From Slavery to Racism: Unearthing Forgotten History of Black Experience.

By Thura Nira

1. Recalling the Ages of extremes for black experience

When you delve deeper into the historical context, you’ll discover that the distinction between “us” and “them”, between a white nation and their black counterparts, is illusory. Sadly, the Black people’s role in history of these nations is often overlooked or forgotten.

Yet, an identity dichotomy of the “us” versus “them” has recently been sweeping. The revisiting of narrative of identities often results into revisionism of historical contexts. The people of African descent have become deeply intertwined in the history of the western world, and it’s increasingly impossible to tell a credible version of that history without referencing the black experience.

This essay offers an analysis of the historical context of the black experience by reviewing a Book by David Olusoga: Black and British: A Forgotten History.

Cover of Olusugo book, which inspired this essay

2. The Agony at Garden of Bunce, the Mouth of Sierra Leone River

There’s an island at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. It is called Bunce Island. This island contains the ruins of a fortress that, for over a century, was at the heart of the British slave trade in Africa.

From that fortress, tens of thousands of enslaved Africans were shipped to plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. Between 1618, which marked the rise of the British slave trade, and 1807, when the country abolished it, Britain was the premier slave-trading nation in the Atlantic. Half of all the millions of Africans carried into slavery in the eighteenth century were transported on British ships.

Nonetheless, Britain’s role in the slave trade is often glossed over or ignored. This is evidenced by the fact that Bunce Island itself remained forgotten for generations. It wasn’t until the 1970s that archeologists rediscovered the site and identified it as a major British slave fortress in West Africa, a site that the historian Joseph Opala called the “Pompeii” of the Atlantic slave trade.

Even today, most British people have a far clearer picture of American slavery than they do of their own country’s involvement in it. This is compounded by the fact that historically, British plantations were located in the West Indies, in places like Jamaica and Barbados, far away from the British populace residing in Britain.

Bunce, the Island of no return. Photo: courtesy

3. The Victorious Company of Horatio Nelson

But black people were not just victims of the British slave trade. They were also important actors in British history. The explorer Francis Drake’s famous mission to circumnavigate the globe in 1577 included four Africans as part of his crew. And in another journey to Panama, Drake formed an alliance with mixed-race Africans known as the Cimaroons in order to outwit the Spanish in Central America.

 Black sailors accompanied Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, renowned for his defeat of Napoleon’s French navy in 1805, during his battle against the French at Cape Trafalgar. Among those who served under Nelson that day were 18 men who were born in Africa and another 123 who were born in the West Indies.

One African and six West Indians served directly under Nelson on his ship HMS Victory. In fact, Nelson’s Column, the landmark in central London that commemorates his achievements, includes a brass relief depicting a black sailor standing near Nelson at the moment of his death at Cape Trafalgar.

Both as victims and as actors, black people have been central to British history. It’s high time their story is heard. Tudor and Elizabethan England’s attitude toward black people was complex and contradictory.

Admiral Nelson and his solders in a battle.

4. Blacks in the age of Tudors

Historical records provide us with only the faintest glimpses into the lives of black people living in England between the years 1485 and 1603, when the Tudors – including the famous Queen Elizabeth I – ruled.

The glimpses are fleeting, but point to the fact that most black people in Tudor England were employed as domestic servants, occupying the lower social rungs.

Nonetheless, a tiny handful of black Britons reached the very top of Tudor society. Among them was John Blanke, who probably came to England as part of the entourage of Catherine of Aragon, who had arrived from Portugal in 1501 to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales.

Blanke became a trumpeter in the Tudor court. When, following the death of Arthur, Catherine married Henry VIII, Blanke performed at the celebrations marking the birth of Prince Henry, the second child born to Henry and Catherine.

During the period preceding the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, attitudes toward black people were complex and contradictory. This is reflected in the work of the most celebrated playwright of the Elizabethan age, William Shakespeare.

Before racism. John Blanke, a jester in Catherine of Arragon’s court.

5. From Othello, Moor of Venice to the Prince of Morocco, the Black ‘Devil’

Shakespeare’s play Othello, about the “moor of Venice” – a black man who becomes a high-ranking general in the Venetian army – points to the ambivalences in the Elizabethan view of people of African descent. 

On the one hand, the play’s fixation on Othello’s dark skin and his exotic origins reflects Elizabethan anxieties around blackness. Othello marries, then murders, his white wife, Desdemona. This violent and tragic end to the marriage between a black man and a white woman points to Elizabethan fears about interacial mixing.

On the other hand, Shakespeare depicts Othello with empathy and nuance. He is valiant, dignified, and honorable, in stark contrast to Iago, his evil subordinate, a white Venetian who harbors destructive hatred for Othello and who leads him to mistrust Desdemona. 

With the rise of the slave trade, however, any nuanced views of black people, along with any empathy, would disappear altogether. A burgeoning slave trade led to the hardening of racist ideologies.

Othello and Desdemona

6.The days before Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce

In 1637, out of a population of 6,000, there were only 200 enslaved Africans in Barbados. By 1680, there were 38,000 enslaved people on the island, vastly outnumbering the white slave-owning class. 

This drastic increase in the number of enslaved people points to the rapid expansion of the slave trade during the second half of the seventeenth century. This expansion had grave consequences for relations between white and black people. Prior to the rise of slavery, society was divided along class lines – white indentured servants, for instance, occupied the lower rungs of the social hierarchy along with black people.

In 1661, however, Barbados sugar planters passed the Barbados Slave Code. For the first time, this code drew a distinction between “white” servants and “negro” slaves. All white men of all classes were given rights that were denied to all black people.

“White and negro” became the new dominant categories, thus splitting society along racial lines. As such, the rise of the British slave trade was accompanied by the rise of a racial ideology that stratified society according to white and black.

While many black people were condemned to slavery in British colonies abroad, by the mid-1700s, there were also between 3,000 and 4,000 black people living in Britain.

Most of these black Britons lived extremely constrained lives as enslaved people or low-ranking servants. During the first half of the seventeenth century, black servants even became a status symbol favored by the privilege.

William Wilberforce

7. ‘Father! Father! Why have you forsaken me!’

Wealthy slave owners liked to pose with enslaved people for portraits. In George Stubbs’ 1759 painting Henry Fox and the Third Earl of Albemarle Shooting at Goodwood, for instance, a young black man holds the reins of his master’s horse. In Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of the Prince of Wales, another young black man in elaborate livery adjusts the grand costume of the Prince of Wales himself.

In a cruel practice, some of the enslaved people who lived in England during this time were marked out as human property by brass or copper collars that were padlocked around their necks. The extent to which black people were dehumanized under slavery is reflected in an advertisement put up by the goldsmith Mathew Dyer. In the ad, Dyer offers his services to produce “silver padlocks for Blacks or Dogs.”

The rise of slavery and the racist ideology that accompanied it, therefore, drastically constrained the lives of black people both in the colonies outside of Britain and inside Britain itself. 

8. A bow to Lord Mansfield! The Mansfield Judgment of 1772

One day in London in 1772, James Somerset, an escaped slave, arrived at the doorstep of an abolitionist named Granville Sharp. For over 20 years, Somerset had been enslaved under Charles Stewart in the colony of Virginia.

In 1769, Stewart brought Somerset with him to London. Two years later, Somerset escaped but was recaptured by Stewart. Having managed a second escape in that same year, Somerset sought Sharpe’s aid in helping him maintain his freedom.

Sharp took Somerset’s cause to the British courts. While slave-dependent British colonies such as Virginia and Barbados had evolved clear laws designed to protect the slave system and to ensure the rights of slave owners over slaves, Britain had not.

This meant that when slave owners brought slaves on to British soil, their legal rights over their slaves were unclear. Could an enslaved person continue to be held in captivity on British soil, if Britain had no explicit law authorizing slavery? Did slave masters have a right to have escaped slaves in Britain forcibly returned to them?

Granville Sharp, along with a team of other advocates and lawyers that he assembled to defend Somerset, argued that Charles Stewart had no rights over Somerset now that Somerset had escaped from him on English soil. Stewart’s lawyers argued that Somerset was legally Stewart’s property, and as such, he should be forcibly returned to him. 

The court case was presided over by Lord Mansfield, an esteemed judge who found himself at the center of a national drama. The court gallery was packed with spectators at each session, and the proceedings were reported in all the major newspapers.

When both sides rested their cases, Mansfield took a month to reach his verdict. He ruled that because, unlike the colonies, there was no “positive law” affirming slavery on British soil, “the black must be discharged.” That is, James Somerset was a free man; Charles Stewart could not force him back into slavery.

To those who heard it and read about it later, the judgment seemed to grant freedom not only to James Somerset but also to all enslaved black people in Britain. Although the exact scope of Mansfield’s ruling has always been subject to debate, at the time, the popular understanding of the judgment – particularly by enslaved people and their abolitionist supporters – was that all those in England were free. 

Whatever Lord Mansfield’s intentions, his ruling constituted one of the first and most important victories for enslaved black Britons against their masters. 

Inspiration of the Somerset v Steward case.

9. The massacre by the crew of Zong

In 1781, the Zong, a slave ship, sailed from Accra, in Ghana, with 442 enslaved people on board – twice the number a ship of that size was designed to carry. After a series of navigational errors by the crew, which led to the ship spending more time at sea, freshwater supplies began to run low, and disease spread among all those on board.

To preserve supplies and ensure that at least some enslaved people reached Jamaica alive, the crew of the Zong undertook a terrible action. They cast 133 of the most diseased and frail captives overboard, into the ocean.

The events aboard the ship only came to public attention in 1783, when the owners of the Zong filed an insurance claim for the loss of “cargo,” demanding 30 British Pounds for each captive the crew had thrown overboard. When the cold financial reasoning behind the massacre came to light, there was public outrage.

The Zong massacre, along with reports of other terrible aspects of the slave trade, were key to galvanizing the abolitionist movement in Britain. That movement, which began as a campaign by minority religious groups, was formally born in 1787.

That year, nine Quakers and Evangelical Christians, including the abolitionist campaigner Granville Sharp, formed themselves into the Society Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

An illustration of the Zong Massacre

10. Black Masters in the abolitionist campaign.

Former enslaved people, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, both wrote autobiographies that became bestsellers. Along with others, they formed the group the Sons of Africa, which was made up of people who had experienced slavery or were descended from slaves. Members of this group travelled the country, speaking about the horrors of the trade. 

The abolitionists waged a highly successful public campaign, pioneering, for instance, the use of the mass petition. Between 1787 and 1792, 1.5 million British people signed petitions against the slave trade, out of a population of 12 million. The abolitionists also deployed the boycott as a weapon, blacklisting rum and sugar produced by enslaved people.

It was through the tireless efforts of both black and white abolitionists that, in 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed in parliament. This bill officially ended the nefarious trade. It took another 26 years of abolitionist campaigning for parliament to pass the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, though. This second bill went beyond the first by ending slavery all together. All enslaved people in British dominions were set free in 1838

Despite abolishing slavery, Britain continued to be economically complicit in American slavery.

11. Eli Whitney Invention and its impact on slave trade

In 1792, Eli Whitney, a school teacher in Savannah, Georgia, invented a simple machine that separated useless cotton seeds from the valuable cotton fiber in which they were trapped. This process had previously been done by hand in a laborious procedure that slowed down the cultivation and harvesting of cotton. Whitney’s cotton gin – “gin” being short for “engine” – reduced the time it took to separate seeds from fiber by a factor of eight.

Whitney’s invention transformed the economics of cotton production. The invention gave American cotton slavery – which many had assumed would slowly decline – a terrible second wind. In the wake of Whitney’s cotton gin, more and more planters turned to the lucrative business of cotton cultivation. As a result, in southern states such as Louisiana, Alabama, and the Carolinas, the demand for slave labor rose. 

This growth in the production of cotton led to a merging of interests between American slave owners and British manufacturers. Cotton from American plantations was shipped to northern British towns such as Manchester, Lancashire, and North Cheshire, which, during the Industrial Revolution, became the boom towns of cotton manufacturing. Between 1848 and 1858, the proportion of cotton that came from the United States into Britain never fell below 73 percent, and climbed as high as 97 percent.

Three decades after abolishing slavery and half a century after abolishing the slave trade itself, Britain was up to its neck in American cotton slavery.

Indeed, the extent to which Britain was embroiled in southern slavery became apparent with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. The war dealt a massive blow to the British economy. By 1862, 70 percent of the cotton industry labor force in Britain was out of work because of disruptions in cotton cultivation in the southern United States.

It was for this reason that many large northern manufacturing towns, such as Liverpool, supported the southern Confederacy in the Civil War. The British government itself took a position of neutrality, refusing to support the Union forces of President Abraham Lincoln against the Confederacy – despite having outlawed slavery in its own dominions.

Slaves in a cotton field

12. The rise of colonialism and control of African territory

In 1884, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society held an “anti-slavery jubilee” in London to celebrate 50 years since the abolition of British slavery. Three months later, on the other side of Europe, the Berlin Conference of 1884 was convened.

It involved diplomats and politicians representing the “Great Powers” – European countries such as Britain, Germany, France, and Belgium, among other states. This conference – which did not include a single African representative – was aimed at dividing up the continent of Africa among the Great Powers.

It marked the beginning of the “Scramble for Africa” – the period in which European colonial rule over the continent spread exponentially. In 1870, 90 percent of the continent was under African rule, and only 10 percent under European control. By 1900, the opposite was true – Europeans controlled 90 percent of the continent.

During that period, nine million square miles of land were added to the European empires. No country was more successful in the scramble for Africa than Britain. By 1900, one in three Africans was a British subject. This added up to 45 million new subjects.

The rapid increase of Britain and other European powers in Africa was made possible by technological advances. Shallow-drafted, steam-powered riverboats turned Africa’s rivers into highways along which European powers could penetrate the continent’s interior.

Medical advances, and the development of quinine, in particular, allowed Europeans to survive in tropical regions without succumbing to diseases such as malaria, which had seen off their predecessors. The final element was the development of the Maxim machine gun, a piece of military technology that allowed small numbers of European soldiers to overwhelm enormous African armies.

Berlin conference of 1884

13. The nexus of the rise of colonialism and the rise of social Darwinism.

Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which presented the theory of evolution by way of natural selection, was published in 1859. Colonizers, to affirm their own dominion over “lower” races used Darwin’s theory. The act of conquest itself was taken as proof of the superiority of Europeans.

As such, a harder, more biological view of race emerged. This was reflected in the popularity of “human zoos” during this period. In these colonial exhibitions, “natives” from the colonies were displayed for the entertainment of British and other European audiences.

Colonialism, therefore, marked a new chapter in the relationship between Britain and African peoples – one in which Britain nonetheless continued to exploit and dominate. 

However, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on 1 January 1863, which emancipated all American enslaved people, changed everything. After that declaration, the American Civil War was explicitly understood as an armed struggle against slavery. Finally, Britain aligned itself behind the north, seeing the emancipation of southern enslaved people as the final realization of its abolitionist mission. 

The honorouble President Abe.

14. The abuse of black ‘clansmen’

During World War I, one million Africans were recruited as “carriers” – porters carrying supplies to British troops fighting the Germans in Africa. Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, has a region still named in honour of these carrier corps.  Of those, at least 100,000 died during the war.

In Europe itself, the British War Office refused to allow black men to fight against the Germans. While the War Office created a special regiment for black servicemen – the British West Indies Regiment, or BWIR – it was used as a labor battalion to support white troops.

British authorities believed that allowing black soldiers to fight white men, including the German enemy, would undermine racial prestige, which would, in turn, threaten British control over black subjects in the colonies.

Despite the War Office restrictions, some black people did manage to circumvent the military color barrier. The most famous black British soldier to serve in the war was William Tull, whose grandfather had been a slave in Barbados.

Tull achieved the rank of second lieutenant – a rank that technically should have been impossible for a black Briton to achieve, given that army regulations stipulated that all candidates for officer rank must be of “pure European descent.” On the Western Front, he led white soldiers into combat against the Germans. In March 1918, he was killed in combat in France. 

In spite of their support and contribution to the war effort, black troops were treated with disdain in the aftermath of the conflict. For instance, no black troops were allowed to march in the victory parade that was held in London in 1919 to mark the defeat of the Germans.

In fact, the end of the war led to a massive backlash against black people. Returning white soldiers were resentful toward black servicemen, particularly because peace brought with it major competition for jobs. As such, black people who had found work during the war because of labor shortages were systematically dismissed after the war to make way for demobilized white men.

African carrier corps

15. The Murder of Charles Wootton and the birth of racism

In a case similar to the murder of George Floyd, killed by racist police in Minneapolis by kneeling on his neck, so was Charles Wootton killed. In 1919, racial tensions escalated to such a degree that black people were routinely attacked by white mobs in cities such as Glasgow, London, and Liverpool. This culminated in the lynching of Charles Wootton, a black sailor from Bermuda, who had served in the Royal Navy during the war.

In 1919, he was set upon by a white mob in Liverpool, which drove him to jump into the water to save himself. As he was floundering, the mob threw stones at him, one of which struck him on the head, causing him to sink and drown.

Racism became much less acceptable in the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat, especially given the atrocities committed in Germany in the name of racial ideology. Nonetheless, in Britain, racism continued to persist in subtle ways. For instance, while there was a massive postwar shortage of workers in the country, the British government was reluctant to allow black workers from the colonies into Britain. 

Still, black workers found their way there. The arrival of the Empire Windrush – a ship carrying Jamaican immigrants – in London in 1948 marked the beginning of a boom in migration from the West Indies over the next decade.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 West Indians entered Britain in 1948, but by 1956 this number would peak at 56,000. This migration was partly driven by a hurricane that devastated Jamaica in 1951 and destroyed the livelihoods of many of its citizens, thus forcing them to look for better prospects abroad. 

These new migrants faced a great deal of discrimination in Britain. In 1958, for example, violence erupted in the city of Nottingham when white men in a bar objected to a black man and a white woman sitting together.

Clashes in the Notting Hill neighbourhood of London also followed, with white mobs attacking black people and their homes. And yet, while black people were, by and large, the victims in these disturbances, politicians dubbed the violence “riots” and blamed black migrants.

Politicians capitalized on the violence to appeal for immigration controls. In 1962, Parliament passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which curtailed immigration. Further restrictions followed in 1968 and 1971.

In the media, politicians affirmed the need for these controls. In a 1978 interview, Margaret Thatcher, not yet prime minister, insisted that the British populace was “swamped” by immigrants. Given that, at the time, immigrants made up only 4 percent of the population, such a characterization was an exaggeration. 

In reality, black people’s long relationship to Britain – forged largely through the oppression of slavery and colonialism – meant that they were far from some politically imagined “alien horde.” Their fates, and their lives, have always been deeply tied to Britain. 

People of African descent are entirely central to the history of the British Isles. While Britain’s story is shaped deeply by those Africans it enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the African and Caribbean peoples it colonized, their influence is often set at the margins of British history.

Black Britons were not only victims of British dominance; they were also actors who fought to end the horrors of the slave trade as well as defend Britain against its enemies. Ultimately, the story of British history cannot be told without them. 

16. My Dear People, Be wary of biases in mainstream telling of black history. 

When you read a history book. Or watch a historical documentary. You probably take what you read or hear to be the full story. However, mainstream historical accounts often sideline the stories of marginalized peoples and populations.

When you dig deeper, you will often discover that the groups that seem to be in the margins of history are, in fact, at its very heart. So always pay attention to who is telling history and be vigilant for hidden stories. 

Primary Reference:

           David Olusoga:Black and British: A Forgotten History.

The author is a Senior Writer with the Gatuyuriana. His interests include blasting fake revisionism of history

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