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
Diving for Gold in West Africa
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Africans Enslaved and Freed
Document | Transcript
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.
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
The East India Company's Deptford Shipyard
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.
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
Gustavus Vassa Provides for His Family (201k)
Document | Transcript
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.
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
|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.
References and Further Reading
Bayly, C. A. (ed.), The Raj: Indian and the British 1600-1947,
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,