The term ‘Black African’ first emerged in the 1991 Great Britain Census as a new official ethnic category, allowing people of this ethnicity to coalesce around this term rather than having to utilise residual ‘other’ categories. It has been utilised in the two subsequent decennial censuses. The ‘Black African’ group was the largest Black group in the 2011 Census. A total of 989,628 Black Africans were enumerated in England and Wales, substantially exceeding Black Caribbeans (594,825) and Other Black persons (280,437). Just two decades earlier the relative sizes of these groups was quite different: In 1991, Black Caribbeans numbered almost half a million (499,964) in Great Britain, substantially more than Black Africans (212,362) and the Other Black group (178,401).1
How this group has evolved in Britain—from its earliest presence nearly two millennia ago to the country’s largest Black group in the early twenty-first century—is the subject of this chapter.
There is evidence of a long history of a Black African presence in Britain, going back to at least the Roman times. Africans were first recorded in the north of the country 1,800 years ago, as Roman soldiers defending Hadrian’s wall—‘a division of Moors’ said to number 500 (Fryer 1984
; Killingray 1994
). Some are reported to have held senior positions. There is evidence of Africans in York in the same period (Walvin 2000
). Indeed, North Africans are well documented in the epigraphic record of Roman Britain (Thompson 1972
; Birley 1979
). However, the case of the ‘ivory bangle lady’ in York (Leach et al. 2010
)—whose burial indicates she was from the higher echelons of society—challenges assumptions based on recent historical research that immigrants were of low status and male, and that African individuals are likely to have been slaves. Leach et al. argue that both women and children moved across the Empire, often associated with the military.
Some historians suggest that Vikings brought captured North Africans to Britain in the ninth century. After a hiatus of several hundred years, the influence of the Atlantic slave trade began to be felt, with the first group of West Africans being brought to Britain in small numbers in 1555. African domestic servants, musicians, entertainers, and slaves then became common in the Tudor period, prompting an unsuccessful attempt by Elizabeth I to expel the ‘blackamores’ from her kingdom in 1601. By the last third of the eighteenth century, academics have estimated that there were between 10,000 and 15,000–20,000 Black people in Britain, mostly concentrated in London and other port cities (Fryer 1984
, p. 68).
of this African presence, going back almost two millennia, is difficult to establish as few written records are available. However, a new type of evidence, based on the study of Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA, is beginning to provide the first genetic trace of a long-lived African presence in Britain, though such studies are still few. Among a set of 421 males who were analysed as part of an ongoing large British surname study, a relatively rare African Y-chromosome type, called haplogroup A1, was found in a Yorkshire man (King et al. 2007
). Seven out of 13 men carrying this individual’s same rare east-Yorkshire surname were also found to carry hgA1 chromosomes. The investigators argue that this chromosome was probably introduced to the genealogy several hundred years before the late eighteenth century. However, a survey of 1,772 Y-chromosomes from the British Isles found no examples of haplogroup E3a, by far the most frequent Y-chromosomal lineage in Africa, and they were also absent from the surname study sample. While there is evidence that a greater proportion of the African component of the hybrid population being contributed by females, a study of mitochondrial DNA sequence diversity among 100 ‘White Caucasian’ British contained only one haplotype with a probable origin in West Central Africa. King et al. comment that this general rarity of African lineages may be due to a variety of factors, including sampling bias.
Other studies point to a similar rarity of genetic evidence of an African presence. The Oxford Genetic Atlas Project found a very small number of very unusual clans in Southern England, two from sub-Saharan Africa. Sykes (2006
, p. 334) speculates that these ‘slightest traces’ or ‘dustings’ ‘might be the descendants of Roman slaves, whose lines have kept going through unbroken generations of women’. It seems surprising, therefore, that in another source, Bionews
, geneticist J.S. Jones is reported as suggesting a much higher level of population mixing, claiming that around one in five White British people has a direct Black ancestor (Anonymous 1999
). The historical source to which this estimate is attributed includes British census data from the sixteenth century, which apparently shows that thousands of Africans who had come to trade in Britain had settled in London and the West Country, many of whom married into White families. This estimate has not been published in the peer-reviewed literature and seems improbable, given the lack of a commensurate genetic trace in the population.
The seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries—from around the late 1620s to the early 1830s—are dominated not solely by the Black African presence in Britain but also by Britain’s relationship with the peoples of Africa through the enslavement on an industrial scale of hundreds of thousands of Africans. Recent exploration of the Slave Compensation Commission records, a total of 1,631 ledgers, at the National Archives by scholars at University College London reveal the true extent of slave-owning in Britain at the time of abolition in 1834 through their listing of every British slave-owner, the number of slaves owned, and the amount paid for these slaves by way of compensation (Olusoga 2015
). Slave-owners were to be found in every occupational and social group in British society, including estate owners, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, iron manufacturers and other industrialists, and even widows, the inheritance of slave income allowing slave ownership to spread across huge swathes of British society. Their ownership varied from just one slave up to 3,000. A total of 46,000 British slave-owners across the British Empire came forward to claim compensation, a sum of £20 million in total. However, the 3,000 of these who lived in Britain owned 50 % of all slaves in the Empire. They lived all over the country and in sizeable numbers in Bristol, London, and Liverpool, and disproportionately in Scotland.
Most of these slaves were used to develop the sugar plantations in Barbados but the practice spread across Caribbean communities, including Jamaica. The 24-hour shift system combined with a terror-based regime substantially reduced life expectancy on arrival. By the time of abolition, the roll call of slaves identified 800,000 separate names. Such slave-owning was a major engine of the British economy, creating huge wealth from the sale of sugar in European markets and spawning the creation of credit and investment networks. Lavish mansions and infrastructure projects were funded in this way. Many of the first wave of slave-owners were granted peerages. Of the 650 MPs in the early 1830s, more than 80 made compensation claims to the commission.
From the late seventeenth century there is archival evidence of Black Africans living in central London that is mainly associated with slavery. Parish registers often noted the race or colour of children being baptised: this source records the first birth of a Black person in Lambeth in 1669, when John, the son of Abimelech Potter, ‘a blackamore’, was baptised in St. Mary’s church, next to Lambeth Palace (Newman and Demie 2006
). By the eighteenth century, when the slave trade was well established in Western Europe, a small proportion of these Black people were free, most of whom remained slaves or indentured servants, and in cities like London, Bristol, and Liverpool, escaped slaves with no legal status. Parish registers and poor law accounts provide evidence of former slaves living in the parish. Between 1669 and 1812, more than 80 Black Africans are listed in Lambeth, most of whom were slaves or domestic servants baptised in later life. The absence of the parent’s name, uncertainty about exact age, and the disproportionate number of men may indicate their slave origin. Some of them were described as the property of or servants of a master. The parish poor law accounts, recording payments of relief paid to sick and poor people, list four Africans in 1722–1723. Moreover, Black Africans were entering other services at this time. According to Gilroy (1993
, p. 13), at the end of the eighteenth century, an estimated quarter of the British navy was composed of Africans.
In the eighteenth century, records of missionaries and ministers record conversions of Black Africans, living mainly in London, to Christianity. For example, John Wesley baptised two Black Africans in South London ‘belonging to Mr. Gilbert, a gentleman lately from Antigua’ on 29 November 1758. This led to many African kings sending their sons to London for a Christian education, including William Ansah Sessarakoo in the 1740s and a son of Naimbana, the ruler of the Koyo kingdom in Sierra Leone, in the 1780s. The latter came under the patronage of the ‘Clapham sect’, a group of wealthy evangelical Christians living in Clapham. One of the group, Zachary Macaulay, started a school, the African Academy, in Clapham to educate Africans and freed slaves, 24 such children being said to be under education in England by 1802. The Clapham parish registers chart the progress of the school, the Holy Trinity registers recording 18 baptisms of African boys and young men in Clapham as well as five burials between 1801 and 1805. There was a separate school for three or four African girls in the neighbouring parish of Battersea. There are records of other high-status baptisms of Black Africans in Clapham in 1836, including John Tootoo Quamina Comassee and William Accootoo Comassee, Kings of Ashantee in Ghana, baptised at Holy Trinity church. The Church Missionary Society’s first African clergyman was ordained in London in 1841.
African performers appeared through the nineteenth century in local Lambeth theatres, many of the plays with a Black or colonial theme dramatising slavery and commentaries on current international events. Though many of these performers were ‘blacked up’ White people, there was also a developing tradition of Black African and African-American performers, including Ira Aldridge, Master Juba (William Henry Lane), ‘The Algerine Family’, and Princess Azahmglona (the niece of the Zulu King, Cetewayo). In the late nineteenth century, Afro-American speakers were appearing at clubs and halls in Lambeth to speak of their former lives as slaves in the Southern USA.
Once again, Britain’s relationship with the peoples of Africa was dominated from the late nineteenth century by events taking place on the continent of Africa. Britain’s colonial campaigns on the continent got under way around the 1870s and were substantially complete by a generation later. Britain by then had taken control of the Cape Province, the West African settlements of Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, and Gambia, the Lagos Coast, and the upper valley of the Nile. This was followed by the declaration of protectorates over British Somaliland (1884); Bechuanaland and the Rhodesias (1885); the hinterland of the Gold Coast, Ashanti (1886); Sierra Leone (1889); Zanzibar (1890); Nyasaland (1891); and Nigeria (1900). By 1902, the British had complete control of South Africa. Colonialism in Africa was also practised by France, whose African empire in 1914 was even larger than that of the British. The Congo Free State, established as a neutral concession in 1884, was annexed as a Belgian colony in 1908. Germany’s participation in ‘the scramble for Africa’ began in the mid-1880s when they took possession of Togoland and the Cameroons. Italy came late in the division of Africa and Spain and Portugal also played limited roles. The consequence of these colonial ventures was such that by 1914 the whole of the African continent—with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia—was occupied or controlled by European powers. Just 50 years earlier Europeans had controlled around one-tenth of the continent.
This era of colonialism—the end of which was marked by the departure of European administrators in the post-1945 period—was accompanied by the settling of White populations in these territories and the exploitation of local economic resources by the colonising powers. The domination of these countries around the idea of the ‘civilising mission’, accompanied by Britain’s policies of segregation, left its legacy in the rise of racism. Moreover, the replacement of old social, economic, and political systems by those of the colonising powers had long-lasting consequences. Britain’s colonial experiences shaped subsequent migration flows from Africa to the UK from the early 1950s and, according to Gilroy (2004
), have given rise to a state of ‘postcolonial melancholia’.
An immediate impact of Britain’s establishment of colonies in Africa was a growing presence of Black Africans in Britain. Before the First World War, a small number of Black South Africans arrived in Britain for the purposes of study or training: Alice Kinloch, Francis J. Peregrino, Henry Gabashane, and the first Black South African lawyers, Isaac Pixley Seme and Alfred Mangena (Killingray 2012
). The importance of this group lay in their notions of pan-Africanism and their active involvement in pan-African organisations while living in Britain. With others, Kinloch’s efforts resulted in the formation of the African Association in 1897 and then the summoning of the Pan-African Conference in London in July 1900, the first time that people of African descent from different parts of the world had organised a forum to discuss issues of common interest.
Other initiatives included the launching of the East London-based newspaper Izwi Labantu (Voice of the People) which became the organ of the South African Native Congress (SANC) formed in 1898. The Liverpool-based Ethiopian Progressive Association (EPA) was founded in November 1904 by West African students at various colleges in the city. The South African Isaac Pixley Seme and the African American Alain Locke founded a student group with pan-African ideas in Oxford, known as the African Union Society. The African Institute at Colwyn Bay was also part of the Black African network in Britain at this time, serving as a provincial meeting place for Black people. Finally, Alfred Mangena set up the pan-African United African Association in 1906, the year in which John Edward Quinlan from St Lucia founded the National Association for the Protection of Dark Races, both in London.
By the end of the century, the ...