The History of Black People in Britain

The September 1981 edition of History Today was a special issue about the history of black people in Britain.

In 1764 The Gentleman's Magazine reported that there was 'supposed to be near 20,000... Negroe servants' in London: the magazine went on to say that 'the main objections to their importation is, that they cease to consider themselves as slaves in this free country, nor will they put up with an inequality of treatment, nor more willingly perform the laborious offices of servitude than our own people'. The writer of this report touched on an important reason why black people in Britain were thought of and treated in a different way from those of the New World. In this issue of History Today we examine this and other aspects of the history of black people in Britain.

Black Personalities in Georgian England

The Eighteenth Century

Olaudah Equiano and Igantius Sancho

Hogarth - The Savage and the Civilised

Mary Seacole

The 1930s

Response and Reaction, 1945-62

Whereas the vast majority of black people in Britain in the eighteenth century were employed as servants (and consequentially we know very little about their lives) there were notable individuals – people such as Francis Barber, Dr Johnson's servant and friend, Olaudah Equiano, and Ignatius Sancho – who rose from inauspicious beginnings to comparative fame, and about whom we know considerably more. The articles in this issue are, in the main, concerned with the reaction of British people to black settlers during the centuries before the onset of mass immigration, following the Second World War. On this page Paul Edwards traces our knowledge of black people in Britain before the eighteenth century. A general context for the subject is then set in the following discussion by Ian Duffield of recent studies of the history of black people in Britain.

The series of articles continues with a closer examination of the eighteenth century, both in general terms by James Walvin and from the point of view of certain individuals by Paul Edwards. This year is the centenary of the birth of Mary Seacole who was celebrated in her day as a nurse at the Crimea and who is the subject of an article here. (We have not dealt directly with the nineteenth-century abolition of slavery, but those interested in this subject should consult the article and notes for further reading by Stephen Usherwood in the March 1981 issue of History Today .) The next article by Barbara Bush looks at the attitudes of the 1930s, and David Dabydeen's article – taking a different approach to the subject – discusses Hogarth's depiction and use of black people in his paintings.

Black people have been living in Britain since at least Roman times. We know of one individual African legionary, 'famous among buffoons and always a great joker', who went down in history for making fun of the Emperor Septimius Severus outside Carlisle around the year 210 AD. Significantly, the Emperor was 'troubled by the man's colour' and ordered purifying sacrifices to be offered, which turned out also to be black. Africans continue to appear unexpectedly in British history. In 862 AD the Annals of Ireland record the landing of black slaves ('blue men' they are called in both Irish and Norse) by Vikings returning from raids on Spain and North Africa. A skull confidently identified as that of a young black girl has been found in a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon burial at North Elmham in Norfolk. Something like a black community appears in the account books of the Scottish court at Holyrood shortly after 1500. Reference is made to two women, Ellen or Helenor More and Margery Lindsay, and to a number of men – Peter, Nageir and Taubronar, the last being a married man with a child at Court. Some of them probably came from Portugal, where trading in Africans had been going on throughout the previous century. In 1505 a payment is recorded in the accounts to William Wood, one of the Scottish king's principal ship’s-captains, 'for the fraucht of the Portugall quhit hors, the must cat and the jennet and the Moris', and there are numerous items such as payment for the transport of 'the More lassis' from Dunfermline to Edinburgh in 1504, for a dance-entertainment organised by Taubronar 'be the Kingis command', and expensive gowns, slippers and gloves, not only for the black ladies but for their personal maidservants too: and the King's New Year gift is recorded in 1513, 'to the twa blak ladeis, X Franche crounis'. One of the poems of William Dunbar, 'Of ane blak moir', is about the part played by Helenor in a parody tournament of around 1506-7 called 'the turnament of the black knicht and the black lady'.

Africans also turn up during the period as the familiars of witches, for instance in the trial of Alice Kyteler of Kilkenny in 1423, in which she was accused of having intercourse with an 'Ethiop' who could also turn into a black cat or black shaggy dog. Thus there are hints even as early as this of a dual social role for Africans – people to be laughed at and people to be feared. In 1596 Queen Elizabeth wrote to the mayors of various cities that 'these kind of people should be sent forth from the land. The Queen issued licences to deport Africans mainly on two grounds: because of economic pressures 'in these hard times of dearth', and because 'most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel'.

Under the influence of European fashion and, later in the seventeenth century, the expansion of Oriental and African trade, more and more black servants began to appear in English households. But not until after the Restoration, however, is it noticeable that black servants are spoken of increasingly as chattels, arising from a legal ambiguity over the application of Haebeus Corpus on the one hand and the Navigation Act on the other.

Paul Edwards is a reader in English at the University of Edinburgh.