Black people throughout British history

The popular piece of 20th century history that saw the largest influx of Black people into Britain, was HMS Windrush that left the Caribbean in 1948. The ship brought over colonial subjects, that were coming to the “motherland” to support a weary post-war Britain. This wave of immigration alongside increasing numbers migrating from Africa and southern Asia, has shaped the multicultural Britain we know today.

While this period of history is important (my very existence would not be without this movement of Caribbean people to Britain), it does tend to mislead people’s understanding of Black history in Britain. Sometimes the narrative of the Windrush being the “largest” movement of Black people to Britain is confused with it being the “first” movement. Historians, such as Peter Fryer and David Olusoga, have dedicated books to undo this misconception. Right back to the era of the Roman Empire there has been a presence of people with African descent within Britain.

A piece of history that is not widely known or taught, but it can completely alter someone’s perspective of Black people’s position in this country.

The examples that are about to be discussed, are largely based on David Olusoga’s Black and British, A Forgotten History.


During the 19th and 20th centuries, Roman remains had been discovered but it is recent scientific technology that has allowed ethnicity and heritage to be determined from the remains.

‘Beachy Head Lady’, from Sub-Saharan Africa who lived in Eastbourne around AD 245.

Initially, when thinking of the Roman Empire, the first thoughts that come to mind are of White male warriors with some extravagant helmet/headpiece. However, from the 3rd century AD Afro-Romans had come to the British Isles and travelled through the Roman Empire. Through archaeological searches evidence has been found that indicates Afro-Romans settled in the North of England. In Cumbria, an altar stone was found with Latin inscriptions that reported a unit of “Aurelian Moors” that were stationed at the Aballava fortress (along Hadrian’s wall).

In addition, analysis on 200 skulls excavated in York found that 11 to 12 % of the skulls analysed were people of African heritage. These African skulls were found in two burial sites, one for the rich and one for the poor. This suggests Africans that were on the British Isles held several positions in society — some were rich, some were poor.

An example of an Afro-Roman at the top of British society is the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’. She is believed to be of mixed ancestry from North Africa. She was buried with luxury goods such as silver and bronze lockets, marbled glass beads and a perfume bottle. All indicators suggest that she had high social status.

There are other examples similar to the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, including ‘Beachy Head Lady’ who can be seen in the photo above. This evidence is crucial for historical understanding, as it has completely transformed narratives of history.

These discoveries of Afro-Romans to some of you may seem like it’s irrelevant because of how old the history is. The point in discussing this history is to show that preconceived notions of history are not always right. There is a lot that is yet to be discovered. This area of history that has been in recent years illustrates that people of African heritage have been in Britain for a very, very long time.

Black Tudors and Stuarts

Fast-forward through a few centuries, to the 16th century. The Tudor era is a period in history that we all learn of in school, and everyone knows of Henry VIII with his 6 wives and his daughter Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. However, the concept of Black Tudors is an unfamiliar piece of history for many including myself until a couple of years ago.

Research conducted in this area has found the Black Tudors were small in numbers, and they usually located themselves in London or southern sea ports. Research shows they lived ordinary lives here — getting married and having families. Baptism records also show that Africans were baptised and the majority of them were employed as domestic servants.

Mary Fillis, baptised in Aldgate in 1597.

One of the most prominent Black Tudors was John Blanke. It is believed he arrived in England with Catherine of Aragon in 1501. Records from 1509 show that Blanke received wages from the royal court and attended various important occasions including Henry VII’s funeral. It is assumed that Blanke married in England, to a White woman, as they received a wedding gift from King Henry.

Jacques Francis is another notable Black Tudor. He was employed by Henry VIII as an experienced diver, to salvage weapons and goods from the wreck of the ‘Mary Rose’ ship.

These are just a couple of examples of Black Tudors that are more accessible because they have been found in royal records. Evidence of particular Black Tudors living in normal English society will be hard to come by, but they were there.

It became popular for a royal court or nobility to have Black musicians which can help to explain the presence of some Africans in European royal courts. This is evident in the Scottish court during the 16th century which had African musicians and dancers. In addition, like her father, Elizabeth I also employed Africans in her court.

The presence of Africans during this very popular period of British history is enlightening. There are several period dramas focused on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I’s reign, it does raise the question of are Black actors featured in these dramas, representing the African servants in the royal households?

It’s important to know this history because in the royal courts which is at the heart of Englishness and all its pride, there were Africans serving the Crown. Even if on a small scale, the fact that Africans were a part of such a popular era of British history reinforces the point that Black people have been on this island for centuries. Black presence was not only post-war in the mid 20th century, but was instigated by the eagerness of Europeans to travel and encounter new lands.

Black Georgians

Mid to late 17th century, Britain expanded its interests in the sugar economy in the Caribbean. With Spain’s autonomy dwindling, this gave almost free reign to Britain to claim new territories in the Caribbean and they did so. Sugar, tobacco and coffee were just a few commodities that generated a lot of wealth for the British planters. The 18th century was the ‘slave century’, where the trade boomed during the century. In turn, the supply and demand of slaves from West Africa increasingly rose.

Just to clarify for those that may never have been made aware — Britain benefited hugely from the Atlantic Slave Trade and used slavery in the British Caribbean. It particularly enriched areas such as London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. Slavery is not just an American issue — it is very much a British problem and its legacy still plagues our country today.

1730s portrait of a coach-boy in Wrexham.

There were several ways how Black people found themselves in Britain:

  • Plantation owners, on their return to Britain to exert their newfound wealth, would bring their ‘favourite’ domestic slaves.
  • Slave traders, on their return to Britain from the Caribbean, would keep some slaves onboard to sell them in British ports most notably in Bristol.
  • Some Africans, who were mainly sailors, chose to come to Britain on their own accord for work.

For Black people in Britain at this time, there were small opportunities for social mobility:

  • They mixed in taverns with working class White people and formed friendships and even married.
  • Some, such as Ignatius Sancho and Phillis Wheatley were fortunate enough to be educated.
  • After a lifetime of service, some transitioned from the position of the master’s property to favourite servant.

Although examples of socialising and some freedom has been outlined, for the majority of Black people their lives were still dictated by their master. David Olusoga emphasises that slavery was present on British soil just as much as it was in the colonies. However the brutality that plagued the plantations was not used as frequently in Britain. The sale of humans and their lack of freedom were key features of slavery on British soil.

The situation of slavery on British soil raises a lot of questions which many cannot be answered. A lack of sources means that the true status of the enslaved here is largely unknown. What is known is that not all Black people in Britain were enslaved. But, out of those that were enslaved, certain signs indicated they were in bondage. For example, slaves were branded with their owners initials or wore a brass collar.

The number of Black people in Britain and where exactly they resided too is not recorded enough. London, Bristol and Liverpool definitely had Black populations. It is estimated that around 3000 Black people were in Britain during the 18th century. This figure does fluctuate to 14,000, but it has been speculated that such high figures had been fabricated by Edward Long (one of the founders of British racism) to cause panic among Britain.

Lady Grace Carteret with a Black servant, 1753 in Surrey.

Black servants from around 1650 became a feature of aristocrat portraits. They usually featured on the side of the portrait but represented wealth and status for the White mistress or master. Black servants symbolised wealth from the plantations that grew exponentially. Ultimately, Black servants became a trophy.

The desired Black servant was a Black male servant with the darkest complexion. This was because male servants represented the most wealth, as they were more expensive to purchase compared to Black female servants. In addition, the darker skin complexion contrasted with the whiteness of the mistress, highlighting her ‘purity’.

The position of Black people varied in Britain during the 18th century. Some were enslaved, some were in the limbo state between slave and servant. Some were free. Some experienced social mobility, some mixed with White people in taverns. Nevertheless, the presence of Black people here was significant enough for sources to mention their presence. These communities made a space for themselves in Britain that entered the Victorian era and its racial science.

Black Victorians

Moving to the 19th century, the century began with the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807. This was implemented to stop Europeans going to the coast of Africa to trade for slaves. In 1833 Britain abolished slavery in its colonies (although slavery did not officially end until 1838 when the apprenticeship scheme ended). Queen Victoria inherited the post-slavery era, and the rise of colonialism. This created an uncertain environment for Black people in Britain. They can no longer be enslaved, but did their treatment change?

Scientific racism and Eugenics became increasingly popular during this time, as a way to solidify the idea of White superiority and to marginalise the Black population.

Nevertheless, Black Victorians, who were largely men, occupied a range of professions, including: entertainers, students, coal-heavers, shoemakers and bricklayers. Some had escaped America, where slavery was still legal until 1865, to live in Britain where they would be free. After 1833 when Britain abolished its own use of slavery, it seems there was a space for anti-slavery rhetoric in relation to America’s continuation of slavery. This resulted in African-Americans giving speeches on slavery to gain support for the abolition movement.

Even though there may have been a space for anti-slavery talks in Britain, Britain was not free from racism. Slavery may have been deemed as an immoral enterprise in the 19th century (although that is debatable), but the idea of White superiority was reinforced. This was reflected in the expansion of the British empire, going to ‘civilise’ the dark and savage world.

The well known Chartist movement at the beginning of the Victoria period was a movement to better working class males’ position in society. It was a nationwide movement, that gathered momentum. Some of the influential figures in the London branch of the movement were of Black heritage. William Cuffay, whose father and grandfather were slaves in St Kitts, became a forceful character within the movement. So much, that he was transported in 1861 to what we know as Tasmania for his involvement in the movement. In March 1848, a demonstration took place in Camberwell that was led by David Duffy and Benjamin Prophitt who were ‘men of colour’ (Fryer, P. Staying Power p. 243).

Unknown woman photographed in Liverpool City Centre in 1870.

Other notable Black figures in Victorian Britain include Mary Seacole, from Jamaica, who provided medical assistance to wounded soldiers during the Crimea War, the same as Florence Nightingale, even though the British military office had refused her help because of the colour of her skin. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was of mixed race heritage and became a well regarded composer and at one stage in his career he was received by President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House.

As mentioned, a portion of the Black community in Britain was made up of African-Americans. Sarah Parker Remond was invited to give anti-slavery talks throughout the country. During the American Civil War, she gave speeches on supporting the blockade on the Confederacy, and once emancipation was established her speeches focused on helping the newly freed people establish themselves. Remond helped found the Ladies London Emancipation Society which petitioned for women's right to vote. She is believed to have been the only Black women on the committee.

One runaway who became famous through his writings and speeches on the horrors of slavery, Frederick Douglass, also came to Britain to spread his message further. Others did the same, including Harriet Jacobs, and books on slavery like Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a bestseller book in Britain.

A fascination with the empire and its ‘exotic’ nature prevailed the 19th century. The Great Exhibition that first opened in 1851 and welcomed 6 million people, essentially was an exhibition of empire. It represented Britain’s wealth and opportunities by showcasing things looted from the conquest of new colonies. This period also saw some ‘great’ explorers become famous for their expeditions. Henry Morton Stanley and Winwood Reade are just a couple examples of explorers and missionaries that reported on the ‘savages’ of Africa and the lack of intellectualism in the Caribbean.

The Victorian period was one where slavery was no longer legal in the British colonies, but racism did not disappear. Social Darwinism became a popular science where parts of it upheld beliefs of White superiority. As discussed, there are examples of Black people going to university and being educated but that cannot detract from the fact that Britain’s empire expanded exponentially during the Victorian era (especially with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ during the Berlin Conference in 1885). Britain’s empire was based on the premise that Britain would civilise its colonies and Christianise the lands. This racist ideology that Britain knows best was echoed in the British isles and helped to create a permanent underclass of Black people (with the odd exception, of course).


I hope this article has helped to inform some narratives of history and has taught some areas of history that previously were not known. Knowing such history allows new perspectives to arise and also the ability to challenge preconceived concepts of history.

I do believe that this history places people of Black heritage firmly in British history and therefore Britishness itself. This idea actively refutes the “go home” narrative that has reared its ugly head in recent weeks. Black labour has supported and funded Britain’s growth into the ‘Great’ nation that we so proudly learn of in history today. Slavery and empire extracted resources from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia in order to make Britain wealthy while at the same time depleting these areas of their wealth and resources.

This, combined with the fact that Black people have featured in significant areas of British history cements the point that Black people have a valued position in this country and this needs to be reflected in British society and especially the curriculum. These narratives of history carry pride and purpose for the Black British community. Whatever the political motivation for whitewashing these periods of history, this needs to be remedied. Erasing history cannot continue.

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