I was taught very little about Black British history either at school or university. I do not think there was a single Black British author among the set texts on my English Literature course. I am white and I grew up in mostly white, middle-class neighbourhoods, so I existed in a bubble of privilege. I understood that the transatlantic slave trade had been a terrible thing and that racism was bad, but I believed for the most part that the UK was becoming less racist and most of my friendship group never experienced it.
I only began to learn more in 2003, when I was living in Brixton after university and had decided to try and write a novel set in Elizabethan times. Our downstairs neighbour at the time was a Nigerian actor, and when I told him I was writing a historical novel, he said: “Please put some Black people in it! There have been African people living in Britain since Roman times, but you never see a Black person in historical fiction or dramas.”
This intrigued me and I began to do more research. The more I learned, the more I realised the depths of my ignorance. My years of schooling had given me no sense whatsoever of the legacies of colonialism and the British Empire, or the long relationship between African countries and Britain, pre-dating slavery.
When I looked for other novels featuring pre-20th century Black British characters, the only book I found was The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo, which is an absolutely stunning verse novel telling the story of an Ethiopian girl in Roman London and her affair with Septimius Severus – Rome’s first Black Emperor.
I also struggled to find history books and archives that would help me build a picture of how many Black people would have lived in England in the 16th Century, or what roles they would have played. The period pre-dates the time when England became really involved in the African slave trade – not from any moral qualms but because the Spanish and Portuguese dominated and controlled it.
In the end life got in the way and I put the book aside, but I came back to it properly in 2011, by which time a lot had changed, largely due to the internet. There were now far more resources available online and I also formed connections with various historians.
One of the most useful online resources was the Guildhall Library’s record of Black and Asian people discovered in the archives, which has records of baptisms, deaths and marriages across London and which gives us a wealth of information.
The entries from my period include the record of a funeral held for Domingo, a ‘Ginnye negaro’, at St Botolph Aldgate in 1587 notes that he was servant to Sir William WInter and was buried in the best cloth; which tells us he was held in high regard by his master. John Jaquoah, a king’s sonne in Guinnye’ was baptised at St Mildred Poultry in January 1611, having been sent to England by his father to learn the language and facilitate trade between the two countries.
There are records of Black people working as servants and as independent craftsmen and women – my favourite is probably the silkweaver Reasonable Blackman. At this time, slavery was technically not legal in England – if a servant wished to leave a master or mistress, they could not be legally compelled to remain. There is a grey area around people who came to England as servants to Spanish or Portuguese families – they would have been slaves in their own countries and their legal status in England is not clear. Others arrived by chance, perhaps as a result of privateering voyages capturing Spanish slave ships.
The novel I finally managed to write, A Book of Secrets, is set in late 16th Century Elizabethan London and its heroine, Nsowah or Susan Charlewood, is an Akan girl from Ghana, then known as Guinea. Brought to England as a baby by the slaver John Hawkins, Nsowah grows up as maidservant in a wealthy Catholic household, marries a printer and becomes embroiled in a world of political and religious intrigue while trying to discover the truth about her origins.
As well as researching Africans in Britain during the 16th century, I also learned about pre-colonial Ghana and the complex society and philosophy of the Akan people. Again, I was shocked that I had learned about Greek and Roman society at school but had never heard anything about the incredible kingdoms of pre-colonial Africa (except for ancient Egypt).
The process of researching and writing the book not only taught me about Black British history, but it also brought me into contact with so many Black writers, academics, activists and artists, largely thanks to social media. I was very lucky to find a home for the book with Jacaranda Books, one of a handful of Black-owned publishers in the UK.
Writing this book has changed my way of thinking and my understanding of the country I live in, from seeing racism as mainly expressed through isolated incidents to understanding how it functions within systems and organisations and how it damages ALL of us: white people too.
I want to see more Black British history – and how the legacy of Empire and colonialism affects us still – being taught in schools so that the next generation of children does not grow up ignorance. The past few years have shown that many white British people still exist in a state of denial about UK history. This must change if we are to truly understand our country, confront the racism that underpins it and create real change.
Other people in the group have already shared some brilliant Black History resources – I am going to focus here on pre-20th century books and online resources that I found useful in my own research.
UCL LEGACIES OF SLAVERY
This is a website run by UCL detailing the people who benefitted from the abolition of slavery – so anyone who was compensated for losing income due to abolition. You can search for people in your area and discover how much they were paid and where they held enslaved people; it is quite a stark reminder of how deeply slavery was ingrained in British society.
BLACK AND ASIAN LIVES IN THE GUILDHALL ARCHIVES
This is not currently available but should be back later in October. It is a brilliant resource, with records of births, marriages, deaths and other archival references to Black and Asian people from the 16th century onwards. It’s full of fascinating facts and glimpses of early modern lives:
WHO IS JOHN BLANKE?
John Blanke, the Black trumpeter for Henry VII and VIII, is the first identifiable image of a Black person in British art (he is shown in the Westminster Tournament Rolls, playing to celebrate the birth of Henry VIII’s first son in 1511. He has recently featured on TV’ in Black and British with David Olusoga, and on Alison Hammond’s Back to School. Not only did he perform at court, he was clearly a valued musician as he successfully demanded a pay rise!
The art historian Michael Ohajuru has on ongoing project dedicated to the trumpeter, with responses to John Blanke by artists and historians
British Transatlantic Slave Trade Records
The National Archives, Exhibitions and Learning Online:
African Europeans by Prof. Olivette Otele (the UK’s first Black women professor) https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/african-europeans
Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England & England’s Other Countrymen: Blackness in Tudor England by Onyeka Nubia http://www.narrative-eye.org.uk/england/
Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann: http://www.mirandakaufmann.com/black-tudors.html
Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England by Kim F Hall: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Things-Darkness-Economies-Gender-England/dp/0801482496
Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500 – 1677 by Imtiaz Habib
Speaking of the Moor: from Alcazar to Othello by E C Bartels
Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450-1850 by D Northrup