Home Introduction: Arriving in Britain

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Why Asian and Black History?
| What Do We Know? | Early Migrations | Africans in Britain | Indians in Britain | Multicultural Britain


People of African and Asian origin have lived in Britain for at least two millennia. They arrived here many hundreds of years before the massive forced migrations sparked by the slave trade and the British colonisation of India. And by the time the SS Windrush arrived in 1948, famously carrying the first postwar arrivals from the Caribbean, Britain had a firmly established Black and Asian population.

Drawing by Barbot, Africans swimming in a river - opens new window
Diving for Gold in West Africa
Document

Why Asian and Black History?

There were many Asian and Black people living in Britain throughout the period covered by this exhibition (1500-1850). They formed an integral part of British society, whether labouring as servants in country houses, enlisting in the armed forces, marrying in parish churches, engaging with literary and artistic life, or challenging the repressive laws of the day. For many places in Britain, we cannot speak of a separate 'Black community' at this time - Black people were integrated in the wider society, working and living with their White compatriots.

The word 'Black' is used here to denote people of African descent; 'Asian' to describe people of South Asian origin (from modern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the area that formed the British territory of India); and 'White' to indicate people of European ancestry. Words used to describe categories of people are always approximate and imperfect, and these have been selected as the nearest to satisfactory in this context.

Why, then, does this web exhibition look specifically at Asian and Black people in Britain? Because this aspect of our heritage has largely been lost. It is often assumed that the population of Britain was entirely White at this period. How many people know, for example, that one of the leaders of the radical Chartist movement, which fought for the vote in the 19th century, was Black? Or that Elizabeth I tried to expel a number of Black people from England? Or that thousands of Black men, and probably even a few Black women, fought in the British army and navy during the Napoleonic Wars? This exhibition aims to reclaim some of this history and make it more widely known.

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What Do We Know?

There is much historical evidence about Black people in Britain, and this exhibition explores some of it. But many subjects have not been researched, and there is much that we still do not know.

One problem is that Black and Asian people are not always identified in the records. Sometimes - for example, in many army service records - a person's complexion is described, and sometimes the records may say that she or he is a 'Black', 'Negro' or 'Moor'. But frequently no such indication is given. Nor is there any way of being certain how many Black and Asian people lived here - nor, indeed, what the total population was, since the first national census was not taken until 1801 (and even that was of limited scope).

Often, it is impossible to tell whether Black people referred to in records were free or enslaved. It should not be assumed that a person described as a 'Negro' in the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries was a slave. Many Black people were never enslaved. And those that were, might be granted or buy their freedom, or claim it when they entered the military.

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Early Migrations

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. Later on, in the Middle Ages, Moors arrived in Britain. They probably came, directly or indirectly, from Spain, which had been conquered by Muslims from North and Northwest Africa in the 8th century.

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Africans in Britain

From the late Middle Ages, as Europeans began to make direct contact with Africa, the number of Africans and people of African descent in Britain began to increase. The most important cause of these migrations was probably the slave trade. British involvement in the trade began in the 16th century and had reached huge proportions by the 18th. Over a period of 400 years, Europeans transported many millions of Africans to labour in their colonies in the Americas. These migrations created the Black
diaspora.

Here, they were not necessarily treated significantly more humanely than they were on the plantations and their legal status (‘free’ or ‘enslaved’) was extensively argued in a series of court cases.

Portraits, from the Gentleman's Magazine, June 1750  - opens new window
Africans Enslaved and Freed
Document | Transcript
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Some of the enslaved Africans, or their children or grandchildren, ended up in Britain. For example, estate owners from the West Indies brought their household slaves to Britain to work as servants. Here, they were not necessarily treated any more humanely than they were on the plantations.

Advertisements in English newspapers show how slaves were traded in Britain. For example, in 1756 the Liverpool Advertiser carried a request for a 'Black Boy of deep black complexion…not above 15 nor under 12 years of age'. Africans were also bought and sold as slaves in British ports.Yet not all the Black people who arrived in Britain during this period were enslaved. For example, Africans were recruited as sailors on the numerous slaving voyages of British traders, and it is likely that some of these sailors were free. Free Black people were also recruited into the Royal Navy. Some of these sailors will have settled and raised families in and around Britain's ports.

Africans also visited Britain for other reasons. Some were merchants conducting business with British traders, and others were the children of wealthy African rulers or European planters who came to Europe to be educated. For example, Francis Williams, born in 1700, was a Jamaican of African descent who studied at Cambridge University. On his return to the West Indies, he ran a school in Spanish Town.

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Indians in Britain

Africans appear to have been more numerous than Asians in Britain between 1500-1850. This is because African people had been travelling to Europe in larger numbers since the medieval period. It was Britain's subsequent involvement in the slave trade that then had the greatest influence over the size and pattern of its Black population. Indians first arrived in Britain mainly because Britain traded with, and later colonised, India but it was only in the 1840s that large numbers of Indians began to migrate, mainly to the Caribbean, as indentured labourers. Some of these migrants or their descendants eventually settled in Britain.

There were, however, more Indians in Britain at this period than we know about. They are often hard to identify in the records. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘Inde’, a term similar to the modern ‘ethnic’. Moreover many of those called Indians in early modern English records are Native Americans who were then more frequent visitors to the country. Officials also sometimes referred to Indians and Chinese people simply as 'Black' and because many of them weren't Christians, they cannot be expected to feature frequently in parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials.

Portrait of Lady Charlotte Fitzroy with her Indian page - opens new window
Portrait of Lady Charlotte Fitzroy
with her Indian Page
Document
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East India Company's yard at Deptford - opens new window
The East India Company's Deptford Shipyard
Document

There were, however, more Indians in Britain at this period than we know about. They are often hard to identify in the records. Officials frequently referred to Indians and Chinese people simply as 'Black'. And because many of them weren't Christians, they cannot be expected to feature frequently in parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials.

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From the middle of the 18th century, we find more references to Indians in Britain as businesspeople, students, servants and Lascars. The latter were sailors recruited in India, who frequently arrived on the ships of the East India Company, and became a common sight around British ports. Many Indians also arrived in Britain as servants to employees of the Company or the British Raj.

From the 1840s, well-to-do Indians began to arrive in greater numbers as students, because a British qualification had become essential for finding employment at the higher levels of the Indian civil service. Some students attended university, often Oxford or Cambridge, and others were sent to gain professional qualifications.

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Will of Gustavus Vassa - opens new window
Gustavus Vassa Provides for His Family (201k)
Document | Transcript

 

Multiracial Britain

Although the British government tried several times to get rid of groups of Black people, there was clearly a settled Black and Asian population here throughout the period 1500-1850. Although we do not know their numbers, there are some (rather contradictory) clues. In 1764, for example, the Gentleman's Magazine estimated that 20,000 Black people lived in London, a figure accepted by the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp. In 1772, Lord Mansfield put the number in the country as a whole at 15,000.

A poignant record of Black people's lives and deaths in Britain is provided by surviving tombstones. A famous and frequently quoted one is that of 18-year-old Scipio Africanus, who died on 21 December 1720. He is buried in Henbury cemetery, near Bristol. Another is that of 'Sambo' of Sunderland Point, Lancaster, whose inscription reads 'Here lies Poor Sambo A faithful Negro' - an epitaph that typifies the patronising attitudes towards Black people at the time. This web exhibition offers an introduction to some of these sources, particularly those in the National Archives. It cannot tell the whole story but it does start to find some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw.

Olaudah Equiano (also known as Gustavus Vassa) was an African about whom we know a great deal, and a prominent member of his community. In 1797 he had to bury his four-year-old daughter Anna Maria in St Andrew's Church, Chesterton, in Cambridge. An apparently expensive plaque reads: 'Near this place lies interred ANNA MARIA VASSA, a child of colour, daughter of Gustavus Vassa, the African, died July 21 1797'. The verse inscribed on the stone may have been written by Equiano himself. Just a few months earlier, he had made his will, leaving instructions for 'the education of my two infants, Anna Maria and Johanna Vassa'.

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Many historical sources besides tombstones - documents, works of art and newspapers, to name but a few - testify to the enduring presence and varied experiences of Black and Asian people in Britain. This web exhibition offers an introduction to some of these sources, particularly those in the National Archives. It cannot tell the whole story - there is not enough evidence, nor enough research, to make this possible. But it does start to find some of the missing pieces of the jigsaw.
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References and Further Reading

Bayly, C. A. (ed.), The Raj: Indian and the British 1600-1947, London, 1990

Edwards, P. and Walvin, J., Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade, London, 1983

Fryer, P., Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London, 1984

Newington-Irving, N., 'The Cumbrian (Whitehaven) Slave Trade', in Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter No. 29, January 2001

Oldham, J., 'New Light on Mansfield and Slavery', Journal of British Studies, 27, 1988

Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, London, New York, Ibadan, 1977

Visram, R., Asians in Britain: 400 years of History, London, 2002


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