Black people have lived in Britain for many centuries, certainly from the times of the Roman invasions and perhaps before.(1) There were never any Acts of Parliament enshrining legal discrimination against them on the grounds of colour or race so they are difficult to identify in records. Until immigration following the Second World War, there were very few (estimates vary between 10,000 and 20,000 between 1500 and 1807) and they did not live in separate communities. These factors mean that their history in Britain has largely been subsumed in wider studies of racial prejudice, the British slave trade, slavery itself or abolition, on which a great deal has been written, and in most the focus has been on how white people perceived Blacks.
There seem to be three distinct phases in writing about the history of Black people in Britain: the first covered the period up to the 1960s, the second the 30-odd years up to the 1990s and the last from that time up to the present day. These three correlate to what might be called intellectual fashions in historical interpretation so also apply to other fields of history. To over-simplify, the first phase was the product of a period of social stability. After the Second World War, the political and social landscape changed dramatically. Marxist theories became more influential, until the late 1980s saw a change from collectivity to individualism.
M. Dorothy George seems to have been the first modern historian to mention the presence of Black people in London in the 18th century. London Life in the Eighteenth Century (London,1925) contained six pages on the subject. There seem to be no other scholarly works dealing with Black people in Britain until 1948, when Kenneth Little became the first to look at the history of Black people in Britain as a distinct group. Although Little’s book mainly detailed the results of a sociological and anthropological survey into the contemporary Black community in Cardiff, there was a chapter containing a brief history of Black people in Britain from 1600 AD to 1948, which contained a section on the development of English racial attitudes. He seems to be the first to explore the development of racial prejudice.(2) Little also created a template for subsequent works: a historical survey from 1500, a description of the events leading up to the Mansfield Judgement of 1772, the effect of scientific racism in the 19th century on the development of prejudice and discrimination, and much more detailed work on the involvement of Black people in political movements of the late 19th and 20th century. In the 1960s Edward Scobie developed Little’s work on the history of Black people in England with more detail.(3)
These early works treated Black people as part of the British (or more precisely English) population, not separate from them. What is called ‘Black history’ developed in America from the 1960s onwards. It was part of the growing interest in the history of minority groups or hitherto unregarded sections of the population, like women and the working classes, and emerged in a period when Marxist theories dominated academic study. The Nigerian Folarin Shyllon’s books Black Slaves in Britain (Oxford, 1974) and Black People in Britain 1555–1833 (Oxford, 1977), published for the Institute of Race Relations, had a very different tone from previous works. Shyllon, who was then based in the United States, made assumptions about the experiences of Black people in Britain which cited American writers about slavery and discrimination in the United States. The history of Black people in America has continued to influence studies of their position in Britain, not least in assuming that Black people in Britain were enslaved, a belief that persists today, despite Lord Mansfield’s judgement that only positive law, i.e., specific Acts of Parliament, could introduce it. As well as those who saw Black people as a distinct sub-section of the British population, there were some who regarded them as part of the working class, like Ron Ramdin, Peter Linebaugh and Maurice Redeker.(4) The latter two in particular saw Black people as part of the oppressed underclass, whose ‘struggle’ (a key word for socialists) was paramount.
The journalist Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (London, 1984), which is generally taken to be the standard work on the subject, began the move to look at individuals. The chronological structure was similar to that of previous writers but he took a wider view of the subject. Previous historians looked at Black people in Britain as if slavery and poverty were the only things that defined them. Although Fryer, who was a communist, wrote a great deal about slavery and political involvement, he looked beyond them to see how Black people were not stigmatised outsiders but were woven into English society as workers and founders of families.
Most works in the second period took the institution of slavery as their starting point: individuals appeared primarily to illustrate arguments. They were issue-driven. More recent studies take an alternative approach. They focus on individuals and events: issues still emerge but are secondary to the people themselves. It is perhaps not a coincidence that an increasing number of these works are by women. There is a marked contrast in the way men and women in general approach the subject. Men are much more concerned with authority and the obvious manifestations of it through laws and financial power and women interested in social relationships, although there are always individual differences. It is therefore unsurprising that it was a woman, M. Dorothy George, who first noticed Black people in London and another, Gretchen Gerzina, who in Black England: Life Before Emancipation (London, 1995) made two important contributions. The first was to realise that in 18th-century England class (or, as it would have been called then, rank) seemed to be the determining factor in how Black people were perceived, not colour or race. The second was to look at people as human beings, not pieces of evidence in abstract arguments about colour, race and prejudice.
With the move away from theories of collectivity, the emphasis has shifted to individuals and empowerment. It has also changed from examining how white people in authority regarded them to foregrounding the experiences of the Black people themselves. For example, Stephen Braidwood’s work on the Sierra Leone project of 1787 did not assume this was, as previous writers considered, a way for the government to get rid of poor, stigmatised Black people in London but he looked at the aims, ambitions and actions of the poor Blacks involved to bring out their own agendas.(5) Other people have carried out thematic examinations of the role Black people played in areas of British life, like the armed forces, music, the arts, religion and so on. However, their presence in and contribution to Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the various islands has not yet been explored in depth. If Black men are hard to recover, Black women are even more so because there is so little evidence about the lives of the majority of them before the 20th century.
Because of the problems of identifying Black people in records before the 20th century, the majority of academic studies of Black people in Britain have concentrated on the handful of noteworthy, and therefore exceptional, people who appeared in print. Fryer had included numerous references to unremarkable Black people taken from primary sources in archives but Norma Myers was the first to collect data systematically and attempt some statistical analysis.(6) Influenced by the work of the Cambridge Group for Population Study and Social Structure, Kathleen Chater assembled a database of some 3,000 Black people in England and Wales during the period of the British slave trade from which she extracted statistical evidence on sex ratios, ages, areas of origin, appearances at the Old Bailey and other aspects of the lives of what might be termed the average Black person in the long 18th century.(7) It is hoped that funding will allow further development of this database along with references gathered by BASA (the Black and Asian Studies Association) to allow geographic and demographic comparisons with the indigenous population to be made.
Local, family and community historians have contributed to a recent growth of interest by finding references in archives or by working on oral history projects to record the experiences of communities in their localities. It is their work which will uncover evidence that will both add to the knowledge that currently exists and enable more academic studies to be carried out.
Dr Kathleen Chater is shortly to publish 'Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales during the British Slave Trade 1660–1812'.