By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
During this month (October) Africans in Britain, whether they were born on the African continent, in the Caribbean, in Britain or elsewhere are celebrating African/Black History Month.
There is much to celebrate, commemorate and remember because the history of Africans in Britain is lengthy. As quiet as it is kept, there has been an African presence in the British Isles at least since the Roman occupation of Britain in 43AD.
In the publication Antiquity, which is a quarterly review of World Archeology, an article written by five archeologists from Britain’s University of Reading published an article: A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Britain about an African woman who lived in York during the Roman occupation of Britain. These British archeologists, through their research and after studying her gravesite, have determined that this African woman was a member of a wealthy family. The young woman who they think was between 18 and 23 years old when she transitioned was not a servant as has been assumed whenever Africans are mentioned from those ancient times.
The Ivory Bangle Lady, as she was christened by the archeologists, was buried in a sarcophagus made of stone which was a sign of immense wealth in Roman occupied Britain. The discovery of a perfume bottle, a mirror and jewellery buried with the young woman suggests that her family was “absolutely from the top end of York society”, according to a quote attributed to archeologist Dr. Hella Eckardt in an article published in the British newspaper, The Sunday Times. Dr. Eckardt also reportedly said: “Multicultural Britain is not just a phenomenon of more modern times. Analysis of the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, and others like her, contradicts assumptions about the make-up of Roman-British populations as well as the view that African immigrants were of low status, male and likely to have been slaves.”
There is also evidence of African soldiers in the Roman army during the occupation of Britain. In Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain published in 1984, Peter Fryer, a White British author, 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.”
Africans did not disappear with the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. Fryer also mentions John Blanke, an African trumpeter who was a regular performer at the courts of British monarchs Henry VII and Henry VIII. Blanke is even listed as performing at the special tournament Henry VIII hosted at Westminster to celebrate the birth of his son in 1511.
By the time Elizabeth I inherited the throne from her father (Henry VIII), the presence of Africans in Britain had increased to a level that made the monarch uncomfortable. Although she was happy to have Africans entertain and clean for White Britons, the thought that not all of them were in those subservient roles seemed to give the British monarch some heartburn.
In an “open letter” dated July 11, 1596, Britain’s Elizabeth I wrote to the Lord Mayor of London, aldermen, other Mayors, sheriffs and other public officers expressing that “there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie,” and ordering that they be deported from the country.
Apparently, enough of the people she referred to as blackmoores were not deported out of her realm because, in 1601, she complained again about the “great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which are crept into this realm.”
The fact that by 1601 the British elite, including her majesty, had made a fortune buying, selling and working enslaved Africans to death in the colonies did not seem to bother her.
In ‘Staying Power’ Fryer makes the case that only a few Africans were deported and a number of Africans remained in Britain and by the middle of the 18th century were between one and three per cent of the population of London.
Africans were enslaved throughout the British Empire until August 1, 1834 (1838 in the Caribbean.) The famous decision by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield in 1772 in the case of enslaved African James Somerset (Somerset v. Stewart) against the slaveholder Charles Stewart did not free enslaved Africans in Britain. That decision made it illegal for owners to forcibly remove enslaved Africans from England. It is estimated that at that time between 14,000 and 15,000 enslaved Africans lived in England, most of them taken there as personal servants by White men and women who owned plantations in the British colonies.
In 2009, the number of Africans in Britain was 1,521,400 or 2.9 per cent of the population. This number includes those born in Britain and immigrants from the African continent, the Caribbean and elsewhere. The largest wave of African immigrants from the former British colonies in the Caribbean landed in Britain between 1948 and 1962 in what Jamaican poet Louise Bennett Coverly (Miss Lou) termed Colonization in Reverse, immortalized in a poem of the same name, http://louisebennett.com/newsdetails.asp?NewsID=8.
Britain also colonized several countries on the African continent before and after the infamous “Scramble for Africa” and Africans from those countries immigrated to Britain, many considering Britain the “mother country” and were shocked when they encountered a White supremacist culture and rabid racism.
Sadly, although Africans have been living in Britain for centuries, they continue to face racism. They are stopped, searched, arrested and imprisoned at an alarming rate. In an article published in the British newspaper The Guardian on Monday, October 11, 2010 Randeep Ramesh wrote: “On the streets, black people were subjected to what the report describes as an “excess” of 145,000 stop and searches in 2008. It notes that black people constitute less than 3% of the population, yet made up 15% of people stopped by police.”
Ramesh was writing about an Equality and Human Rights Commission report, How Fair is Britain? Ramesh also wrote: “The commission found that five times more black people than white people per head of population in England and Wales are imprisoned. The ethnic minority prison population has doubled in a decade – from 11,332 in 1998 to 22,421 in 2008. The problems may start at school. The commission points out that black children are three times as likely to be permanently excluded from education.”
Africans in Britain have every right to celebrate the fact that they have a long history in Britain and have contributed to the society (which is mostly ignored). There are also plans to address other issues that concern Africans living in Britain. On Friday, October 14, the group National Afrikan People’s Parliament http://www.blackhistorystudies.com/ plan a community action including a demonstration at Downing Street (British Prime Minister’s residence) to address the unlawful killing of Mark Duggan and the resultant uprisings, ongoing ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ and the reactionary state assault on our Community, especially our youths (and the wider social, political and historical context).
It would seem that regardless of where we live, Africans are subjected to the same oppression. That is why we need to know our history so that we can learn from those who went before us and struggled to get us to where we are today. The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, father of the modern Pan African movement, taught us to remember that we are a mighty people with this quote: "Up you mighty people! You can accomplish what you will!!!"