Black and British: A Forgotten History

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beachy_head_woman.jpg

Beachy Head Woman

As part of the BBC’s Black and British season, running throughout November, historian David Olusoga presents this four-part documentary on the black presence in Britain.

The programme opens with repeated images of the quintessentially green and pleasant British landscape. Olusoga’s aim is to project black presence not onto but into this scene. In a sweep from Roman Britain to the present, he describes how black and British history are intertwined.

The first episode runs from the Roman era up to the start of the slave trade. For instance, the Roman settlement at Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria was populated by a “Moorish” army unit under the command of Emperor Septimius Severus, who was himself African. It is believed to be the oldest black settlement in Britain. The film makers unveil a heritage plaque celebrating the African presence.

This ritual is repeated in East Sussex, where they commemorate Beachy Head Woman who, through forensic archaeology, has been proven to be of sub-Saharan heritage. She grew up in Britain in the 3rd century AD.

Classicist Mary Beard interjects brilliantly, pointing out that the Romans were not racist in the modern sense and that skin colour did not mark people out in the Roman world. As she says, “we live with the myth that we’ve got less prejudiced over the centuries”. Beard also notes that, as racism did not exist in the past that she is describing, then it can be eradicated in the future.

Later Olusoga looks at the Georgian period when between 10,000 and 15,000 black people lived in Britain. This means, he concludes, there must be two to three million white people in Britain who are descended from black Georgians.

There are things to learn from this series. For instance, that Samuel Johnson left the bulk of his fortune to housemate and former slave Francis Barber; that the Tudor court had black people at the heart of it; and that Britain’s first encounters with Africans were as equal trading partners. I suspect there will be more such nuggets.

Olusoga gently undercuts the image of Africa before imperialism as a wilderness without history. Perhaps he is too gentle. If this season is to live up to the BBC commissioner Patrick Holland’s claim that it is “hugely important [and] raises challenging questions about how we tell our history”, then it will have to be more forthright and more in depth.

That said, I for one shall be watching the rest of the season, especially “Roots, Reggae, Rebellion”, presented by Akala.