Tuesday, 15 May 2018

What is happening in Black British History - a review of the Conference held on 10 May

Given the Windrush citizenship scandal the holding of the What is Happening in British Black History VIII Conference  was timely, with its reminders of the long presence of people of Africa heritage in Britain including during the Roman period. Many of the 40-odd attendees were themselves part of communities who knew or worked with those who had come from the Caribbean on vessels such as the seminal Empire Windrush in June 1948, and beforehand too. 

The information on the black presence in all its forms keeps growing as The Black Tudors book by Miranda Kaufmann which was I had on sale, exemplifies. Visible, too, is the exhibition revealing  the story of the 2,000 French African-Caribbean soldiers, women and children captured in the West Indies and imprisoned at Portchester Castle, Hampshire, between 1793 and 1814. Curator Abigail Coppins (English Heritage) spoke about the research behind the display, now available for all to see. (1)

Prisoners of War

Many of the prisoners were captured on Guadeloupe. It is not yet clear how many stayed, including being recruited into the British Army and Navy, at  a time when c10,000 – 15,000 black people are thought to have been in Britain.

Although there was no time to discuss the details it was clear that there were many other prisoner of war depots and soldiers out on parole in towns and villages across Britain during the Wars with France. One example is the Norman Cross depot in Huntingdonshire. ‘Black Jimmy’ was transferred from it to the hulks at Chatham; Jean Beautemps,  born in Dominique, killed a French seaman fellow prisoner there in August 1797; and Eustache was paroled from it to Ashbourne. A number of Lascars imprisoned by the French at Dunkirk were exchanged for French seamen at Norman Cross. (2)

Black soldiers 

Previous research has identified two men from Guadeloupe who joined the army. Jean Baptiste joined in 1813. He was a labourer in Croydon. It is not known whether he had been captured and had been paroled or later released. He was discharged in 1841 due to ill health. The second was William Buckland was in the 5th Foot which recruited in Northumberland and later became part of the Royal Fusiliers. He served from May 1810 to March 1817. Aged 31 he then enlisted for unlimited service in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers  at Valenciennes in France in March 1817. He was discharged as a private on pension in June 1823 due to ‘being worn out and unable to march, together with impaired vision.’ In 1848 a William Buckland, formerly of the 5th Foot, was awarded the Military General Service Medal 1793-1814, with bars for Salamanca, Vittoria, Pyrenees and Toulouse. He drew his pension initially in Limerick, and then later in Liverpool where he died in December 1857.

Buckland’s details had been researched by John Ellis, another of the speakers, who spoke about soldiers of African origin from the 1700s to the 1840s. Black members of British regiments were often trumpeters and drummers with the all-important role of sounding out the battle orders as well as fighting. John Ellis, a school teacher, who pioneered work on black soldiers in his MA dissertation in 2000. (3) His return to undertake further research is welcome. He has found out more about Tommy Crawford who settled in Darlington, whom I have written about, after discharge from the army. (4)

Black Liberationists

People of African heritage came to Britain, and Europe, for a wide variety of reasons, including for education and as entertainers. One particular group were the African-American liberationists like Frederick Douglass, Henry ‘Box’ Brown, William Wells Brown, and William and Ellen Craft who spoke at hundreds of meetings around the country. They were heavily dependent on the support of the abolitionist networks. Hannah Rose Murray, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, explained that Moses Roper spoke very few times in London because his patron fell out with him. (5)

Although there has already been a lot of work on Black Liberationists in Britain Hannah’s unique contribution plotting the locations of the speaker engagements on maps, adds an enormous amount to our knowledge of where they spoke, including in the tiny seaside hamlet of Cullercoats on the Northumberland Coast, because Anna and Henry Richardson has a seaside home there. As a historian of the Richardsons I did not know this. (6)
Wide British interest in the realities of US pre-emancipation slavery and the problems faced after emancipation there meant that campaigners came long after the end of the American Civil War (1861-65). These inspiring campaigners included the Fisk Jubilee singers raising money for their University, and Ida B. Wells raising support for her anti-lynching campaign. As Jeff Green pointed out the interest in such lectures continued into the 1920s.

Black Americans in Victorian Britain

The variety of black people in the Victorian period was augmented in a talk  by Jeff, whose book Black Americans in Victorian Britain should be published in September, and by Joe Williams discussing William Darby/Pablo Fanque the circus owner. Jeff ranged across many people including Edward Lewis, the Negro Messmorist in the 1850s, Agnes Foster, who went to Jamaica and founded the Salvation Army there, and Clarissa Brown, one of the daughters of William Wells Brown. Jeff also used the opportunity to show how he did his extensive research.

Yorkshire's Black History

Audrey Dewjee gave a presentation on stories from Yorkshire’s Black History, which is currently an exhibition in Beverley near Hull. (7)

After the end of the First World War the race riots in 1919 and the E. D. Morel campaign against the use by the French of African troops in their area of occupied Germany, highlighted the strong strand of racism that had built up within British society as a result of colonialism and imperialism. Owen Walsh (University of Leeds) spoke the Jamaican and Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay. Although only in Britain for a couple of years McKay wrote against Morel’s campaign in Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Dreadnaught newspaper. While McKay was attracted to revolutionary ideas and to Communism, the question arises as to what his relationship was with men like John Archer and Dr John Alcindor of the African Progress Union, especially as Archer supported Battersea Labour Party’s resistance to the ban and proscriptions on Communists which led in February 1926 to its expulsion from the national Labour Party. (8)

Black Performers 

In the 1930s the League of Coloured Peoples adopted a non-revolutionary approach.  Audrey Dewjee told the attendees about one of its members George Brown who became owner of John Kay & Sons (Huddersfield) Ltd (the very town in which this Conference was being held). He was a friend of Paul Robeson. Catherine Tackley (University of Liverpool), who had been involved British Black Jazz project (9) in the discussed how musicians in Bute Town were able to obtain work in in London in the 1930s including as members of Ken ‘Snakeships’ Johnson’s Dance Band. Later in 1958 Brown arranged for Robeson to entertain the factory children.

(From Sean Creighton collection)

The RAF and Windrush

Although there was no specific talk on black servicemen in the Second World War, there were photos shown of RAF members from the West Indies. Some were recruited for the RAF by an African airman on board the Windrush when they returned to Britain 1948. Sharon Watson of the Phoenix Dance Theatre showed extracts from the performance Windrush: Movement of the People. (10)


There was also a talk by Milton Brown (University of Huddersfield and Kirklees Local TV) about projects researching the views on identify of people who came from the West Indies, and the second generation who grew up in the 1980s. The latter’s cultural experiences often centred around sound systems, and those in  Huddersfield were discussed by Professor Paul Ward (Edge Hill College). (11)

Identity was also a theme in Black Men Walking, the play discussed by its writer, rapper and beatboxer Testament. (12)

Slavery profits and music

Inevitably the issue of slavery and the fact that many black people up to 1834 had come to Britain as enslaved people or to escape slavery  was raised. Professor David Hunter (University of Texas) spoke about the use of slave generated  money to fund music and culture, like investment in an Assembly Hall, and the manufacture of a specialist form of piano made for the daughter of a wealthy slave owner. Hans Sloane’s collection in the British Museum included drum which had gone from Africa to Virginia, which was included in former Museum Director Head Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 objects series. (13)     

George Handel and John Gay were shareholders in the Royal Africa Company. Jews harps were made in large qualities in Britain using metal from the Principio Mine in America which used slave labour, while the harps were part of the range of goods used to buy slaves in Africa. Conference attendees gasped when they heard that while landowner and MP Peter Beckford was on his Grand Tour he had actually purchased the 14 year old Italian composer Muzio Clementi from his father.

Strengths and weaknesses of the Conference

This was perhaps the best WHBBH conference so far in terms of new information and ways of looking at the material, sharing information, seeing interlinks, without some of the theoretical angst that sometimes dominates gatherings held in London.

A major problem is the format is too many talks and not  enough time for discussion. Information sharing and networking has to take place quickly over tea and coffee, lunch and at the post talks drinks, which does not allow everyone to get to know each other.
This causes frustration  because issues people want to discuss in details such as how to get the growing information about the black presence into schools cannot be discussed in detail, although it was clear that telling stories through plays, music, and other art forms is an  important approach. Nor was there time to explore in more detail Jeff Green’s cautioning about how sources should be used.

An agenda for the next Conference

So how could the next Conference in the series be organised? I suggest small group discussions around such themes as (1) research sources and interpretation; (2) dissemination; (3) networking and collaboration; and (4) reaching into schools and Universities.

The themes should be introduced by 2 key speakers. The day could be structured so that there were four sessions of small groups, with the composition of each group being mixed up so more people get to engage with each other. The day would end with a report back of conclusions and action points – and people on the stage and in the audience would make kind use of many microphones. Possibly also the room layout could be more democratic: night-club style seating not university lecture theatre.

Thanks to Jeff Green and Jo Stanley for helpful comments on a draft of this article.
For comments by other attendees at the Conference see


(2)        Thomas James  Walker. The depot for Prisoners of War at Norman Cross Huntingdonshire 1796 to 1816. Constable & Co. 1913. I found this book in a second hand bookshop last year.
(3) The Visual Representation, Role and Origin of Black Soldiers in British Army Regiments during the Early Nineteenth Century. University of Nottingham). Ellis wrote A Revolutionary Activist in His Own Cause; William Afflick of the 10th Hussars (Westminster History Review. No.5. 2003). See also https://archive.is/7StIz & his 2009 posting at https://blackpresence.co.uk/black-soldiers-in-the-british-army-john-ellis.
(4) I mention Crawford in my article Black People in the North East (North East Labour Journal. Vol. 39. 2009) http://collectionsprojects.org.uk/slavery/_files/research-zone/NorthEastHistoryBookIssue39.pdf
(6)        Anna & Henry Richardson. Newcastle Quaker Anti-slavery, Peace and Animal Rights journalism. Topic 55. North East Popular Politics database. www.ppp.nelh.net (put ‘55’ into the search box. For details of the content of their journals put ‘Richardson’ into the search box. My article about the Richardsons Slavery is Sustained by the Purchase of its Productions: The Slave; His Wrongs and Their Remedy (1851-1856) in Ulrich Pallua, Adrian Knapp and Andreas Exenberger (Eds.) (Re)Figuring Human Enslavement: Images of Power, Violence and Resistance. (Innsbruck University. Edition Weltordnung – Religion – Gewalt 5) is downloadable at http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=503819
(8)        Sean Creighton. John Archer. Battersea’s Blck Progressive and Labour Activist 1863-1932. (History & Social Action Publications. London. 2014)
(9)        Jason Toynbee and Catherine Tackley. Black British Jazz: Routes, Ownership and Performance (Ashgate. Farnham. 2014).


(1)        In our chats over supper and breakfast in Huddersfield and at the Conference Jeff Green told me that the Royal College of Music’s digital exhibition on the internet includes the image of the rules and members of the United African League formed in 1903. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Dr John Alcindor and Robert Broadhurst was a member of the Executive and R. Archer (probably John Richard Archer of Note (8) above) was Secretary. Archer, Alcindor and Broadhurst went on to be members of the African Progress Union established in 1918. The details about the League appears to be new information but little more can be added to what is shown. (http://www.rcm.ac.uk/about/news/all/2017-10-16blackhistorymonth.aspx; see also Samuel Coleridge-Taylor newsletter No. 52 (May 2018) at https://sites.google.com/site/samuelcoleridgetaylornetwork/newsletter)

(2)        Two days later I was on  a visit to Sheffield Park in Sussex. One of the people in the group was the great grandson of an African sailor who settled and married an English woman in Liverpool. He is just one of the growing number of white looking people who know or are realising that they have African heritage.

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