Book: Black and British A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

Book: Black and British A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

This has proved to be the compelling read I expected after seeing some of the BBC Black and British series it is based on. I popped it on my Christmas list after realising I’d missed a chunk of the series while I was away in Canada late last year.

The programme that fascinated me the most was one that featured nurses who’d come over from the Caribbean to help with the UK’s shortage in the NHS. Instead of being welcomed into the ‘mother country’ as they had expected, they were poorly paid, looked over for promotion, lived in cramped conditions and all this while facing a torrid of racial abuse from the people they were caring for as well as their neighbours. This broke my heart.

Years earlier, black slaves who had been enlisted into the Revolutionary War in the US by the British were thrown over to the former slave masters when they were battered and worn from the battles, or simply left in the line of fire to die. After this time however, some were evacuated to Canada to prevent a repeat of the ‘biggest betrayal of the black loyalists in the Revolutionary War.’ Similar incidents have occurred through other wars and British black soldiers were excluded from London’s victory parade after WW1. This was during a period when the British Empire numbered 450,000, of which 350,000 were coloured.

As it promises, this book goes someway to educate me on the forgotten history – by some 526 pages – although this latter history about the NHS nurses is only fleetingly talked about. I think that needs another book.

‘The sale of black human beings was a feature of British life between the 1650s and the close of the eighteenth century.’

What A Forgotten History does well is take us back to earliest possible black settlers in the UK, even before slavery bought most of them. Slavery is forgotten in the UK for most of us, possibly because we don’t have the same racial tension they America has. We often think slavery was a US issue, their invention even. But of course, the British ruled a chunk of the world then, so it was us that went over to Africa, seized people as slaves, and took them to America to work for nothing under appalling conditions.

This is what enabled us and America – the western world – to develop so fast, leaving a (still) devastated Africa in its wake. Slavery enabled the British Industrial revolution, particularly in Liverpool’s cotton producing industry. Every time we see a statue or plaque depicting ‘West India Merchant’ or ‘West India Planter’, we know we are looking at slave owners. The hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, written by a reformed slave trader serves as a reminder and the line ‘Britons shall never ever be slaves’ in ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, a song I have never been able to sing along to no matter how many glasses of champagne I’ve had at Proms in the Park.

West India Docks has now pretty much become Canary Wharf but reading about future president George Washington trying to track down all of his escaped slaves rests uneasy with me. However, Josiah Wedgewood in Staffordshire joined the abolitionist movement which included many women petitioning as well as former slaves who had written autobiographies and went on book tours.

Maybe there’s always been more racial tension – and a lot more racism – in America because slavery is still very much talked about?

Mixed race couples are the norm in the UK but I’m unsure if I’ve ever seen one in my two decades of travelling to America. The fastest growing ethnical group in Britain is people who are racially mixed. The melting pot is London rather than New York or Chicago.

 

I’ve got a total of 77 marked passages in the book which has to be some kind of record for me. Ordinarily I’d list all those learning points here, but there are too many. However, I find myself questioning, why did (do) black people face more racism than us Indians?

Our family (to my knowledge) never had the brick through our window with a note demanding we ‘go back’ as the British-raised author had at aged 14 but we did have the verbal comments, and in my youth, the National Front marches. I don’t recall any act of racism (sexism, yes) that went onto shape me as no doubt it has done many featured in this book.

Royal African Company comes up a lot. To start with it is credited with transporting more Africans into slavery than any other British company. The ‘Royal’ comes from its founders, King Charles 11 and his brother the Duke of York (New York named after) who drew profits as shareholders. Queen Elizabeth 1 invested in early slave exhibitions in 1560s and initially, the slave trade was only available to the royals.

The discovery of Bunce Island is one of my most shocking findings. I don’t need to refer to my notes to remember that this is where most slaves came through after being captured, that they had a room for slave owners to abuse slaved women and while the Africans were being shackled and branded with hot irons below, British society wined and dined above. I think they are still finding bits of wine bottles buried there today.

At every stage of horror at reading about the British history of slavery, my heart breaks to think one man can do this to another to benefit their own profit. After a child slave had grown too old to become a glamorous accessory to the rich, they were deported to work for free on blistering Caribbean fields. Others were lucky to be treated more like servants, like the one at Molineux family house in Wolverhampton in the 1770s. Some were treated better because they were the offspring of enslaved women – albeit torn away from their mothers. One such father was a judge ruling over slave cases.

Just like in America, a large percentage of black people are likely to have forefathers who were slaves, I’m thinking, almost many white Britons must have come from slave owner stock.

Granville Sharp is a name many will know as a leading abolitionist but I note that slavery still continued around the world after he tirelessly campaigned for it to cease. I’m surprised to learn their operation seems to use a lot of PR skills that we still use today – sending information to influential people and creating well timed book tours and marketing campaigns.

However, even Sharp naively gave his backing to the Province of Freedom (now Freetown, Sierra Leone), land that was earmarked as a new town to repatriate former slaves. But it was difficult to grow anything, people got ill and a storm hit, to aid the suffering and initially most lost their lives.

 

Colonial Slavery died 31 July 1838, Age 276

Tombstone in Falmouth Jamaica

Denmark was the first country to actually abolish slavery in 1792, the British following on 1 January 1808, but in 1833, parliament was still debating what compensation the slave owners should receive. £20m (33% of government’s annual spend) was agreed, the largest pay out in history. The start of the end to the whole torrid movement that started in the 1560s.

However, after slavery was abolished, former slaves were still treated abhorrently. They came off intercepted ships and stood in front of an officer naked while they tried to ascertain their name and where they should be sent. Some died of the condition on the ship they were kept on while awaiting the process. Freed slaves in the Britain found themselves unemployed, destitute and homeless.

 …willing to fight for freedom and liberty or sit and be slaves?!

 In the main part, governments and slave owners did everything they could to prevent uprisings but the deadliest one began in 1831 was in Jamaica which started as a sit-in strike. Started by a slave who was a literate, Baptist deacon who led 20,000 slaves. He was executed along with over 300 others on top of the same number that died. What happened after that is unspeakable.

In Jamaica, were the black numbered 430,000 and whites 14000, only 1457 blacks had the qualifications to vote in 1863 so this led to the tensions we would expect.

 20th Century

In 1919, the National Union of Seamen obstructed the employment of black sailors post war.

Indeed, even Charles Dickens was repulsed by the black man and believed him to be inferior, despite supporting the cause and having black writer friends.

In June 1946, it was decided that Britain needed 940,000 extra workers and the figure was soon raised to 1,346,000. People who escaped to the UK and fought against the Nazis were given preference, then displaced persons from Poland, Latvia and Ukraine came from camps in Germany and Poland but West Indians were being discouraged.

In 1955, Churchill wanted to impose a 5 year limit on settlement of coloured workers but the government relented in the end. At this time, the government were recruiting ladies in the West Indies to train as nurses and London Transport were recruiting in Jamaica while British Rail were advertising in the labour office in Barbados. When they agreed to help the UK, as mentioned earlier, they were treated with inferiority and suffered physical racist attacks upon their move to London.

21st Century

Britain’s black population today stands at 2 million, less than 3% of the national total. Over a million were living in London at the time of the 2012 Olympics, compared to a few thousand at the 1948 Olympics.

Black graduates are paid 23.1% less than their white counterparts. Since 2010, there’s been a 49% increase in the number of ethnic-minority 16-24-year-olds who are long-term unemployed. And a fall of 2% amongst the white people.

Staggeringly, you are more than twice as likely to get murdered if you’re black in England or Wales. When accused of crimes, black people are three times more likely to be prosecuted than white.

We have come such a long away but there is a little further to go. This book is a must-read so we area a little more familiar with British forgotten history.

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