While we celebrate African Heritage Month in February, our counterparts in Britain celebrate African/Black History Month in October. Many Africans in Britain can only trace their ancestry as far as the Caribbean, where their ancestors were enslaved by Britain’s White population and stripped of their names, languages and culture.
Africans whose land was carved up by European tribes, including the tribes of Britain, can trace their ancestry back to specific areas of the African continent but they also inherited a legacy of European domination which destroyed or at least contaminated their culture (as described in several books including Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe).
Achebe, an Igbo from Nigeria, was born in 1939 several years after the British had colonized much of the African continent, including Nigeria. He has written extensively about the effect of colonization on the Africans.
Surprisingly, during the celebration of Britain’s significant population of African and African-Caribbean people, the history of African-Americans play a significant role. Although Africans have been a part of the island’s history even before the English, this is not a major part of the recognition of African history in Britain.
In 1984, Peter Fryer, a White British author, published Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, in which he wrote: “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here. They were soldiers in the Roman imperial army that occupied the southern part of our island for three and a half centuries. Though the earliest attested date for this unit’s presence here is 253-8, an African soldier is reputed to have reached Britain by the year 210.”
One writer, who describes the history of October as African/Black History Month in Britain, bemoans the fact that the focus is on a few figures of historical significance. Afua Hirsch writes in a column published on October 1, 2010 in Britain’s Guardian newspaper: “The original motive behind Black History Month was to redress the dishonest way history was taught in British schools: airbrushing out black people except for their role as slaves or colonial subjects. There is equally a dishonesty in elevating people such as Muhammad Ali and Mary Seacole into simplistic figures of Black pride.”
Mary Seacole (1805-1881), born in Jamaica, was an army nurse during the Crimean War. Seacole’s services as a nurse were refused by Britain’s War Office but she persevered, travelled to the war zone and eventually became a heroine of the Crimean War through her unselfish work caring for wounded British soldiers. Seacole’s work and name is not as popular outside of Britain and Jamaica as the names of African-American heroes and sheroes.
While I agree that the celebration of a few people’s lives should not be the focus of recognizing our history, it is important that we call their names and remember them as our people who have achieved in spite of adversity and can serve as role models.
In 1999 Fryer, whose book Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain is considered in some quarters the definitive written history of Africans in Britain, published The Politics of Windrush. Fryer had been a young reporter when the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in Essex on June 22, 1948. Although there had been an African presence in Britain for centuries, the arrival of the Empire Windrush carrying 492 passengers from Jamaica and Trinidad changed that history.
The image of the large number of African-Caribbean passengers disembarking has become an important landmark in the history of Britain, symbolizing the beginning of modern multicultural relations which have significantly changed British society over the past 60 years.
In 1998, an area in Brixton was renamed Windrush Square to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Caribbean migrants. In commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush and celebrating African/Black History Month, Fryer was invited to speak at the Mandela Centre at Leeds on October 10, 1998 and an edited version of his speech is the text of the book The Politics of Windrush.
Many of the passengers on the Windrush were Caribbean men who were former members of the British armed forces from the Second World War. They were promised that jobs would be waiting for them and some looked forward to rejoining the Royal Air Force. When they first arrived, 202 of the passengers found employment right away. Many of them were employed by the National Health Service, some found work in factories and mills, but most were employed by London Transport.
The SS Orbita, the SS Reina del Pacifico and the SS Georgic followed the Windrush in transporting large numbers of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. On Tuesday, August 2, 1955, the SS Auriga left Kingston, Jamaica with the previously unheard of number of 1,100 passengers. In less than a week, the SS Castle Verde followed with another full shipload.
Immigrants from Britain’s other Caribbean colonies joined the exodus in what Jamaican poet Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou) described in her popular poem as colonization in reverse, read here by a young woman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEQVJEiWS_E
In 1955, there were 27,550 migrants from the Caribbean arriving in Britain. By 1960, the numbers of Caribbean people migrating to Britain had risen to 49,650 and the rate had increased to 66,300 in 1961. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in 1962, limiting immigrant entry and the number decreased to 31,800. In 1963, there were only 3,241 Caribbean immigrants allowed into Britain and the numbers peaked at 14,848 in 1965, and then began falling rapidly to less than 10,000 each year.
The presence of the immigrants from the Caribbean and the African continent may have increased the numbers and visibility but we know that there has been an African presence in Britain for more than 1,800 years.
The Oxford Companion to Black British History by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones, published in 2007, documents the presence of Africans in Britain from as early as the second century A.D.
African History Month, whether in Britain or the Americas, should be a time to recognize the contributions and history of all Africans.