Black and British: Uncovering a Forgotten History

Historian David Olusoga’s book Black and British is a revealing exploration of the extraordinarily long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa.

In 2016, we collaborated with the BBC and partners on Black and British, a season of programming and events celebrating the achievements of black people in the UK and exploring the rich culture and history of black Britain.

Here, in extracts taken from his book, David introduces some significant, but often forgotten, figures in Black British history, from a trumpeter in the Tudor Courts to Queen Victoria’s protégé.

Beachy Head Lady, the first black Briton known to us

General view from East Belle Tout Lighthouse, Eastbourne, East Sussex
Beachy Head, Eastbourne, East Sussex © Historic England Archive BB98 05171

In 2012 archaeologists in Eastbourne began to work their way through a collection of skeletons that had been locally excavated from the late nineteenth century up until the 1990s. The skeleton of the ‘Beachy Head Lady’, as she was dubbed, was one of twelve sent for radioisotope analysis to determine if they had been born locally.

The process revealed her to be a second- or third-century Afro-Roman who had been brought up in the south of England and had either been born in that region or was brought there very young, possibly from Africa. The radioisotope analysis also suggested that she was well nourished in her youth. The fact that that she had enjoyed a healthy diet and was discovered laid out carefully in her grave go to suggest that in life she had not served in a lowly position, or lived as a slave.

Over a millennium before the British people began their ‘years of distant wandering’ and empire-building the Beachy Head Lady – the first black Briton known to us – had lived and died in rural East Sussex.

John Blanke, musician at the courts of Henry VII & Henry VIII

Extract from the Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly showing John Blanke. Image via Wikimeda Commons
Extract from the Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly showing John Blanke. Image via Wikimeda Commons

John Blanke makes his first appearance in the records in 1509 and is the first black person in Britain for whom we have not just a name in the official records but also an image.

This came about because Blanke performed at the celebrations that were staged in January 1511 to mark the birth of Prince Henry, the son born to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. The festivities of 1511 are recorded in the Westminster Tournament Roll, a sixty-foot illustrated vellum roll. John Blanke appears twice on the Roll, shown on both occasions within the procession riding a grey horse and wearing an identical liveried uniform to his five fellow royal trumpeters.

Saartjie Baartman, also known as the Hottentot Venus

19th century French print "La Belle Hottentot" of Saartjie Baartman. Image via Wikimedia Commons
19th century French print “La Belle Hottentot” of Saartjie Baartman. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as Sarah and as the Hottentot Venus, was a woman of the Khoikhoi people of southern Africa. She was born in the Eastern Cape around 1789.

When white colonists murdered her fiancé, she was sold as a slave to Hendrik Cesars, a mixed-race Cape farmer, who made her work as a domestic servant in Cape Town. In 1810 she was brought to Britain by Cesars and a ship’s surgeon named Alexander Dunlop, both of whom later claimed that she had signed a contract allowing herself to be put on public exhibition.

In London Saartjie Baartman was displayed almost naked in a cage. Her physical appearance, and in particular her large buttocks, was examined and prodded by the men and some women who came to view her. She was eventually transported to France and sold again, this time to an exhibitor in the French capital. In 1815 she was studied by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta, protégée of Queen Victoria

Photograph of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, September 1862. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, September 1862. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Captured in war as an infant, a freed slave child was given to British naval officer Frederick Forbes by King Ghezo of Dahomey as a gift from the slave trader king to Queen Victoria. The girl, who was probably seven or eight, was given the name Sarah, but dubbed Sally by the crew.

It was upon their return to England that this little girl’s life took a quite incredible turn. Queen Victoria requested that Sally be brought to Windsor Castle and so, on 9 November 1850, the little girl from Abomey, now named Sarah Forbes Bonetta, made her first appearance at court.

Queen Victoria may well have also decided that the circumstances that had brought this young girl to Britain meant that responsibility for her welfare rested with her. Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s life was transformed by the Queen’s willingness to draw her into the extended circle of her court and provide her with an excellent education.

By the late 1850s Sarah had settled in the seaside town of Brighton. Well known in the town, she was an accomplished, educated and eligible young woman. Some time in 1862 it appears that she became known to James Pinson Labulo Davies, who, having built up his wealth from shipping and the palm-oil business in Lagos, was visiting Britain. Davies sought an introduction to her and the two were engaged to be married, the match apparently approved of by Queen Victoria.

The wedding of two wealthy, highly educated and well-connected British Africans, one of whom had strong links to the Queen, was of huge interest to the press and the public. Hundreds of people – some reports say thousands – turned out on the streets of Brighton on the day to cheer the couple.

Henry ‘Box’ Brown, activist and performer

The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph by Samuel Rowse published in 1850. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, a lithograph by Samuel Rowse published in 1850. Image via Wikimedia Commons

A slave from Virginia, Brown saw his three children and their mother, then pregnant with a fourth, sold to an owner in North Carolina, slave marriages having no basis in law. The loss of his family inspired a determination to escape. His ingenious plan was to hide in a wooden mail crate, just three feet long and two feet wide, and have himself literally mailed from Richmond to Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania.

In March 1849, twenty-seven hours after entering the box, and having narrowly escaped suffocation, he arrived in Philadelphia, at the home of a sympathetic Quaker abolitionist.

He came to Britain in October 1850 and went on tour. Brown and others presented his astonishing escape as proof of the desperate desire for freedom among the slaves, who Southern propagandists often claimed were content to live in a state of bondage. Brown repeated the feat by having himself successfully posted from Leeds to Bradford in the same box. During the 1850s Henry ‘Box’ Brown honed his performing skills on the anti-slavery circuit, appearing from his box in front of audiences.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, celebrated musicians

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1882. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1882. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The most celebrated black performers of the late nineteenth century were not black Britons but African Americans. The Fisk Jubilee Singers originated in Nashville, Tennessee, then in the early 1870s introduced the British public to black American gospel music, bringing new songs into British churches, including ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. Their tour of Europe was one of the greatest musical events of the century. Lord Shaftesbury arranged for them to perform in London for six hundred specially selected guests and in 1873 they sang for Queen Victoria.

The impact of the Fisk Jubilee Singers was all the greater because black music performed by black people was a novelty to British audiences who, ever since the 1830s, had become accustomed to minstrel tunes – a distorted and appropriated form of black music being sung by white men in blackface. When the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured there were reportedly difficulties with a number of inn-keepers who had accepted their accommodation booking presuming that the ‘minstrels’ were white and were unhappy to discover otherwise.

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga is out now. Read an extract here and find out more about the BBC series here

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