Black and British: Those Who Came Before


Chalice Lighting

As we gather, we see each person as they are today
We imagine them free of the stories of the past
What if we could see behind them all the ancestors?
All of those whose lives shaped theirs?
What if we could see the privilege and the poverty
The power and the persecution
How much more could we understand one another then?
By this light, let us remember the past that shapes the present
And know that today will be the past for tomorrow
Let us know each other in place and in time
So we may love today and create justice for days to come

Reading from ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’ by David Olusoga

The history of Britain’s long, complex and traumatic relationship with Africa and her peoples has been and remains largely obscured. The most difficult chapters in that history, those that record the age of slavery, were largely expunged after the 1830s. When the moral climate changed and slavery was abolished, the families and dynasties who had grown wealthy from it airbrushed it out of their family histories. Likewise the worst crimes of the age of empire, of which Africans were not the only victims, are little discussed, as the empire itself has become reduced to little more than images of explorers in pith helmets, romantic ideas of railways and the Raj and some vague notions of the spread of English values and language. But there is more to it. This is not simply a case of historical amnesia. The parts of British history in which black people were active participants, as well as those in which they were the exploited victims, have been erased and the story of the black presence in Britain remains obscure and even disputed despite more than fifty years of archival discovery and historical scholarship.

Message Part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula

Our current theme is past, present, future. We are looking at the relationship between what has gone before, what is happening today, and what that may mean for tomorrow. As this is Black History Month in the UK, this seems a good time to talk about the history of African heritage people in the UK, how that history affects the present, and what we can hope for future.

Black history month began in the United States in 1926 as a week-long event that took place annually in February. It became a full month event 44 years later in 1970. It was adopted in the UK in 1987 - to take place in October. Only two other countries celebrate a black history month: Canada, which began it in 1995 and the Republic of Ireland, where it has been going for only four years.

As an American, I had a reasonable understanding of the history of black people in the United States. It took much longer to get any kind of a handle on the history of African-heritage people in the United Kingdom. Once I did start to understand and when I talked to native British people about it, I was surprised to find that they didn’t know much either. They told me that the school curriculum emphasised the great and civilizing nature of the British Empire. Britain came off strong and just in those stories which prominently featured how wonderful it was that we abolished the slave trade.

Needless to say, this ignores the fact that Britain dominated the slave trade and that slavery itself did not end with abolition. The millions of Africans transported to be slaves remained in slavery - primarily in the Caribbean. In addition, there is a sense that black people were absent from Britain until African-Caribbeans arrive in the mid 20th century.

Recently, there has been particularly good writing on the history of African-heritage people in the UK. David Olusoga’s book, Black and British: A Forgotten History, is excellent and I recommend it highly.

Britain does not have an all-white history as some nationalist groups would like to believe and would like to return to. There were African people among the Romans who ruled these isles in the 3rd century. Most were attached to the military but some reached high levels of the Roman society as has been shown by the discovery of African-heritage Romans interred in a fashion that would only indicate wealth and status. Black African history in Britain began - not in the 20th century - but 18 centuries ago.

In the 16th century, African heritage people became more prevalent in Britain. With the growth of trade between Britain and west Africa, more African heritage people came. Some as slaves or servants. Others held a higher status.  For example, African Musicians were found in the courts of Henry VI and James IV of Scotland and it is recorded that they were paid for their services. There were roughly 360 people of african heritage in England and Scotland in the 16th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the slave trade grew. Although slavery was never technically legal in Britain, there were slaves in various capacities. There were also free people of African descent. Black communities grew in port cities like Liverpool and Bristol. By 1764, the African heritage population of Britain was estimated as high as 30,000. With a few exceptions, the life of a free black person in 17th and 18th century Britain was bleak. They were mostly denied employment and were also subject to oppression by the authorities. The economic impact of slavery can not been overstated. This immensely profitable institution was the fuel that financed the growth and power of the British empire.

The next big period change in the African heritage population of Britain was the 20th century. There was a small increase in the number of black Britons during the two world wars. Following the second world war, a large influx of African-Caribbeans began. A quarter of a million black immigrants, mostly from Jamaica, settled in Britain in less than a decade. From 1950 to 1960, the black population increased nearly tenfold thanks to this Windrush generation, so named after a ship that brought the first large wave of immigrants, the Empire Windrush. Although they were welcomed by industry who were dealing with a severe labour shortage. Many others were not so happy about their arrival and the government - having first attempted to prevent them arriving - simply resolved to make them feel unwelcome.

Immigration of African-heritage people has continued since that time, both from the Caribbean and, increasingly, directly from Africa. The racism too has continued. It lives on in individual prejudice amongst white people. Nadia Higham, a member of this congregation and whose father is Sudanese remembers growing up “ the only non-white family on our street. And the only brown kids at our school.” She says “racist taunts were normal (When did you last have a bath? You’re adopted aren’t you!)”

More insidiously, anti-black racism continues at an institutional level that disadvantages black people in ways that are pervasive but often difficult to see clearly. Nadia says of her dad “It took dad much longer than his peers to move up the career ladder at the hospital, and he worked twice as hard to prove himself.”

Despite this, black Britons have made enormous contributions to this nation. African heritage people become prominent in the UK almost every field of endeavour. There are well known black people in television, music, politics, film directing and acting, business, art, literature, the police, the military, and in sport. Increasing numbers, increasing prominence, increasing contributions, and the continuation of entrenched racism. This is the reality at present.

Reading from ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga’

Through sports, music, cinema, fashion and [...] television, black Britons have become the standard-bearers of a new cultural and national identity, the globalized hybrid version of Britishness that was so successfully and confidently expressed in [opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.]

These successes and achievements have been remarkable and in many ways unexpected. The problem is that these good news stories can at times become window-dressing and inspire wishful thinking. The reality is that disadvantages are still entrenched and discrimination remains rife.

My parents were able to meet in the Britain of the 1960s due to links that had been established in the late nineteenth century between communities, schools and churches in Lagos, Sierra Leone and other parts of West Africa and universities in the North of England. The racist attacks that, two decades later, led to me and my family being driven from our home by thugs inspired by the National Front were a feature of another inescapable aspect of that same history – the development and spread of British racism. The walls of disadvantage that today block the paths of young black Britons are a mutated product of the same racism.

Message Part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula

The disadvantage of which David Olusoga speaks becomes clearer in some of the statistics about black British life in the UK.

  • Black people are almost three times as likely to be unemployed (15.5%) as whites

  • Young black men are more than twice as likely as young white men to be unemployed.

  • The average white household has assets of nearly three times that for black Caribbean households.

  • African-Caribbean young people consistently lag behind whites in education.

  • 60% of black households have no savings at all.

  • Black people are four times more likely than white people to be subject to police stop and search

  • Black people are up to 6.6 times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act.

  • Black people are more disproportionately represented in UK prisons than in the US.

How you interpret and understand these facts depends on your perspective on humanity and on your politics. There are those who would say this is the fault of African heritage people - that they should get their acts together. There are even those who think that black people are genetically inferior to whites. And there are those who say the problems are due to cultural differences.

I can’t help but see it as deeply intertwined with the institution of slavery and the long history of racism and oppression of African heritage people in this nation and in its colonies. Racism is complicated and trauma is complicated.

Being subject to racism for generations means a lack of opportunities. It means having greater obstacles put in front of you than others. And then it means blaming you for your lack of progress. And when you’ve been told enough times that you will never get ahead, that you are not good enough, and that you should give up, it has an enormous negative impact on children and adults. It is a way to destroy the optimism and potential of a culture.

African-Caribbean British people are the descendants of slaves. Their ancestors were dragged from their homes, they were dehumanised, they were shipped to the Caribbean in the most inhumane conditions possible. Many died in the journey. Those who survived capture and the ocean crossing were forced to do the most exhausting and physically dangerous work, often with inadequate food. The overseers were quick to brutalise and whip slaves they felt were not working hard enough. The death rates were enormous. The average lifespan of a Caribbean slave may have been as little as twenty years.

We know today that trauma passes down through generations. It can be carried culturally. As a Jew, I continue to carry the trauma of the holocaust even though my own family was not among its victims. This has shaped how I see the world and my place in it. I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to be a descendant of slaves - family to people who were systematically tortured and worked to death. How can a culture survive this sort of trauma without enormous damage. Adding to that trauma the continuing persecution and racism they encountered and continue to suffer in Britain, we begin to understand the disadvantages by which people can be burdened. We have to marvel at the resilience of people who - despite this - can thrive.

We now know also that trauma can be carried genetically. There are changes that take place outside of the DNA sequence that can pass from parent to child and onward. Trauma reverberates in terrible ways across the generations.

We like to talk about meritocracy as an ideal of our society - that each person can reach whatever level they are capable of. Of course, we do not have a meritocracy. Children with equal intelligence do not have an equal chance of getting the best education. But even if that was the case, we have to remember that people do not stand at the same starting line in the race for success. Many of them stand far far back for African heritage people, their place relative to the starting line is the product of what this society has done to them. The ancestors of these same people - against their will - were central to the building of the British empire.

The growth and power of the empire required money - lots of it. And that money came largely from the institution of slavery. From the lucrative triangular slave trade itself and later from the manufacture of cloth made of cotton harvested in the unspeakably cruel institution of American slavery, the British empire depended upon slavery.

This is where we are today: the descendents of people who were torn from their lives, brutalised, and forced into slavery to create the empire are today prevented from taking their full and rightful place in this society by racism of past and present. They are held back by the trauma that destroyed lives, families, and culture.

This history suggests that we need to do more today than to express sympathy. By any notion of justice, the United Kingdom owes an enormous debt to the black British - perhaps more than any other group. Reparations were paid out by the British government after the abolition of slavery – but not to the former slaves or their descendents. The equivalent of £16-17bn was paid to the slave owners! That was 40% of total government expenditure for 1834. The contribution of historical African slavery to the British economy would be the equivalent of trillions of pounds today.

A terrible past has created great disadvantages in the present. Let us help to create a future where the debt this nation owes to African heritage people is paid in a way that creates justice.

Closing Words

Each of us has been shaped by those who came before
Let us remember this for ourselves and for others
Remembering that our successes are not entirely our own
And our struggles too may have roots in the deeper past
Let us work to build a world today
That serves as a foundation for justice tomorrow