“Recognize that nations are invented and you’ll see they’re always being reinvented. Once, to be English, you had to imagine your ancestors were recorded a millennium ago in the Doomsday Book. Now a Rohit or a Pavel or a Muhammad or a Kwame can be English”
Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah
BBC Reith Lectures 2016
Who is English? Can a black man be an Englishman? How many years/generations must immigrants live in England before they can be identified/accepted as English? Today, these are the kind of questions that are sparked by the arrival of West Indians, in 1948, on the ship “The Empire Windrush”. These questions presuppose that this former troop-carrying steamship, brought the first wave of black people to England’s shores.
But is this the case?
Today, many people believe that West Indians, invited to Britain, to help solve the post war employment problems in running state services, mark the beginning of large numbers of black people living in this country. However, a careful study of the historical record proves this belief not to be true. The earliest evidence of large numbers of African people, in England, date back to the 3rd Century AD. The records show that there was a black, Roman, African army troop guarding a Fort near the western end of Hadrian’s Wall at Aballava (now Burgh by Sands, in Cumbria).
Peter Fryer in his acclaimed book, “Staying Power”, commenting on the African soldiers at this fort writes “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here.” And when one considers that Romans occupied Britain it means that Britain was colonized centuries before it became a colonizer.
Richard Benjamin writes in British Archaeology of “a unit of north African Moors, Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum, stationed at the Roman military garrison at Burgh-by-Sands (ancient Aballava/Aballaba) at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria. We can say with some confidence that the unit occupied the site of Burgh-by-Sands around the 2nd to 4th centuries AD.”
This is supported by additional information found in a Roman document called the “Notitia Dignitatum” that identified the troops as “Aurelian Moors,” a unit of North African troops named after the Emperor Aurelius.
In 2016, The BBC’s History unit placed a plaque at St.Michael’s Church in Burgh by Sands, the site where the Roman Fort once stood. It reads- “The first recorded African community in Britain guarded a Roman fort on this site. 3rd century AD.”
The discovery of human skeletal remains in two separate locations in England is further proof of Africans living there during the Roman period. In 1953, among some 300 sets of human remains removed from Saxon graves in the Eastbourne Ancestors projects, one proved to be especially interesting. It was a skeleton of a woman who was around 30 years old when she died in 245AD. She was given the name of “Beachy Head Lady”, after the place where she was found. Upon examination, the Experts concluded she grew up in Sussex even though she was from Sub-Saharan Africa- an area beyond the extent of the Roman Empire. A forensic facial reconstruction was performed on the skull by Caroline Wilkinson, Dundee University, the nation’s foremost authority in this field. Her completed work was put on exhibition in the Eastbourne Museum.
The other was the find of a stone sarcophagus, which contained a woman of black African ancestry, bejeweled with luxury items- often referred to as the “ivory bangle lady.” This discovery was a surprising indication of the amount of diversity in Roman York society, with its mixed populations, of Phoenician, Berber and Mediterranean peoples.
Hella Eckhardt, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Archaeology at Reading University, said- “We’re looking at a population mix which is much closer to contemporary Britain than previous historians had suspected. In the case of York, the Roman population may have had more diverse origins than the city has now.”
During the Tudor period there were two African men who stand out in the history records. The first was John Blanke, a black musician who it is believed came to England as a part of the African entourage of Catherine of Aragon in 1501. Court records of the Treasurer of the Chamber show payments to a “John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter” first by Henry V11 an later by Henry V111 in 1509. The historian, Dr.Sydney Anglo, in an article about The Court Festivals of Henry V11 identified John Blank, the “blacke trumpet,” as one of the six trumpeters portrayed in the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll- the illuminated 60 feet manuscript created to commemorate the birth of a son to Henry V111. This opulent manuscript of Henry’s Royal procession is now held at the College of Arms.
John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter
The records reveal that Blanke married in 1512 but there is no information about his wife. However, a document exists that shows he received a gift from King Henry. It reads- “John Blake, our trumpeter.”
The second black man, Francis Barber, was the African servant of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famous lexicographer, who many people consider to be “the most distinguished man of letters in the English history.” The relationship between Dr. Johnson and Barber was described by contemporaries as more like father and son than master and servant.
Dr. Johnson paid for Barber to be educated at Bishop’s Stortford Grammar school. And, Barber served him for 32 years until Johnson’s death in 1784. He was not only a valet but also his secretary, arranging his trips and keeping his diary. When Barber married, his English wife and children lived in Johnson’s home. In later years Barber served as an assistant helping to revise the illustrious “Dictionary of the English Language.”
Barber was designated by Johnson as his sole heir and was assigned an annuity of £70. He also bequeathed to him his books and papers. Barber was also an important source of information for James Boswell in writing about the life of Johnson. In 1801 Barber died and today his descendants still live in Staffordshire. Cedric Barber, who is a white man and direct descendant of Barber, revealed from a family genealogy study, was chosen to unveil the BBC history plaque about his 4 times great grandfather, at Dr. Johnson’s house, now a museum. In the pictures below Cedric Barber stands beside a BBC history plaque Outside of Dr Samuel Johnson’s House.
One is left to speculate as to how many other white people, who without their knowledge, currently living in Britain, are direct descendants of the early Africans who came to live there. It also raises the question who is “white” in Britain?
There are many more examples of Africans who had unique and outstanding lives in Britain prior to 1948. Each one is deserving of a full history. The following are a few examples with a brief note. I invite you to Google their names to discover more about them.
SARAH BONETTA: In 1843, she was born in West Africa, of Yoruba royalty. Captured at the age of 5 in a slavery raid, she was taken to England and presented to Queen Victoria as a “gift.” The Queen accepted her as her Goddaughter, paid for her education and upbringing and she was a frequent visitor to the Royal household. When Sarah married and gave birth to a daughter, she was granted permission to name her Victoria and the Queen also became her Godmother.
MARY SEACOLE: The daughter of a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother. In 1853, during the Crimean War, she tried to offer her nurse services but was denied. She independently travelled to Crimea and set up The British Hotel to provide food and medical services to recovering British Troops. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991, and there is a statue of her opposite the House of Parliament, London.
CHARLES WOOTTEN: A young 24-year-old black ship’s fireman, from Bermuda, who was murdered by a mob in one of Britain’s first race riots. Wootten was a seaman who had served both King and country in WW1. A history plaque erected by the BBC now marks the place at the Liverpool docks where he was killed in 1919.
The information about the African people highlighted above is clear evidence that large numbers of Africans lived in Britain prior to 1948. And the arrival of the Windrush was not the birth of multiculturalism in Britain. The history demonstrates that in the early days of British history, some places in the country were more ethnically diverse and multicultural than we ever realized.
The achievements of these early Africans and their progeny in no way denigrates the achievements of the “Windrush generation”. Their contribution to Britain and its place in world events are equally remarkable and praise worthy. Today, we should honour and celebrate the achievements of both the Roman Africans and the Windrush immigrants who came to Britain, survived, multiplied and paved the way for other African people to follow them.
I’ve learned a lot of new information researching for this article – how about you?
Copyright 2016 Affable Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.