The history of Africans in Britain

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Dec 8th, 2011

They came before the SS Empire Windrush
Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

‘Conventional wisdom’ tends to limit understanding of the presence of people of African descent in Britain to the post-Second World War era. But Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe shows that African-descent peoples have lived in Britain and made remarkable contributions for several centuries.

In that moving, intensely expansive exposition on the subject of history in James Baldwin’s ‘Just above my Head’, the narrative voice states:

‘To overhaul a history or to attempt to redeem it – which effort may or may not justify it – is not at all the same thing as the descent one must make in order to excavate a history. To be forced to excavate a history is, also, to repudiate the concept of history, and the vocabulary in which history is written; for the written history is, and must be, merely the vocabulary of power, and power is history’s most seductively attired false witness.’

Baldwin’s interest in history and power, of course, focuses on world history and its aftermath during that crucial, unprecedented epoch of globalisation, namely the 15th-20th centuries. In ‘Just above my Head’, as well as in his other novels, writings and lectures, Baldwin is wrestling with the position and impact of this history and power on African peoples, peoples of African descent in the United States and elsewhere. Baldwin’s interest is not predicated on merely assessing and classifying the obvious balance of forces of the principal national/racial/class/continental participants in this interplay of conflict relations, important as this goal may be, but much more in engaging in a challenging enterprise to, to use his word from archaeology, ‘excavate’ the critical agencies at work in the process, during the epoch.

We should now focus more closely on Britain, our own regional tributary in this global stream of history, and explore its variegated course and profile. Contrary to the ‘conventional wisdom’ which is all too eager to limit our comprehension of African-descent presence in Britain to the post-Second World War era, I am not aware of any historian who has categorically stated that the origin of the presence of African peoples, African descent peoples, in Britain began in 1948 with the Tilbury port docking of the ‘SS Empire Windrush’ ship from Jamaica with 492 African Caribbean immigrants on board. What is true, however, is that few historians have found it expedient to challenge this seeming ‘orthodoxy’ for all kinds of reasons that would become apparent shortly.

The truth is that African-descent peoples have lived in Britain, in varying numbers, for several centuries. There were African soldiers in the Roman legions that invaded Britain thrice (in 55BCE, 54BCE, 43CE) including those who embarked on the Roman occupation of the country in 43 CE. For the interested researcher, there is a veritable storehouse of sources that catalogues the African presence across the ages at the British Library, the London Records Office, local history libraries, museums, churches, art galleries, local governments, municipal councils, health authorities, trading companies, the merchant marine and military records.

These records show that African-descent peoples have maintained a continuously expanding permanent presence in London since 1507. Subsequently, the presence of African peoples in London and elsewhere in Britain, in varying numbers and circumstances, would be inextricably woven with that of British history itself through enslavement, mercantile capitalism, industrial/monopoly capitalism and enhanced global conquest and hegemony. The visit to England in 1555 by five West African merchants from Shama was an opportunity seized by English traders involved in the lucrative West African gold, ivory and pepper business. The English were keen to dislodge the Portuguese from their dominance in the ‘external’ sector of the trade. With the beginning of the European enslavement of African peoples in 1562 (first evidence of enslaved Africans physically sold in England was in 1621) and following the outbreak of the Spanish war of succession in the early 1700s, African peoples began to arrive in Britain in droves.

By the 1750s, the African-descent population in Britain was approximately 20,000 with the majority living in the London area (10-15,000). Soon, it was ‘fashionable’ for members of the British aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie to own one or more enslaved African. Those Africans who became free (the enslaved became free by either buying back their freedom through an agreed payment to their owner/owners or, more audaciously, by escaping from the bondage!) earned their living as entertainers, artists, craftspeople, cleaners or street beggars. In a celebrated painted panel of the royal court at Kenilworth in the 1570s, Queen Elizabeth I is shown being entertained by a group of African musicians and dancers. Soon, the essentially racist stereotype of the African, particularly the diasporan African in the West as a ‘natural entertainer’ was developed.

More institutionalised caricatures of the African-descent presence, especially in London, were expressed in the naming of streets and pubs. From the mid-16th to mid-19th century, a total of 61 streets in London were named Black Boy Lane (One still exists in Tottenham, borough of Haringey[!] and there are still popular public houses in Reading, Winchester, Banbury, Caernarfon, Oxford and elsewhere called ‘Black Boy’ Pub/Inn from the same period. In the latter example, Oxford University students tried unsuccessfully to have the pub’s name changed in 1999 because they felt that the name ‘caused offence’.) and 51 taverns were called ‘Blackmoor Head’ (‘blackmoor’, ‘blackamoor’, ‘n[****]’ and ‘c[*******]’ were some of the other English epithets used in describing Africans during the era).

For African peoples, generally, life in Britain was indeed harsh, turbulent and grim. It was a social existence of deprivation, hopelessness and humiliation – a ‘Babylon’, to borrow the popular imagery of the Rastafarian movement. Africans were subjected to life on the edge of society. Quite often, in spite of this obvious marginalisation, the African-descent population was blamed for society’s ills and misfortunes. For instance in 1596, during a devastating famine in the country, Queen Elizabeth I signed a decree ordering the deportation of all Africans from the land. She simply felt that the Africans were responsible for the scourge of the times! This was the same monarch who 30 years earlier had made fortunes from the African enslavement traffic. Apart from handsomely decorating John Hawkins, the first principal English enslaver of the African mission, the queen also lent Hawkins a ship during his second enslaving voyage to the West Africa coast and the profits made by that mission were shared by both.

Huge surpluses generated by Britain during the 350 years as the leading enslaver-power in Africa (a position it had taken over from the Iberian states of Portugal and Spain) were later used to finance its spectacular industrial revolution, finance its invasion and occupation of India and emerge as the first truly expansive global power by the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century. Cities such as London, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow became extremely rich, showcasing the spectacular transformation that each had undergone from being key destinations of prime investment of profits accruing to the British treasury from the enslavement of the African humanity. Thereafter, Britain became the epicentre of the intellectual activity of an ever-expanding collective of scholars, scientists and writers who offered the ‘requisite’ cultural/scientific/literary rationalisation for the African holocaust. As for the Africans, the cataclysmic consequences of this phenomenally long-stretched dehumanisation on themselves and on their African homeland and the new spaces of enforced habitation in the Americas, Britain and elsewhere in Europe are well documented.


But the African experience and presence in Britain was not just a long, dreadful, and uninterrupted age of woe. It was also an epoch when African intellectual ingenuity, artistic expression and activist involvement in the host society’s social struggles flourished. Utilising these crucial socio-cultural arenas, even if at times uneven and contradictory, Africans mounted their resistance and embarked on clearly marked liberatory initiatives here and there in Britain. Phyllis Wheatley, the poet, became a celebrity in literary circles in 1773 when her poems (‘Poems on Various Subjects’) were published. Wheatley had been kidnapped from contemporary Senegal at the age of eight and transported to Boston (United States) where she became a child prodigy and later arrived in England in 1772.

In the 1780s, two Jamaicans, William Davidson and Robert Wedderburn, emerged as leading organisers of the Spencean revolutionary socialist movement in London. The Spenceans (followers of Thomas Spence) were the most radical organisation at the time, which included agrarian communalists, factory workers, tradespeople, shoemakers and a few sailors and soldiers. Wedderburn was later jailed and his address to the people before he was marched off to prison became an enduring inspiration to the African population:

‘Oh ye Africans and relatives now in bondage … because you are innocent and poor; receive this the only tribute the offspring of an African can give, for which, I may ere long be lodged in prison … for it is a crime now in England to speak against oppression … I am a West-Indian, a lover of liberty, and would dishonour human nature if I did not show myself a friend, to the liberty of others.’

William Cuffay, who was most likely from present-day Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire, was one of the principal leaders of the chartist movement (the first mass political organisation of the British working population) which fought for the human rights of the people, including universal adult suffrage. Cuffay’s militancy and astute political leadership were often satirised in the media, with the ‘Punch’ once depicting London’s chartists as the ‘Black man and his party’. Cuffay was later deported to Australia for his work in the movement.

Africans usually found it tactically perspicacious to participate in the great social struggles of the oppressed and disadvantaged sectors of the British population and then use the opportunity to broaden the scope of the protests to incorporate their own worse condition. A notable example was the African-descent involvement in the gripping Gordon Riots of 1780. This was a campaign that initially began as a protest against the social position of rich Catholics. Soon, this turned into a generalised political struggle by the people against the nobility and the political establishment. During the march, state institutions such as the City, Westminster and the Lord Mayor’s office were attacked. A number of leaders of the uprising were later executed at Tower Hill including the prominent Africa activist, Charlotte Gardens. Ignatius Sancho, the African grocer and diarist, recorded this historic event and his account was published posthumously as ‘Letters of the Late Ignatius, an African’ in 1782.

There was another aspect of British society in which Africans played an important role. This was in military service. Africans began to serve in the British armed forces in the late 18th/early19th century. Military historians note that the origins of African active service (earlier on in the 17th century, African service people had been restricted to music duties in band regiments) could be traced to the US war of independence when some Africans fought for the British. After Britain’s defeat, the African soldiers were promised refuge and settlement in England and a large number of them arrived here in 1784. On the whole, the rehabilitation of these ex-service people did not materialise and many of them joined the rank of the very deprived African population. But Britain would in future always resort to this population and those of their cousins in Africa, the Caribbean and South America to fight its wars – most often, ironically, its wars of conquest and occupation across the world. It was in one of such wars, this time in the Crimea, that the services of a legendary African-descent woman must be recalled – Mary Seacole from Jamaica.

Seacole, from relative obscurity, volunteered her services and projected herself on the international scene of her day and through extraordinary selfless care for the wounded and suffering at war, anticipated the massive humanitarian concerns and support that the world and the British Red Cross would be contending with just a few decades away. A dispatch sent from the Crimea in 1855 by a British assistant field surgeon serving with the British 90th light infantry is a moving reminder of Seacole’s legacy:

‘She did not spare herself … In rain and snow, in storm and tempest, day after day, she was at her self-chosen post, with her stove and kettle, in any shelter she could find, brewing tea for all who wanted it and there were many. Sometimes, more than 200 sick would be embarked in one day but Mrs Seacole was always equal to the occasion.’


Another prominent member of the Africa population in London during this period was the Igbo intellectual, diarist, orator, sailor, explorer, entrepreneur and political organiser named Olaudah Equiano. Equiano had been captured and enslaved in Igboland at the age of 10. He purchased back his freedom in 1766. In the following year, he emerged as leader and spokesperson of the African-descent population in London and campaigned extensively across Britain for the termination of African enslavement. Equiano was appointed commissary of stores for the Sierra Leone resettlement scheme but was outraged by the corruption of government agents who spent much of their time pilfering the basic settlement necessities required for the scheme. Equiano’s outspokenness on this situation and his subsequent volte-face on the entire Sierra Leone programme cost him his job. He was later accused by the authorities of inciting an increasingly restive African population. When in 1789 Equiano published his autobiography, ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African’, it was received with popular acclaim and became a seminal contribution to the African enslavement abolitionist movement.

Equiano’s organisation with those of Paul Cuffee’s and Ottobah Cugoano’s, a Fante, another influential resident African, constituted, in essence, an incipient pan-African consciousness that would be transformed into a full-blown liberation movement uprising in subsequent epochs to free European-occupied Africa and the Caribbean and Guyana (South America) as well as the parallel African American civil rights uprising influenced and led by a range of intellectuals such as Sojourner Truth, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, James Africanus Beale Horton, King Jaja of Opobo, Edward Wilmot Blyden, Harriet Jacobs, George Washington Carver, Ras Makonnen, Eric Williams, Aimé Césaire, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, John Henrik Clarke, Abdulrahman Mohammed Babu, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Léon-Gontran Damas, Marcus Garvey, CLR James, Countee Cullen, Malcolm X, Léopold Sédar Sénghor, E Franklin Frazier, Martin Delaney, Cheikh Anta Diop, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, George James, Ama Ata Aidoo, Walter Sisulu, Louis Armstrong, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Duke Ellington, Nicholás Guillén, Mahaila Jackson, Agostinho Neto, George Lamming, Theophilus Enwezor Nzegwu, Ivan Van Sertima, Louis Mbanefo, Ousmane Sèmbene, Charlie Parkar, J.F.K. Aggrey, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Mingus, Nelson Mandela, Billie Holiday, Mbonu Ojike, Amiri Baraka, Frantz Fanon,  Gani Fawehinmi, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, James Baldwin, Onwuka Dike, Thelonious Monk, Patrice Lumumba, Miles Davis, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Julius Nyerere, Dizzy Gillespie, Chinua Achebe, John Coltrane, Okot p’Bitek, Jacob Caruthers, Christopher Okigbo, Eric Dolphy, Ladipo Solanke, Molefi Kete Asante, Steve Biko, Walter Rodney, Chike Obi, Bob Marley  and Théophile Obenga.

We should conclude by returning to Baldwin’s ‘Just above my Head’. The narrative voice ends those intense reflections on history and power by stating, ‘Our history is each other. That is our only guide. One thing is absolutely certain: one can repudiate or despise no one’s history without repudiating and despising one’s own’. It does appear that these thoughts, made in the mid-1970s as Baldwin writes ‘Just above my Head’, underline the thinking being vocalised more keenly by intellectuals, statespersons and many others in our current era in a new millennium – namely, that we are now in a more ‘interdependent’ world which inevitably calls for an honest, multiple, uninhibited flows of our collective narratives of experiences and aspirations, however, uncomfortable these may be. There cannot be a hegemonic reading of our disparate historical experiences and discourses without simultaneously creating the marginalisation, alienation and subjugation that characterise that overwhelmingly tragic globalisation heritage of the 15th–20th centuries.


Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe’s latest book is entitled ‘Readings from Reading: Essays on African Politics, Genocide, Literature’ (Dakar and Reading: African Renaissance, 2011).
 An earlier version of this essay was a lecture given during the 2009 British Red Cross African-descent History Month, British Red Cross Headquarters, Moorfields, London, 6 October 2009. I wish to acknowledge that the phrase, ‘They came before’, in the essay caption, is borrowed from the title of the path-breaking study, ‘They came before Columbus’ by Ivan Van Sertima, the distinguished African-Guyanese historian and linguist. ‘They came before Columbus’ was published by Random House in 1976.

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