Black People in Britain: History and the Historians

Ian Duffield looks at the invisibility of black people in histories of Britain.

Until very recently, black people of African origin or descent were, to echo the title of Ralph Ellison's famous novel of the black American experience in a white dominated society, the 'invisible men' of British history. Most British people, black or white, usually suppose that the black presence in Britain is entirely modern, a consequence of post-1945 immigration, but nothing could be more mistaken.

In the world of learning, it was long assumed that black people had no history worth studying, either in Africa, or in the various parts of the world containing communities of black African descent. This view of Africa as a continent lacking culture, civilisation, progress and therefore history, had the sanction of such distinguished figures in Western culture as David Hume and Hegel. Culture, progress and civilisation, it was supposed, were brought to Africa by white explorers, traders, missionaries, settlers and rulers. These people 'made' African history – a process to which the black Africans were supposed to be hostile, or at best indifferent.

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