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Before the Windrush

Jeffrey Green argues that to ignore the diverse black presence in Britain prior to the 1940s is to perpetuate a distorted view of British history

How do we explain the widespread ignorance of the presence of people of African and Caribbean origin in British history? Black men and women appear, for example, in Pepys’s diaries; in eighteenth-century portaits; sailing with Captain Cook on the Endeavour; not to mention the stories of Thackeray, Trollope, Dornford Yates, W.S. Gilbert, Laurie Lee and Evelyn Waugh. Yet there is a general misapprehension that people of African descent were absent from Britain until very recently. This misconception has been nurtured by a belief that apparent exceptions can be ignored.

There is a further mistaken belief that those black people who do appear were temporary residents – and often worked in unskilled occupations – and this added to the notion that they made little contribution to British society. In 1998 celebrations were held of the half-century anniversary of the arrival in England of the immigrant ship Empire Windrush from Jamaica, but these often merely re-confirmed the prejudice that the black presence in Britain was recent, alien and working-class.

However, a study of the historic evidence reveals that people of African birth and descent lived in Britain four centuries before the Windrush reached Tilbury. They and their descendants usually conformed to the prevailing social rules in language, education, style and ambitions, and, accordingly, are to be found at every level of British society. These men, women and children were widespread geographically, even though it is not possible to gauge their overall numbers. But investigations restricted to cities such as London, Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow and Tyneside only add to the mistaken stereotype of a foreign-born black working class living in urban ghetto communities.

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