16th century (before the slave trade became a major industry) living in many parts of Britain doing many different jobs: ship salvage diver, weaver, farmer, and prostitute. Elizabeth I had a Black maidservant, although in 1596 she complained "there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are allready here to manie".
Various TV shows and films portraying Black characters have attracted opprobrium. Often this is based on a wider anti-white conspiracy theory: "the BBC is full of self hating anti-White cultural Marxists which is why I will never, ever give them a cent." Far-right website Biased BBC is typical, with commentators suggesting "The BBC is revising history to suit its own anti-White narrative". On the other hand, some critics suggest organisations like the BBC only do it out of tokenism to cover up their racism and the whiteness of their management. So it's because they hate whites and because they hate Black people?
Some criticisms of individual characters may be justified, as there is a tendency for ethnic minority characters to fall into cliches such as the "magical or numinous Black person", animalistic Black man/savage, or hypersexualised mixed-race woman. But usually it's easy to differentiate those concerned about stereotyping from those "concerned" about Black people appearing "so frequently" in the media.
Some examples follow.
Merlin, a BBC TV drama about King Arthur included the mixed-race actor Angel Coulby playing Guinevere (depicted as a servant girl) and other Black characters. Amongst other criticisms, some people claimed this was historically inaccurate. From its 12th century origins Arthurian legend was always full of anachronisms. And sometimes dragons.
Doctor Who is a bête noire of the gammon-faced right for its liberal, inclusive politics, and has shown both Black people in British historical settings, and Black travellers from the present day passing unremarked upon in past eras. At the same time, the show was criticised for racism until quite recently.
Mark Gatiss, a respected actor and writer and creator of the BBC show Sherlock, expressed unease at the presence of a Black man in the Victorian-era British army in one episode, "Empress of Mars", but reportedly he changed his mind when he heard that there was at least one real-life Black soldier in the British army, Jimmy Durham from Sudan who was "adopted" by a regiment as a boy and enlisted in the 1890s.
A 2017 educational program for BBC Schools depicted a high-ranking Black Roman soldier. The distinguished classicist Mary Beard defended the show, receiving a torrent of misogynistic abuse, as well as opposition from author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who blamed political correctness and said, "Scholarship is dead in the UK." She innocently called his most famous book Black Swan a "pop risk book", and he replied, "I get more academic citations per year than you got all your life!" He also claimed "UK pol. cor. Gestapo managed to destroy EVERY researcher they went after, including Tim Hunt (Nobel) They can't do NOTHING to me". Beard replied "Afraid Prof Taleb has returned to attack.I have to say I dont think UK academic life IS broken.Sorry if his feelings are hurt; maybe move on". Beard gave examples including Quintus Lollius Urbicus and others mentioned above, while explaining that the precise ethnicity of people from classical history isn't easily available to us.
The Hollow Crown
Sophie Okonedo (who has Nigerian and Jewish ancestors) was cast as Margaret of Anjou, wife of the title character in a TV adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI, although she didn't actually play a Black character. This was attacked by UKIP councillor Chris Wood, who posted as evidence a picture of a snow-white Margaret from a manuscript which described her ability to transform to a swan and back. He didn't seem to mind the swan thing.
Various dramatisations of of the myth of Robin Hood have included non-white characters, from the American 1991 Kevin Costner film to the 2006 BBC series starring Jonas Armstrong, and even parodies like the BBC's children's program Maid Marian and Her Merry Men.
The debate has linked with issues on colourblind casting, although technically the two are separate: the race or ethnicity of a character is separate from that of the actor. A Black actor can play a white character without playing them as Black (e.g. a Black actor playing Henry V wouldn't rewrite the play to explain the racial disparity, but might trust audiences to ignore their race), while particularly in animation a Black character may be played/voiced by a white actor. It is argued that casting Black people makes a show set in the past not "believable"; but what people consider believable is conditioned by media representations (which are how most people get their sense of what the past is like); and many things in historical dramas are unbelievable.
Classic literature with Black characters
Despite the view that literature of the past was all-white, various classics of British literature include Black or mixed-race characters, albeit that this introduces additional problems of racist depictions in works that are hundreds of years old. This includes William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848), with its highly stereotypical characters Sambo (sometimes bowdlerised to Sam) and Miss Schwartz, respectively a Black slave and a part-Black, part-Jewish heiress. Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre and archetypal "madwoman in the attic", was of mixed race from Jamaica. Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon included a number of West Indians visiting Britain, including a young "half mulatto" woman, Miss Lambe.
Shakespeare set many of his plays in exotic and inaccurate locations around the known world, where Black people may have been common: this includes Othello, set around the Mediterranean with a Moorish title character; Caliban in The Tempest (ostensibly set in the Mediterranean but drawing extensively on discourse about the Caribbean and other imperial discoveries); and Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. British and Irish literature has long had an interest in exotic tales of faraway lands, including Gothic fiction (William Beckwith's Vathek, 1786, drew on the Arabian Nights for its vaguely Middle Eastern setting), while foreign settings are common in satire, as in Gulliver's Travels or Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Mikado (set in a stylized version of Japan). Narratives about the evils of the slave trade were also common from the late 18th century. And adventure stories set in far-off lands were popular from Robinson Crusoe (1719) or before. The exotic settings have perhaps more often served as a device to freely satirize British society, as is the case with The Mikado, than to actually portray the exotic.
There are also stories about Black people in British history that are less probable, sometimes intended to discredit people by claiming non-white ancestry.
Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818), wife of king George III (of the madness and losing the USA) and grandmother of Queen Victoria, was descended from Margarita de Castro e Souza, a 15th century Portuguese noble, who herself claimed descent from Alfonso III of Portugal and his mistress Madragana; some sources claim Madragana was a Moor. Coupled with reports that Charlotte had darker than average skin, looked like a "mulatto" according to contemporary sources, is depicted with vaguely African features in Allan Ramsay's 1761 portrait, and opposed the slave trade, this has led to speculation that Charlotte was Black or of mixed race. It wouldn't be surprising for someone with pre-Reconquista Portuguese ancestry to have some north African blood, or simply to have a Mediterranean skin and hair colouring, but even if the account is true, her fraction of Moorish ancestry was tiny.
- BBC depicts Black people as “typical” family in Roman Britain: They are trying to re-write history, Paul Joseph Watson, InfoWars, 27 July 2017
- There were hundreds of Africans in Tudor England – and none of them slaves: Black Tudors, Miranda Kaufmann, review, Noel Malcolm, The Daily Telegraph, 21 Oct 2017
- "Black Beethoven and the Racial Politics of Music History", Nicholas T. Rinehart, Transition, No. 112, Django Unpacked (2013), pp. 117-130, DOI: 10.2979/transition.112.117
- See the Wikipedia article on Black British.
- The First Black Britons, Sukhdev Sandhu, BBC, 17 Feb 2011
- Black and British: A Forgotten History review – this is what it means to share a heritage, The Guardian, 10 Nov 2016
- Borders folk may be descended from Africans, David Derbyshire, The Daily Telegraph, 11 June 2004
- Mary Beard abused on Twitter over Roman Britain's ethnic diversity, Sarah Boseley, The Guardian, 6 Aug 2017
- Mary Beard in 'misogynistic' race row over black Romans in BBC cartoon, The Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2017
- See the Wikipedia article on Ignatius Sancho.
- See the Wikipedia article on Slavery in Britain.
- See the Wikipedia article on Ignatius Sancho.
- See the Wikipedia article on Olaudah Equiano.
- Portrait of the Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I, British Library, accessed 10 May 2019
- See the Wikipedia article on William Harborne.
- See the Wikipedia article on Joseph Jenkins Roberts.
- Human zoos: When real people were exhibits, Hugh Schofield, BBC News Magazine, 27 Dec 2011
- See the Wikipedia article on Michael Shen Fu-Tsung.
- David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson: Rev. Peter Jones or Kahkewāquonāby, 1802 - 1856. Indian chief and missionary in Canada, National Galleries of Scotland website, accessed 10 May 2019
- See the Wikipedia article on Mary Seacole.
- Inuit stowaway who found naval glory with Scots aristocrat, The Scotsman, 7 April 2018
- Multiculturalism in Shakespeare's plays, British Library website, 15 Mar 2016
- BBC Cast a Black Woman as a Historical English Queen., Comment by "Chutzpah", The Student Room, 2016
- Black and white continued (and comments), Biased BBC, 17 March 2017
- See the Wikipedia article on Magical Negro.
- See the Wikipedia article on Stereotypes of African Americans.
- Hyper-sexualisation: the realities of my black, female body, Vanessa Ntinu, gal-dem, 14th January 2017
- See the Wikipedia article on Merlin (2008 TV series).
- Why I'm mad for Merlin, Ben Child, The Guardian, 29 Sep 2011
- Black in Camelot: Race & Ethnicity in Arthurian Legend, Kris Swank, Medievalsits.net, May 2013
- Gwen, fanlore.org, accessed 10 May 2019
- Is Doctor Who finally getting it right on race?, Martin Belam, The Guardian, 13 Nov 2018
- Global Showbiz Briefs: BBC Says ‘Doctor Who’ Isn’t Racist; Edinburgh Lineup Set, Deadline, May 2013
- Exclusive: Doctor Who writer protested against 'problematic' casting of Black actor as Victorian soldier, The Daily Telegraph, 11 June 2017
- See the Wikipedia article on The Hollow Crown (TV series).
- Ukip councillor attempts to blast BBC for 'historical inaccuracy', gets destroyed by actual historian, The Independent, 16 May 2016
- Why the Dickens shouldn't costume dramas be ethnically diverse?, Gareth McLean, The Guardian, 7 May 2008
- Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit, Broad Castellan, Oct 2008
- Period dramas should not be criticised for a lack of Black actors, Julian Fellowes suggests, Anita Singh, The Daily Telegraph, 1 Feb 2017
- Concealing Vanity Fair racism would have been “cowardly” says screenwriter, Radio Times, 28 Sep 2018
- See the Wikipedia article on Bertha Mason.
- Look– Jane Austen included characters of color. Stop citing “historical accuracy” with an all white cast., Mary Robinette Kowal
- Reading Jane Austen's Final Unfinished Novel, Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, 13 March 2017
- African writers and Black thought in 18th-century Britain, British Library
- See the Wikipedia article on The Mikado.
- See the Wikipedia article on Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.