Saturday 16 March 2024


     David Olusoga is a British-Nigerian historian and broadcaster whose professorship is at the University of Manchester. In 2019 he was awarded the OBE for services to history and community integration. 

In this book of over 200 pages, David Olusoga has achieved what he set out to do: he has written for a readership of children the history of Black people in Britain. The version for adults had already been published to acclaim; now there is a text for younger readers - and any adult such as myself who has not read the earlier work can get so much from reading this book with its short, straightforward sentences and unearthed details. 

Professor David Olusoga - New York Times photo

I will shape this blogpost around ten points that I discovered for the first time in reading Black and


I didn't know that:

  • When Queen Victoria was on the throne in the middle of the 19th century, there were 1.8 million African-Americans who worked growing cotton in the United States.
Cotton plantation - Wikipedia image

  • The first recorded group of Africans living in Britain were soldiers in the Roman army defending Hadrian's Wall. They were Aurelian Moors who came from north Africa. We know this because of a discovery in 1934 of Latin words carved in stone in a village in Cumbria.
  • Archaeologists in this century have studied over 200 Roman skulls found in York and found that more than one in ten of them had features similar to people with African ancestors. Roman Britain was much more diverse than we used to think.  
  • The earliest Black person in Britain whose face and name we know is John Blanke, a royal trumpeter at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII.

  • There were four African sailors on Drake's circumnavigation of the world in 1577.
  • I knew that the British had established a colony in Jamestown in Virginia in north America in 1607 and that a colony had also been established on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean in 1627 - tobacco was grown for sale back in England; I didn't grasp that by the second half of the 17th century there were more enslaved Africans than Europeans living on Barbados and that in 1661 the Barbados Slave Code was enforced which split society into two - the enslaved Black people and white free people. Different people; different rules. It was around this time that the people from Britain and Europe began to think of themselves as part of a group called 'white'. The landowners in the West Indies hoped that if poor Europeans saw themselves as white like their rulers, they would be more likely to support the rulers if the black slaves rebelled. 
  • The Royal African Company set up by Charles II in 1672 enslaved more people than any other British company in history. I did already know that 1 in 5 of the slaves on board the ships that transported them from Africa to north America or the Caribbean didn't survive the journey in such appalling conditions. In all, over three million people were enslaved by British companies between around 1640 and 1807.  
The British Royal Family have much to make amends for

  • By the 1770s there were half a million people living as slaves in British colonies in North America.
  • During the 18th century, half of all the Africans carried across the Atlantic into slavery were transported by British ships.

  • In 1823 a new generation of abolitionists began the struggle to end slavery itself, the slave trade having been outlawed in 1808. Many of them wanted slavery to be ended immediately, not gradually, and many of their leaders were women. One of the most important was Elizabeth Heyrick, a Quaker schoolteacher from Leicester who in 1824 wrote a pamphlet entitled Immediate, not Gradual Abolition. 

There's my list of ten new discoveries - and I haven't even reached the chapters on Victorians, The First World War, the Second World War, the Twentieth Century, and Conclusion. I will leave you to make your own journeys of discovery - although I should point out that there are details that show the endemic racism that pervades our recent history. All this we need to understand and then resolve how we individually respond. That is the Quaker message of Jonathan Doering and Nim Njuguna (2023) in Enlarging the Tent, a book with worksheets that is also available for borrowing in our Marazion Meeting House library. My parents were stained by the racism of the cultures in which they grew up. They found it awkward to know quite what to say when they saw this photo of their son with his first year form in the secondary school where he taught for seven years between 1977 and 1984:

Twenty-one members of 1X1 with their form teacher, Mr. Donovan, in the summer of 1978 in the grounds of Aylestone High School, Willesden, in the London Borough of Brent - the two pupils on the extreme right of the back row are not part of the form; they just came on board for the photo-shot; one of them is making a gesture to convey her feelings.   



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