Black and British


Read 27/05/2018-02/09/2018 (with breaks!)

Rating: 4 stars

It took me a while to read this history of Black people in Britain, mainly because it’s an in-depth piece of research that warranted a slow read to absorb the multi-layered stories, but also because the majority of those stories are necessarily hard going. I needed to take a number of breaks to read books that were lighter in tone or pure fiction.

I watched David Olusoga’s BBC TV show Black and British last year and have been meaning to read the accompanying book for a while. I enjoyed his presenting style and the way he made a difficult subject accessible without diluting the message of white culpability in the enslavement and continued denigration of people of colour that is central to this history.

I remember on the TV show that Olusoga talked about the racism he and his siblings encountered growing up mixed race in Sunderland during the 1970s and 1980s. In the preface to Black and British, he goes further into the abuse and lack of support from the white community, most of whom saw people of colour as ‘other’ and believed that they should be sent back to some unspecified place, probably Africa. What Olusoga describes is shocking, even to someone like me who is aware of the level of racism prevalent at the time and the threat that NF skinheads posed to anyone who looked vaguely non-white.

The introduction to the book reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, in particular the section that dealt with the capture, confinement and sale of Ghanaian men and women in the 18th century. Olusoga introduces the creation of slaves by describing a fortress at the mouth of the Sierra Leone river, on Bunce Island, where captured men and women were brought to be branded and selected by the traders, before being shackled and imprisoned in the fortress where they awaited their sale and transportation to the site of their brutal new existence as a slave. Olusoga talks about families being torn apart, with the men separated from the women and children. Earlier the same day, I’d seen various things on social media that talked about the current US policy of separating immigrant children from their parents by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and the way this was “un-American”. How quickly white America forgets. How quickly white Britain forgets, as well, with its parallel story around the appalling treatment of British citizens with Caribbean heritage, which is apparently similarly “un-British” despite being rooted in the Conservative government’s policy of creating a hostile environment for all immigrants. This is the entire history of people from colonised countries who were enslaved and indentured by Europe and the US, and it’s a history of separation from family and from culture. It’s a history, as Olusoga points out in the preface, of communities who have not been permitted to integrate and are now blamed for that lack of integration. Of course, racists who call for integration don’t mean integration. They mean assimilation.

Towards the end of the introduction, Olusoga addresses the whitewashing of British history, in particular the way in which elements of popular culture (Amazing Grace, Land of Hope and Glory, the origins of the guinea, the meaning of the word brand) have lost their connection to Britain’s slaving actions in Africa because Africa’s importance in the story of Britain’s rise as an industrial and imperial power has been deliberately ignored. It reminded me of how pleased I was by Imogen Hermes Gowar’s inclusion of black characters in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, both the fact of it and the way she did it. Olusoga says this:

The importance of Africa at various junctures in British history is little examined and the presence of black people in Britain although increasingly accepted has been partially obscured by a celebration of the post-war immigration that, although welcome and positive, tends to drown out the longer more complex story.
Black history is too often regarded as a segregated, ghettoized narrative that runs in its own shallow channel alongside the mainstream, only very occasionally becoming a tributary into that broader narrative. But black British history is not an optional extra. Nor is it a bolt-on addition to mainstream British history deployed only occasionally in order to add – literally – a splash of colour to favoured epochs of the national story. It is an integral and essential aspect of mainstream British history.

Two things interested me here – Olusoga’s notion that the presence of black people in Britain earlier than post-war is increasingly accepted, and his use of the words mainstream history to describe white history. His choice of words has to have been done to soften the challenge of his position to the white people among his audience. It’s an indictment of white privilege that he has to frame it this way, revealing that we are still so far from believing the documentary evidence of the presence of people of colour beyond living memory and that we view history as ours, with the history of others something separate to our glorious past.

Earlier in the introduction, Olusoga puts this expunging of black people from British history in context. The people who controlled the documentary record of British life were rich and white. When slavery was abolished in Britain, these rich white people, the people who had traded black people as chattels and made their money through their labour, simply buried and destroyed the evidence. Tabula rasa. Nothing to see here. Olusoga’s book is a step towards restoring the story of black people in Britain to its rightful place – as integral to British history as the story of white people. The story of black British people is different to that of black American people, and Olusoga’s mission reminded me of Reni Eddo-Lodge‘s statement about the only black history taught in British schools being the history of American civil rights, as though the story of slavery took place far away from Britain. The time for that to change is long overdue.

Chapter one begins the integrated history of Britain with the Romans and the increasing evidence from archaeology that Afro-Romans lived among the indigenous population at all levels of society. Olusoga suggests that the decline of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Islamic Empire in North Africa and the Middle East contributed to a lack of regular contact between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa during the middle ages. In one bewildering passage, Olusoga quotes Pliny, who was possibly on drugs when describing the fantastical peoples of Africa. He includes peoples with no noses, no lips, no tongues, one eye, and the heads of dogs, a people who walked on their hands, and the more familiar array of cannibals, naturists and troglodytes. Pliny’s Summary of the Antique Wonders of the World was published in England in the 1550s, around the time English traders first reached West Africa. Other European writers in the medieval period had added to Pliny’s confusing imaginings with their own, further mythologising Africa in a way not dissimilar to the casual racism I grew up hearing, setting black people as Not Like Us in a fabled way.

From chapter one I learned that the root of slavery, its justification in European culture, is the Bible. Of course it is. Specifically, the mythology of Noah and the flood. For medieval Europe, there were only three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. After the flood, only four men remained – Noah, who was old, and his three sons Ham, Shem and Japheth. Each son became the progenitor of one of the known continents. Ham was the progenitor of Africa. When he and Noah had a falling out, Noah cursed him and his descendants to become the servants of the servants of Ham’s brothers. This became twisted in Elizabethan England to signify why Africans were black and why it was okay to enslave them. And so began the process of othering.

Through the chapters concerned with the 18th century, I learned a little more about the setting for The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, in particular the existence of a renowned black courtesan, Black Harriot, who lived in the same part of London as Polly, the black courtesan in Gowar’s work of fiction, but also the place of black footmen like Simeon in fashionable society. I learned, too, that my scientific hero, Sir Joseph Banks, came from better stock than most wealthy white Georgians, as his mother is revealed to be a rescuer of freed slaves.

Olusoga is an excellent teacher. He takes historical facts and combines them in an engaging and atmospheric narrative. His easy style made reading a joy. The way he brought humanity to the horrors of slavery and revealed the people behind the half remembered stories of the black presence in England made the telling of this aspect of British history gripping. He even managed to bring life to the dryness of legal precedent in his discussion of the legality of slave ownership in 18th century England.

There’s occasionally a sadness and a frustration in Olusoga’s tone when he describes how difficult it is to uncover evidence of who the black people who made England their home were. A common theme is that of black people being spoken about rather than speaking themselves, of being a subject in the events they were at the heart of rather than the protagonist. In the time of slavery, it was rare for the names of slaves and black servants to be recorded, rare for the racial origin of free blacks to be noted in official documents like baptism, marriage or burial records, and rarer still for black people to gain an education and be able to record their own existence. Often, the only evidence is a court record, or an unusual name in a register. This isn’t just to do with the record of slavery being expunged after its abolition. It’s to do with the nature of official records, which are kept to make enumeration of the population easier and aren’t about who the person is. The same is true for the labouring classes. As frustrating as it can be to come up against dead end after dead end in researching black history, the lack of the personal in the record, and even the lack of the record itself, is part of that history.

Chapter five reveals aspects of the American War of Independence that I was unaware of. Slaves whose owners were considered rebels by the British government were enticed to fight on the side of the British with promises of freedom. Thousands escaped the plantations to fight. Freedom for many of them turned out to be death. Towards the end of the war, when the British and loyalist forces were beseiged, the black fighters who were a drain on resources were often cast out of the loyalist camps to starve in the no man’s land between the two sides, or to be shot by the rebels. Attempts to rectify this betrayal led to slaves who hadn’t received their freedom as a reward for fighting, because their owners were loyalists, being sent by their owners to plantations in the West Indies. Some were sent to a settlement in Canada. The freed slaves were allowed to travel to England, where they joined the ranks of the poor and struggled to survive. Many who sought relief from charities set up to assist this influx of people were told that their freedom should be relief enough. Later still, as Britain entered an economic slump, black people began to be the target of racism and policies intended to make the problem go away that included a form of repatriation. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Especially when Olusoga talks about a scheme to deport the increasing numbers of poverty stricken black people to a special colony on the inhospitable coast of Sierra Leone, not far from the slave trading post on Bunce Island. Hostile environment anyone?

Olusoga reminded me of how much Georgian Britain has in common with our current times. Prosperity built on speculative bubbles, a failed war on another continent, refugees seeking a better life in our country and a backlash against a minority group simply for looking different. Misinformation and misinterpretation in the media, and the consumers of the media picking and choosing what they believe, especially if it fits with what they already think. Back in 2010, I believed that the Tories wanted to take us back to the Victorian era, with the deserving and undeserving poor and an elite that tries to buy itself salvation. Reading the context to Olusoga’s narrative refreshed my memory about Georgian society, and now I think that the Tories are taking us back an extra hundred years. It’s either that or we’ve returned as a nation to our natural state, which is flighty, greedy, vain and deluded about our worth in the wider world.

Olusoga brings a different perspective to the story of abolition as well, particularly the implications of ‘gradualism’, the principle that immediate emancipation would be a disaster. Freed slaves would apparently be unable to cope if they suddenly stopped being the property of white people.

Freedom would be delivered incrementally, in carefully spaced stages with white men judging and assessing the capacities of black people to manage their own affairs and adhere to European norms.

This attitude towards people of colour continues to prevail in workplace discrimination, institutional racism, and the slow breakdown of prejudice. It’s nothing to do with the capabilities of black people and everything to do with the inability of white people to relinquish the lies we’ve built up about people of colour. We have to keep supporting black people when they push back against racism, and we have to push back ourselves when we are faced with racist attitudes among our friends, family and colleagues.

Olusoga discusses the many freed and fugitive African-American slaves who travelled to and across Britain in the years after the British abolition of the slave trade. Frederick Douglass was among their number. I was so ignorant of African-American history, having only been briefly introduced to Martin Luther King’s story at school, that the first time I read about Douglass was in Nick Offerman’s book Gumption. Don’t judge me, judge the woefully inadequate British school curriculum of the 1980s. In Black and British, I discovered that not only did Douglass visit Britain, but he was based in Manchester during the time two sisters from Newcastle upon Tyne paid for his freedom. The purchase of Douglass’s freedom was criticised by some abolitionists who felt that, as all slaves were in reality free, no such payment should be necessary. Douglass was more pragmatic, writing to Henry Clarke Wright, an abolitionist and journalist:

I am legally the property of Thomas Auld, and if I go to the United States … Thomas Auld, aided by the American Government, can seize, bind and fetter, and drag me from my family, feed his cruel revenge upon me, and doom me to unending slavery … it was not to compensate the slave-holder, but to release me from his power; not to establish my natural right to freedom, but to release me from all legal liabilities, to slavery.

The whole abolitionist movement was full of contradictions. White supporters, among them Charles Dickens, often held the moral belief that no person should be the property of another alongside a feeling of repugnance for the physical form of people of colour. An early version of feeling sorry for refugees but not wanting to live next door to one, I suppose. Dickens pops up again later, in similarly queasy circumstances.

The passages that describe the manner in which the British Navy intercepted slave ships (good) and then processed the captive Africans (bad) made me feel sick. Olusoga doesn’t shy away from describing the horrors of being held below and between decks on a slave ship, or the consequences of more than 400 people being crammed into a space intended for fewer than 200 and designed to crush the body into contortions of discomfort, while the British court in Sierra Leone decided the fate of these liberated slaves. Around a quarter of the slaves aboard captured slave ships died as a direct result of the conditions they were kept in. Those people, all of whom lost their names and identities to history, might have been freed but they still weren’t treated as human. To have been treated worse than livestock while being trafficked as slaves was bad enough. To have been treated no better in their new-gained freedom is obscene.

What we learn in the UK about the abolition of slavery is a tale of triumph, of William Wilberforce winning British hearts and minds to end a practice that Britain had been involved in for hundreds of years, of how great that somehow made us. I wasn’t taught anything more than that, and certainly not most of the things Olusoga writes about.

The one good thing about the processing of freed slaves, referred to as Recaptives, is the survival of the registers the details of Liberated Africans were kept in. Ignoring the numbering of people and the weird blandness of the bureaucratic process, these Registers of Liberated Africans make real the people whose existence is recorded in their pages. Names, often spelled phonetically, body markings both tribal and as a result of illness or abuse, height, all of the details recorded over forty years of documenting Recaptives reverse the process of de-individualisation that the slave trade introduced. As Olusoga points out, these registers are a rich source for understanding and identifying where people were taken from across Africa when they were captured and enslaved. The register entries also indicate where these freed men, women and children went next. Unsurprisingly, it was typically on to another form of forced labour. The apprenticeship system for freed children involved a colonial resident, at first for free and then from 1824 for a ten shilling fee, choosing a child, tying a string around their neck, and enjoying the child’s free labour for three years. The new owners of these children called them apprentices. The freed Africans called them slaves. Olusoga refers to evidence that many of these children were sold back into slavery, via the inland slave trade. It wasn’t all bad, a good proportion of freed slaves formed communities along tribal lines, built homes, farmed land, or learnt new trades, but still the whole liberation process hardly covers Britain in glory, now, does it?

From a work perspective, I found the narrative about the Yoruba people of what is now Nigeria an interesting one. Many of the freed slaves who had been taken from the Yoruba nation settled in Sierra Leone and became successful in business, particularly in the trade of palm oil. Later, members of Sierra Leone’s Yoruba community relocated to Lagos in Nigeria and became the key traders in palm oil in that port city. Known locally as the Sora, a diminutive for Sierra Leone, this community became the driving force in the emergence of Nigerian nationalism in the mid-20th century. This added to my understanding of the Paterson Zochonis story. We have a collection of fancy wax prints made by PZ, who started out as manufacturers and traders in toiletries. PZ Cussons is still a global manufacturer of soap and other toiletries with a long history in West Africa. Paterson and his partner Zochonis set up a trading post in Sierra Leone in the 1860s and undoubtedly did business with the Yoruba community. The story is that they saw the wax printed fabrics worn by the women in the marketplace, recognised that Manchester had the skills and facilities required to manufacture similar fabrics, and so diversified into the design, manufacture and supply of high quality fancy wax prints to the West African market. It isn’t a huge leap to presume from Olusoga’s narrative of Yoruba/Sora migration that this was PZ route into the Nigerian market as well. The company’s designs were mainly targeted towards the Yoruba, Ashanti, Hausa and Igbo nations, all of which became part of modern Nigeria.

For the most part in his discussion of Victorian attitudes towards and beliefs about the intelligence and character of Black people, Olusoga presents reported speech and written opinion with little comment, allowing the reader to form their own judgement about the prejudices of Victorian Britons. The only point where he goes against his own equitable approach is when the story concerns Queen Victoria. Perhaps I was more aware of it because I believe that the monarchy should be abolished, but there was something cringing about the way Olusoga talks about Queen Victoria’s attitude towards her ward Sarah Forbes Bonetta. He seems to go out of his way to avoid criticising this dead monarch, and at times came across as an apologist for her racism. He manages to quote from the queen’s diary, a passage describing her first meeting with Sarah that includes references to “a poor little negro”, “her little black woolly head” and her earrings giving her “the true negro type”, and follow it with two paragraphs explaining that Victoria was generally opposed to racism, met with many people of African descent, had close relationships with non-white members of her court and had been emotionally affected by reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her recorded racism is excused by Olusoga thus:

… Victoria ruled over an empire that in the latter decades of the nineteenth century was increasingly influenced by racial thinking and new ‘scientific’ racial theories and Victoria, like most Victorians, thought in terms of racial ‘types’, and may well have believed, to some extent, that the races of mankind possessed innate, inner characteristics.

(She’s dead, David. You’re not going to offend her by saying that she held attitudes towards people of colour that at best can be described as patronising, but are racist nonetheless. And if you’re worried about offending her living descendants, most of them are on record as being racist as well, as recently as April 2018 in the case of the current heir to the throne, recently announced as Head of the Commonwealth.)

Olusoga regains his equilibrium by the end of the chapter, presenting Victoria’s innate and inane racism without further comment as a juxtaposition to the sad end to Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s life.

I had a break at this point. I felt in need of some fiction, and Olusoga was about to enter familiar territory, that of King Cotton and the connection between my own specific heritage and Black history.

As familiar as Lancashire’s and, more particularly, Manchester’s role in the story of slavery and global trade is, Olusoga still educated me. I was unaware of Senator James Henry Hammond and his Mudsill Theory. Reading the quotes that Olusoga selected made me feel ill. They also made me recognise yet again that views of this kind still hold true for a significant number of people on both sides of the Special Relationship. The full text of Hammond’s speech, also known as the Cotton is King speech, is online here. The passage that Olusoga quotes from starts “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life.” Hammond spoke of how black slaves were part of God’s natural plan, that they were somehow beneficiaries of that plan through being transported from Africa to live in their elevated conditions in the American South, in a way that the labourers who generated wealth for the industrialists of the North weren’t. These labourers, Hammond said, were essentially slaves themselves, but without the security of employment for life, without the guaranteed care of a slave owner. He could have said the same about the factory  workers in Britain. As much as I agree that capitalism exploits the workers for the benefit of the owners of the means of production, my ancestors were never slaves. Capitalism is a corrupt system and slavery is the pinnacle of its corruption, but the condition of the working class within that system is no excuse for the theft of people, the denial of their personhood, or the removal of their autonomy.

Hammond made his speech three years before America plunged into civil war. As Olusoga says, the collapse of the House was brought about by men who intended to create a global conflict. In the full speech, Hammond refers to the fact that white labourers in the North could vote, unlike black slaves in the South. A dangerous state of affairs, he suggests.

… being the majority, they are the depositaries of all your political power. If they knew the tremendous secret, that the ballot-box is stronger than “an army with banners,” and could combine, were would you be? Your society would be reconstructed, your government overthrown, your property divided, not as they have mistakenly attempted to initiate such proceedings by meeting in parks, with arms in their hands, but by the quiet process of the ballot-box.

I can’t help but make a comparison between the factors leading up to the American Civil War and the situation we find ourselves in now, with the political right in both the US and Britain seeking to disenfranchise the poor, the black, the allegedly communist, whoever can’t be manipulated by advertising on social media or lies and propaganda spread by a sponsored press set up in opposition to the rest of the fourth estate. I came back to Black and British because of a column Olusoga wrote in The Observer. There might not be a neat chronological pattern to the history of popular uprising against the oppression of the ruling classes, but any historian can tell you that, as a species, one significant thing about humans is our ability to think we’ve learnt from the past at the same time as blatantly not learning from the past. Will we learn this time? Will enough people see parallels between current political machinations and similar ones in the past? Will we dodge another war or will the momentum towards partisan conflict prove too strong to resist?

I found another parallel in the discussion of early support for the Confederate cause in the first couple of years of the US Civil War. My own home town was staunchly pro-Confederacy. This doesn’t surprise me. My home town is traditionally populated by working class people who think the Tories are on their side. There’s a bedrock of conservatism in this northern mill town that it’s hard to break through, even now. My home town is a place where fear of what’s different is strong, where racism is rife, and where control of immigration was top of the list of reasons for voting to leave the EU. No matter that our MPs are mostly Labour. My home town is a place of bigotry. The parallel I drew was from that recognition of fear of the unknown and reliance on self-interest in Olusoga’s sentences.

Perhaps it is surprising that hungry, fearful people supported a political strategy that would alleviate their sufferings and revive their economic fortunes. The pioneering work of the historian Mary Ellison shows how in the face of distress some of the workers of Lancashire acted out of self-interest and sided with the Confederacy, or at least favoured it’s recognition by the British government.

Self-interest and fear were key in the EU Referendum. I voted out of self-interest. I don’t like the EU as an institution. I studied its economics at university. I’m a Keynesian. The EU as it currently exists is a neo-liberal, monetarist construct. But in a neo-liberal, monetarist global economy, I’d rather be in the EU than cast adrift with no realistic chance of a socialist government taking power and protecting the very people who believe leaving the EU in the current climate is in their best interests.

Self-interest and fear were key for some voters who felt disenfranchised by Obama’s government in the last US Presidential election.

I’m growing tired of repeating myself.

It’s there again in the reaction of the governor of Jamaica to the 1865 rebellion of the landless poor in the parish of St Ann. These people petitioned the queen for assistance, in the aftermath of emancipation that saw slave owners compensated for their loss of what they saw as property, the wealthiest plantation owners leaving Jamaica when sugar became unprofitable, and the freed slaves given very little, not even the opportunity to work the land abandoned by their former masters. By 1865, the white ruling classes had labelled the black population of Jamaica congenitally lazy. The petition sent to Victoria requested access to the lands that had been abandoned and made forfeit to the Crown. The petitioners wanted the opportunity to work and to be productive. They planned to use the profits from their productivity to pay for the land in instalments. They didn’t reckon with the bloody mindedness of the governor, though. He believed that the sugar plantations were still the key to Jamaica’s economic future. And despite the sound economic plan put forward by the petitioners, he believed that black people lacked the necessary character and moral rectitude for the job. He added a note to that effect to the petition and the head of the Colonial Office’s West India division published a response in the queen’s name that told the petitioners to get back to the plantations, knuckle down to the work needed to make the plantations profitable, and stop expecting handouts from the queen.

Self-interest and fear married to lies about racial differences that still resound in today’s society. The lies continued as justification for the killing that happened when the petitioners eventually rioted. Now they were classed as savages so desperate for freebies that they would slaughter their white betters. The Times, ever the cheerleader for white supremacy, ran an article that stated that black people needed the firm hand of white government in order to be a respectable member of society. Even as other media outlets, The Spectator among them, bizarrely, began to express doubts about the governor’s version of events, The Times stuck to its prejudiced view. Olusoga tells us

The Times did not attempt to piece together timelines or compare official dispatches to other sources in order to determine whether the reported actions of the so-called rebels fitted with the accounts offered by the governor.

Shocking reports that revealed the truth about the governor’s massacre of the rebels led to the formation of the Jamaica Committee. The main personalities in this coalition, which sought an official enquiry, were abolitionist Charles Buxton, philosopher John Stuart Mill, scientists Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer, the writer Thomas Hughes and radical Rochdale MP John Bright.

Opposing them in the governor’s corner were Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens (hello again, secret racist), Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Charles Kingsley and John Ruskin.

An attempt to prosecute the governor failed, and this seems to have been taken as carte blanche for his supporters to indulge in the full extent of their racism, and develop the racial theories about people of colour that were common currency during my childhood and that have been bubbling under the surface over the past forty years before breaking free again in the wake of Brexit and Trump.

The chapter on black involvement in World War One continues this theme of the racially grounded inferiority of black people. The chapter was also eye opening for me personally. This war was at the heart of the History curriculum when I did my O-levels. There was not a single mention of black soldiers. No reference to a separate British West Indies Regiment. Certainly nothing about the appalling racism West Indian soldiers experienced, from the demeaning restriction to dogsbody work instead of combat, to the attitudes of the white soldiers they encountered, or the reluctance to deploy black Africans as fighters because their relative strength and vitality would somehow show up the white race, represented among the troops by malnourished industrial workers, and render them harder to ‘manage’ in peacetime. Black and white were not to be mixed, not even in the face of a lack of recruits to fight in the war.

Turns out there’s a reason for the lack of reference to black troops back in my educational past. The British government deliberately expunged all reference to the involvement of black troops from the official history of the war. No black soldiers were invited to attend the Victory celebrations. Spurious reasons were given in public, but Olusoga uncovers the truth. The government didn’t want to destabilise the Empire’s power balance, and acknowledging the contribution black people made to victory, these white men believed, would do just that.

Moving on to the Second World War, the focus shifts from British prejudice to American. The arrival of black GIs in Britain towards the end of the war brought with it a piece of American segregation that didn’t sit well with the majority of ordinary white British people. It sat fine with the establishment, particularly Churchill who followed that long tradition of not criticising our American ally for fear of damaging our special relationship. British people, despite having been shown by Olusoga in the early interwar period to have been so prejudiced against black Britons and men who had travelled from the West Indies to fight in the First World War and been demobbed in Britain that they regularly hunted black people down in the streets and on one occasion lynched a man, didn’t like the way white GIs treated their black compatriots. Olusoga puts this down to a British liking for the underdog, but what also comes through is a sense that the ordinary people of Britain, who suffered the most deprivation during the Second World War and lost a larger proportion of their men to the conflict, had a sense that black GIs were no different to white, either in economic terms or in the sense of allies coming to fight with British troops to defeat a common enemy. For all the knowledge that white Britain is a fundamentally racist nation, we have our moments of rationality, and have the ability to be decent, and this episode in our history illustrates that.

On the other hand, Olusoga’s reporting of reactions to interracial relationships illustrates that there were limits to how accepting white Britons were of black GIs. It also illustrates how ugly racism is. Notions of polluting bloodlines, denigration of white women for having any kind of relationship with black men, and the violence that disapproving white people wanted to mete out to both parties in interracial relationships, all are present in Olusoga’s account. It struck me as I read that the majority of contemporary British commentators on the matter were not working class, and it made me think about the relatively relaxed attitude the working classes have always had towards relationships. The importance of survival for the poor and the reliant on labour not capital for their means of existence has historically meant that marriage is less of a must-have. Pairing up or not pairing up has often come down to whether a woman is better off with the support of a reliable man in bringing up her children or without the support of a feckless man. Notions of legitimacy and respectability come from the higher classes, the self-appointed moral guardians, and for these classes it is reputation and protection of the family line that is important, rather than mere survival. It seemed to me that the difference in attitude towards black GIs and white women having relationships fell into similar territory. Disapproval of what they don’t understand in working class culture is meat to the establishment and the protectors of national purity still.

As a lifelong Labour supporter, I was sad to be reminded that Atlee’s Labour government hadn’t covered itself in glory when it came to immigration, with Atlee’s attempt to divert the Empire Windrush to East Africa. It’s interesting to read Olusoga’s words about Windrush. Today, it’s celebrated as a turning point in British history, held up as an example of how welcoming Britain used to be. In truth, the government made efforts to stop Windrush setting a precedent and viewed the ship’s arrival as an invasion. Labour MPs petitioned Atlee to limit black immigration, citing the hoary old belief that

An influx of coloured people domiciled [in Britain] is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our people and social life and cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned.

Unfortunately for these bigots, the British Nationality Act of 1948 transformed British Subjects into Commonwealth Citizens and gave them the right to enter and settle in Britain.

In the postwar period of hope that was the 1950s, despite the nature of the war just fought, racism still didn’t disappear. Churchill’s return to Downing Street in 1951 is evidence, if evidence were needed, that a rich vein of racism runs through the Tory party. Churchill is not my favourite politician. I don’t understand why so many people hold him in such high regard. He’s on record as holding many ugly opinions about people of colour, including the belief that continued West Indian migration would create a magpie society that was undesirable. He also believed that ‘Keep Britain White’ was an appropriate campaign slogan for the 1955 General Election. Olusoga delivers a paragraph that outlines the extent to which Churchill went to prevent West Indians settling in Britain.

In the early 1950s, Churchill asked government officials in various departments to devise mechanisms by which West Indians might be kept out of the country, contrary to the rights of entry and residence they enjoyed under the 1948 Nationality Act. The challenge was to draft legislation that specifically targeted non-white immigrants while not appearing to be motivated by racial considerations.

Churchill set the stage for the work that successive governments of Right and Left have carried out to strip Commonwealth Citizens of their migration rights, work that resulted this year in the deportation of descendants of the Windrush generation who believed they had the right to remain but, under the zero tolerance policies introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, lacked evidence of their rights.

Between 1948 and 1978, much was done by white Britons to tell black Britons that they weren’t welcome. Racist attacks on black communities in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958 were portrayed by the media as race riots, with the victims made responsible for being attacked. The Immigration Acts between 1968 and 1971 removed the remaining rights of Commonwealth Citizens to entry and residence. Enoch Powell delivered his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 resulting in KKK style cross burnings outside the homes of black families. In 1978, Thatcher, who shares a place with Churchill in my mind, used the word swamped to describe how white people felt about the 4% of the population that was black who had changed the character of British culture and white neighborhoods for the worse.

Olusoga identifies the uprisings of the 1980s, in which black people finally tired of being demonised by the establishment let their anger be known. Following a fire in New Cross in which 13 young black people died, the black community marched peacefully to demand a full investigation. The Metropolitan Police response was to launch an operation into violent street crime in Brixton, which they named Swamp 81. This triggered the Brixton Riots of 1981, which in turn led to rioting by black communities in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. I was ten years old. As I’ve said in my review of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, the Toxteth riots in Liverpool are one of my earliest political memories because they had personal meaning for me, as my sister was a medical student living on the border of Toxteth and Dingle at the time. They made me aware that the black experience of living in Britain was not largely a good one. They definitely made me the first generation in my family to not think of myself as superior to anyone else just because my skin is white.

Reading Olusoga’s history of the black British experience has heightened my awareness that more needs to be done to stop the othering of people of colour by white people and to accept that British history is not just white imperial history, which in itself is not the thing for celebration that many white Britons think it is. Black and British is a different book to Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, but it works well as a source for the deeper context to that book. For anyone who has watched Olusoga’s TV series of the same name, the book is written the way he speaks. For me, it was like he was reading to me, so strongly could I hear his voice through his words.

7 thoughts on “Black and British

  1. Great review – this is on my list as well (but duly noted that it might be quite intense!).

    I also have a few books about the history of Indians in Britain on the list (but there’s not that many, especially when it comes to the 19th century and earlier). I’m dying to read Miranda Kaufman’s Black Tudors as well.


    1. Yes, set aside a good chunk of time to read this one. And be prepared to feel very angry.

      I’m interested in finding out more about the Indian indentured labourers (slaves) who filled the gap left by the abolition of the African slave trade. If you have any recommendations, send them my way.

      Black Tudors is on my list, too!


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