By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
African history is recognized and celebrated in Britain for at least 31 days of the year during October; similar to the recognition it receives in Canada during February. The documented African presence in Britain, however, goes back many more centuries than it does in Canada.
By now, we here know about Mathieu DaCosta’s arrival in Canada as an interpreter for the French explorers who wanted to communicate with the Micmaq people in 1603. DaCosta, an African man, spoke the Micmaq language and several European languages, including French.
The documented African presence in Britain according to White British author Peter Fryer goes back to the year 210. In his 1984 book, “Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain”, Fryer 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.”
African historian and anthropologist Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop in his 1974 book, “The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality”, wrote about the megalithic culture of Africans which can be found replicated in Britain proving the presence of Africans in ancient Britain. Writing of the construction of megalithic structures, Diop states: “These are found only in lands inhabited by Negroes or Negroids, or in places that they have frequented, the area that Speiser calls “the great megalithic civilization”, which extends from Africa to India, Australia, South America, Spain and Brittany.
“That megalithic civilization in Brittany belongs to the second millennium, the period when the Phoenicians frequented those regions. This combination of facts should leave no doubt on the southern and Negro origin of the megaliths in Brittany.”
Fryer and Diop are just two of the several historians who have written about the history of Africans in Britain. Anthony Richard Birley, a White British historian, has written about the African presence in ancient Britain in his 1971 book, “Septimius Severus: The African Emperor”.
Britain had been invaded, conquered and was part of the Roman Empire from 54 BC to AD 409. Britain was part of the Roman Empire when the African Emperor, Septimius Severus, was in power (AD 193 to 211) and there were Africans living in Britain. Information from the UK National Archives states: “In Roman times, Black troops were sent to the remote and barbaric province of Britannia, and some of them stayed when the Roman legions left Britain. Africans have been present in Europe from classical times. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries Roman soldiers of African origin served in Britain, and some stayed after their military service ended.”
I had to take several breaks while reading the 1884 book, “Ancient and Modern Britons: A Retrospect”, by White Scottish historian, David Mac Ritchie. Not surprisingly, the book is riddled with White supremacist rhetoric although Mac Ritchie in great detail acknowledges the African presence throughout the British Isles with comments including: “That the wild tribes of Ireland were black men is hinted by the fact that ‘a wild Irishman’ is in Gaelic ‘a black Irishman’ (Dubh Eireannach). And that some of the natives of Scotland, as well as of England, were of this race also is evident when one remembers that, according to Skene, the powerful tribe of the Damnonii, which was the chief of the Maeatae, or marsh-dwellers, who were a part of the Picti or Caledonii, were probably relations of their namesakes of South-Western Britain; which indeed is almost a certainty, if nomenclature goes for anything. In addition to the Irish examples already given, there are many other relics of savagedom to be found throughout the United Kingdom, in the present as well as in the past.”
There is documentation of Africans from the Roman occupation to the present time including the contributions of Africans to what was considered Britain’s strongest industry; seamanship. There was one point in history when “Britannia ruled the waves” and Africans contributed to that history. There is documentation of Africans working as members of the merchant marines or “seafarers” from as early as Tudor years (The Tudors beginning with Henry “Henry VII” Tudor ruled Britain from 1485 to 1603).
The 2012 book, “Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships”, by Black British historian Dr. Ray Costello is a source of information about this group. In this fascinating work, Dr. Ray Costello examines the work and experience of seamen of African descent in Britain’s navy, from oppressed slaves to free Africans, British West Indians, and British-born Black sailors.
“Seamen from the Caribbean and directly from Africa have contributed to both the British Royal Navy and Merchant Marine from at least the Tudor period and by the end of the period of the British Slave Trade at least three per cent of all crewmen were black mariners.
“Black sailors signed off in British ports helped the steady growth of a black population.”
In spite of such information about the African presence in Britain, most of what is acknowledged when the history of Africans in Britain is recognized is the British enslavement of Africans and the aftermath of emancipation.
The most recognized, acknowledged and documented group of Africans in Britain are the descendants of enslaved Africans from the Caribbean who immigrated to Britain on the MV Windrush (June 22, 1948).
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “The arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in June 1948 at Tilbury Dock, Essex, in England, marked the beginning of post-war mass migration. The ship had made an 8,000 mile journey from the Caribbean to London with 492 passengers on board from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands. Most of the passengers were ex-servicemen seeking work. This marked the beginning of post-war mass migration. When they walked down the gangplank onto British soil they could not have imagined that their journey would begin an important landmark in the history of London and the rest of country.
“The passengers on board the Windrush were invited to come to Britain after World War Two, to assist with labour shortages. Many of the passengers had fought for Britain during the war. They later became known as the ‘Windrush Generation.’”
Although they had been recruited and invited to return to Britain after having served “The Motherland” during the second European tribal conflict (WWII) the “Windrush Generation” found that White British citizens did not welcome their presence. Marcia Dixon, a Black British columnist, wrote an article published in the British newspaper, the Voice, about the experience of the “Windrush Generation”.
In the article published on June 23, 2013 titled “How the Windrush Generation changed the United Kingdom” Dixon wrote: “The docking of the Windrush on these shores heralded the start of mass immigration to the UK from the Caribbean and a huge change of the country’s cultural make-up. Between 1951 and 1961 the number of Caribbean people living in Britain in search of a better life increased from 15,000 to 172,000. The UK was seen as the mother country, and when immigrants arrived here, many expected to be welcomed with open arms. This, unfortunately, was not the case. They were greeted with cold indifference, racism and hardship. However, that first generation of Caribbean immigrants had a strong sense of identity, a community spirit and strong Christian values, which enabled them to overcome the difficulties they encountered, and make a life here.”
Even though there has been an African presence in Britain for these many centuries there still remains a need for a British “Black History Month” because the history is not part of the curriculum and many Britons are not aware of that history. Similar to the history of Africans in North America whose history is not acknowledged except for 28 days in February, Africans must continue to educate themselves and their children about their history and herstory.
The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
And we have seen those tumbleweeds being blown here and there by any little bit of wind.