Wednesday, 5 November 2014

British Black History - A Conversation - Some Thoughts

From Martin Hoyles' book Cugoano Against Slavery (Hansib. 2014)

What a good event the workshop What’s Happening in Black British History? A Conversation was on Thursday 30 October at Senate House. A big thanks to Miranda Kaufmann and Michael Ohajuru for organising it with the support of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Despite it being a weekday about 100 people were able to attend, including those long involved in work on the history such as Ian Duffield, Chris Power, David Killingray, Marika Sherwood, Tessa Hoskins and John Cowley. In addition to people like Caz Bressey, Kathy Chater, Martin Spafford,  Audrey Dewjee who had been involved in Black & Asian Studies Association (BASA) with me, there were Steve (S.I.) Martin, Kwaku, Christian Hogsbjerg and Tony Warner. It was good to see so many new people attending.  

With the demise of BASA the aim of the event is to kick start the development of a new organised network. A database will be created to enable information to be shared and events organised. While we wait for the outcome of the day to be locked into place, the conversation needs to continue. Recent and forthcoming events are suggesting that there has been a significant change and the development of an appetite, particularly among those of Caribbean African heritage  for more to be in the public eye on the Black contribution over the centuries, the need to record the post-war experience as elders die, and anger at the absence of recognition of the contribution in the First World War galleries in the Imperial War Museum.  Behind the scenes there remain frustrations about getting the commissioners of TV programmes to take the stories on.  Meanwhile Stephen Bourne’s book Black Poppies has sold 1,500 copies in just three months, publicised mainly through social media.

This contribution to the conversations looks at issues relating to ‘blackness’, the importance of networking, the significance of the Windrush, the problems of knowing about the resources that already exist, and the increasing flood of publications.

‘Black’ and identity

Some of the issues especially about the political meaning of ‘black’ and multiple identities, touched on in the closing panel session have been discussed in a very interesting comment and analysis piece by Aditya Chakrabortty in the printed Guardian on 31 October – see

‘Black’ was a term used in the 1970s and 1980s  in a political way to represent solidarity between non-whites. This proved complex for those of South Asian heritage who have drifted away from Black History Month. There are also legacies of the hierarchy of colour with black at the bottom and white at the top from the West Indies as discussed by Andrea Levy in her article in The Guardian on 3 November:

The Guardian has a good track record on contributing to debate on Black History; see e.g. Andrea Stuart’s piece Black History Month can only be declared a success once it's redundant on 31 October last year at

The importance of Networking

Networking has been very important for many of us in developing our work.

It was Ian Duffield who provided me with the framework to start my work on John Archer back in the late 1970s when he spoke to the Battersea & Wandsworth Labour & Social History Group. It was my work  on Archer that led Sam Walker who ran Black Cultural Archives to ask me to do a project on Lewisham’s Black History in 1994. This led to an exhibition and the provision of my material to Joan Adim-Addo to help her with her book The Longest Journey: History of Black Lewisham (1995).

As a result of researching in New York it was Marika Sherwood who alerted me to Allan Glaisyer Minns, the black Mayor of Thetford in 1904, along with finding letters between Archer and the US black historical activist John Bruce.  This led me to do some research into Minns which I shared with people in Thetford and with Steve Martin who did some further research. This forms the background for initiatives in Thetford to be developed culminating this year in a presentation of A Monologue celebrating his life by the actor Michael Clarke. and

Those of us who were active in BASA have been able to share information and recommend each other as speakers e.g. Caz, Kathy and Miranda have been involved in speaking in Wandsworth Black (now Diversity) History Month. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network developed out of the liaison between Jeff Green and myself.  Jeff was unable to be at the Conversation. His book Black Edwardians remains an important starting off point. A key aim of his blog is to make more information available and this has led to many descendants of people featured contacting him: His latest entry is on Eph Thompson, the elephant trainer. It is people like Jeff who have ensured that there are a growing number of profiles of black people in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Miranda has added John Blanke – see

The 22 November African History and Croydon event being put on by Kwaku of Black British Music, who spoke in the panel discussion, grew out of previous co-operation between the two of us of the ‘Look How Far We’ve Come…’ event we ran together in this year’s Croydon Heritage Festival. For further detail see
The Significance of the Windrush

There is a lot of debate about pre- and post-Windrush. There is a persistent myth that Windrush was the first arrival of black people in Britain.  Of course it represents the beginning of post-war West Indian settlement. It is a marker for the experience of racism in terms of press comment on its pending arrival. It is also a symbol of the defeat of that virulent form of racism, Nazism;  the ship having previously been used for Baltic holiday cruises for the Hitler Youth, and then a troop ship which was captured. The fact that ex-servicemen were on board and Baron Baker, an ex-serviceman who had stayed in Britain after the War, negotiated the use of the Clapham Deep Shelters, is a reminder of the contribution of African peoples in the War and in previous wars, going back to Trafalgar and the image on the Nelson column that Miranda showed in her introduction  at the Conservation, and previous to that.

Problems of Knowledge

While Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (Pluto Press 1984 and continually reprinted)  remains the key foundation book, we must not forget the textbooks written by Nigel Fine and Chris Power in 1981 Black Settlers in Britain, 1555-1958, and Tessa Hoskins Black People in Britain, 1650-1850 (History in Depth - Nelson Thornes Ltd, 1984). The amount of material now available is immense. The number of projects at local level grows. Many are funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, whose representative on the day was warmly clapped when she introduced herself. However, as Kathy Chater pointed out attempts to get funding for a project through BASA and then the Equiano Centre to put her 4,000 entry database of people on to the web had not been successful.

It was suggested that not much work had been undertaken on Ignatius  Sancho. I pointed out that this was not the case, citing the work about him Arthur Torrington had undertaken in Greenwich.  Unfortunately Arthur tells me the resources are not available on the web. One of Sancho’s trade cards is in the V&A:  Back in 1981 Paul Edwards had a piece on Equiano and Sancho in History Today: Black People in Britain: Olaudah Equiano and Igantius Sancho. The same year saw the publication of  Igantius Sancho (1729-1780): An Early African Composer in England. (Garland Press) In 1994 Edwards published with Polly Rewt The Letters of Ignatius Sancho. (Edinburgh University Press. 1994). Brycchan Carey’s excellent website contains a bibliography on Sancho: The 1997 National Portrait Gallery exhibition saw the publication of Reyahn King (ed), Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters (National Portrait Gallery, 1997). As Miranda pointed out at the workshop the British Library acquired 15 of his letters last year – see


In terms of resources the former BASA Newsletters remain an important collection of notes, articles, parish records, sources, resources and book reviews.  You can see contents of the issues on This includes an index prepared by Marika Sherwood of issues 1-47. Issues 60-63 are in digital form on the website. There were some unsold back issues which Marika Sherwood (at her base at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies) may have access to for sale. The issues can be consulted along with BASA’s archive at Black Cultural Archives, and former members with copies can provide photocopies (for the price of copying and postage). I will be working on making the content of the Information Bulletins that were emailed out when I was BASA’s Secretary available, along with my former Black British History enewsletter.

During the panel discussion I mentioned the excellent books by Martin Hoyles on Cuffay and Cuguano. These are published along with other works by him by Hansib Publications: See my review on the Cuffay book at I will be reviewing the Cuguano book.

On the question raised about the need for a bibliography on British Black History Andy Simons, who used to work at the British Library, compiled one in 2010 which is on the BASA website with the link on page Selected Bibliography for the Aid of Studying Black British African-Caribbean and Asian British History, Sociology, and Culture, in English at the British Library. He also produced an update in 2013.

We are being overwhelmed with publications on aspects of British Black History and on the Atlantic slavery system including those listed below.

Where Next?

The answer is pretty simple. Continue what we are doing in terms of research, publications, web postings, talks and walks, workshops and conferences; strengthen the networking and the collaborative work; continue debate and lobbying. Apart from building the networking database, the Conversation initiative will include further events next year, to carry on the conversation in person. Miranda tells me that there are great suggestions on the feedback forms – more from Miranda on that in due course. Watch out for her blog about the day which will be posted on 

A final thought. Is the Jamaica Times (  the free newspaper for Jamaicans in the UK helping to generate interest? Its October BHM Special issue contains articles on the Jamaican Disapora Mapping Project, the money needed for Mary Seacole’s statue, a report on J. D Douglas’s lecture at the House of Commons on the contribution of Black and Asian Soldiers in the First World War, and an interesting discussion by Bishop Dr Joe Aldred on Jesus is Black …. Given the importance of religion in black communities, and while you do not have to believe in a God, he argues:
‘One of the benefits of Black History month has to be that it provides a framework within which we can restate the quality of humanity made in God’s image. To do this well, we have to speak truth to the power of white western hegemony, and tear down the principalities and power that misappropriate the image and likeness of God and use it to subjugate and inferiorise. To say that Jesus is black is simply to assert black humanity in God’s image and realised in the incarnation. It is not to deny the image of God in the Caucassian, the Indian, the Chinese or any of God’s diverse humanity.’

Note: see my other discussion piece at:


Before the Windrush. Race Relations in 20th Century Liverpool. John Belchem. (Liverpool University Press. 2014)
Black British Rebels: Figures from Working Class History. Hassan Mahamdallie. (Bookmarks Publications. 2012)
Black Poppies. Britain’s Black Community and the Great War.  Stephen Bourne. (History Publications. 2014)
Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, their Presence, Status and Originsby. Onyeka. (Narrative Eye. 2013)
Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade & Castaway – Christian Hogsbjerg. (Red Words. 2014)
Cugoano Against Slavery. Martin Hoyles. (Hansib Publications. 2014)
Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Sven Beckert. (Knopf. 2014). 
Empire, Race and the Politics of Anti-Caste. Caroline Bressey. (Bloomsbury. 2013)
Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Greg Grandin. (Metropolitan Books. 2014)
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Edward E. Baptist. (Basic Books. 2014)
Ira Aldridge. Sergei N. Durylin (author) & Alexi Lalo (translator). (Africa Research and Publications. 2014)
Ira Aldridge. Performing Shakespeare in Europe, 1952-1855. Bernth Lidfors. (University of Rochester Press. 2013)
Legacies of British Slave-Ownership. Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain. Catherine Hall & others. (Cambridge University Press).
Pan-Africanism and Communism. The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939. (Africa World Press. 2013)
Science, race relations and resistance. Britain 1870-1914. Douglas Lorimer. (Manchester University Press. 2013)
Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development. Sven Beckert & Seth Rockman. (University of Pennsylvania Press. 2013)
Sugar in the Blood. Andrea Stuart. A Family’s Story of Slavery. (Portobello Books 2012; Random House. 2013)
William Wells Brown. Clotel and Other Writings. Ezra Greenspan (ed). (Library of America. 2014)
The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia.  Christopher Frayling. (Thames & Hudson. 2014)
And published in the last month:
Mother Country. In the wake of a dream. Novel. Donald Hinds. (Hansib Publications. 2014)
Sorry, But I Thought You Were Black: 50 Years of the West Indian Press. Clayton Goodwin. (Acorn Independent Press. 2014)
Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors. Guy Grannum. (Bloomsbury. 2012)
When I Came to England. An Oral History of Life in 1950s & 1960s Britain.  Z. Nia Reynolds. (Black Stock Books. 2014)
William Cuffay. The Life & Times of a Chartist Leader. Martin Hoyles. (Hansib Press. 2012)

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