It is a mistake to think that the presence of the African diaspora in Britain began with the Windrush generation. In fact, African were present in the isles even before the English. It is time to reclaim the proper place of blacks in Britain’s history. By Awula Serwah and Kwaku.
The British government recently backed a community-led campaign to mark 22 June, the date in 1948 when African Caribbeans from the British Caribbean colonies disembarked from the Empire Windrush ship in Tilbury, Essex.
We will be missing an opportunity to learn more about African British history if the commemoration of Windrush Day ends up revolving only around the African Caribbean experience in 1948 and after. The day should speak to a wider breadth of African history in Britain.
In 1998, during the 50th anniversary of the Empire Windrush celebrations, some historians criticised the narrow focus of the Windrush narrative, which was said to give the impression that the history of Africans in Britain started in the 1940s. That impression will be amplified, should a now government-backed day of celebrations, not take cognisance of the criticism highlighted 20 years ago.
The fact is that the general public is largely surprised when informed historians, including Peter Fryer and David Olusoga, state that Africans were in Britain before the English. Have they not heard of the African Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled the Roman Empire from York from the early 3rd century, or that records indicate that an African Roman army guarded a fort near Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria around the 3rd century AD?
There is lack of knowledge of the likes of John Blanke, an African trumpeter whose employment in the courts of Henry the VII and VIII straddled the 15th and 16th centuries.
The majority of the general public appear to think that the so-called mass migration of Africans to Britain began with Empire Windrush. If we are looking at recent history, there were at least two ships, the Ormonde and the Almanzora, that brought Africans from the Caribbean to Britain before Empire Windrush arrived in June 1948, and more importantly, before the invitations from British government and industry in the 1950s to come and help rebuild war-torn Britain.
Historians, academics, politicians, community leaders and the media have a duty to research and put out factually correct information and not misinform the general public by regurgitating factually incorrect information. There are numerous archives and libraries that hold documents that corroborate the fact that Africans were in Britain centuries before Empire Windrush.
Centuries of African contribution
As recently as the 18th century, the Sons of Africa, the African abolitionist group that included the likes of Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano and Ignatius Sancho, were part of a noticeable African community in Britain.
Sancho owned a shop in Westminster and voted in the 1774 and 1780 parliamentary elections, at a time when many English people could not vote because they did not own property.
The difficulty with locating our history mainly around Empire Windrush and the offshoot Windrush generation is that it marginalises the previous centuries of African history and contributions to Britain.
Interestingly, because Africans have been here for centuries, the so-called ‘hostile environment’ highlighted by the current Commonwealth and Windrush crisis, is nothing new. In 1596 and 1601, during Queen Elizabeth 1’s reign, there was enough of an African presence in Britain for documents to be drafted giving a European merchant authority to round up and expel Africans from Britain.
Our point? Let’s research the history. We ourselves, as part of pan-London community BTWSC/African Histories Revisited, are delivering programmes that speak to the wider African British histories.
We’re also planning on publishing, later this year, the book Look How Far We’ve Come: Disrupting African British History Narratives?, which highlights some of the misinformation of the African experience in Britain going back centuries.
Finally, how many are aware that in 2016, the BBC’s History Unit placed a plaque at St. Michael’s Church in Burgh by Sands which reads: “The first recorded African community in Britain guarded a Roman fort on this site. 3rd century AD”?
Let’s not marginalise the African presence in Britain by unwittingly contributing to the myth that the so-called mass migration of Africans to Britain was after the Second World War. NA