The Homecoming: discover the stories of the three African kings who stood up to Empire; an irresistible crooner; race riots in Liverpool; and the shaping of black British identity in the 20th century. (A BBC / BCA collaboration)
Black and British: A Forgotten History (BBC 2016) is an ambitious four part series, written and presented by historian David Olusoga. It reveals how this often forgotten story has been an integral part of Britain’s national narrative. During the series specially-commissioned BBC Black History Plaques commemorating pivotal people and events were unveiled at locations across Britain and the Commonwealth.
This is the final exhibition of four, and explores the surprising stories behind five plaques from the series.
Few places or people capture the scale, ambition and avarice of the British Empire at its peak than Cecil Rhodes.
Having been sent to Africa as a teenager by his father, by his mid-thirties Rhodes was the Premier of the Cape Colony and another territory – Rhodesia – had been named after him. In Rhodes’ view the superiority of the British made the expansion of empire the destiny of his race.
His great ambition was to drive a railway across the entire length of Africa. Running from the Cape to Cairo, you would be able to cross the whole continent without ever leaving British territory.
But there was a problem. The railway needed to cross Bechuanaland, which was a 'Protectorate' - territory claimed by the British but governed by local rulers.
Most prominent amongst them was the multi-lingual, Christian convert, King Khama III (pictured here standing).
Khama saw through Rhodes' scheme to its ultimate purpose – colonisation.
So while Rhodes was busy lobbying the British government to get control of Bechuanalan, in 1895 Khama along with the two other Bechuanaland Chiefs (pictured seated) headed to the heart of the empire itself: England.
Khama decided he needed, in his own words, ‘Another way of approach by which I can speak to the Queen, and the people of England.’
Unable to secure an audience with the Queen on their arrival, the Kings set off to meet the people of Britain with the help of the London Missionary Society.
These books contain all of the newspaper articles, all of the invitations, all of the ephemera of their tour.
And apart from coverage of their presence in the UK you can see that papers up and down the country also focused on the issues the Kings were trying to raise.
Knowing they’d be no match for Rhodes militarily, they were aiming to outmanoeuvre him by winning over the British public.
Their strategy paid off. Towards the end of 1895, with public opinion swinging behind the Kings, Khama and his delegation were granted an audience with the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain.
At that meeting, the Africans were granted most of the protections from Cecil Rhodes that they’d been looking for. They were also granted an audience with Queen Victoria.
The meeting of the Queen Empress and the three African Kings was of huge public interest. This picture of it appeared in The Graphic, a popular Victorian magazine. It shows the Queen at Windsor with her ladies in waiting, and Joseph Chamberlain, handing King Khama a portrait of the Queen.
The Kings’ actions kept their nation free from the worst excesses of empire.
Just over seventy years later, in 1966, Bechuanaland became the independent state of Botswana. The story of Botswana’s genesis can be traced back to that moment in the 1890s when three Kings came to Britain to win over Victorian public opinion.
Their importance is recognised by these statues in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.
The seeds of Liverpool’s descent into racial violence can be found among a cache of recently discovered letters between the Mayor’s office, black Liverpudlians and social groups. They reveal a worrying degree of racial tension:
‘The coloured people of this city are daily insulted in the streets… They are attacked and assaulted, without the slightest provocation… Hundreds of our men have been ejected from their employment and left completely stranded in the city today.’
The local Mayor even wrote to the Colonial Office, concerned that the situation was going to get out of control.
The Mayor’s fears were justified. On the night of the 5th of June 1919 racial tensions in the city would explode following a fight between local black people and Scandinavian sailors at a pub.
When the police arrived at the scene they decided to arrest the black men. They went around the corner from the pub to Upper Pitt Street, here there were a number of hostels and boarding houses used by the black community. But by this point a mob, several hundred strong, had gathered.
In Number 18 Upper Pitt Street (pictured) a young, Bermudan sailor was staying. His name was Charles Wotten and when the police tried to force the door to his boarding house he escaped out the back, but he was quickly spotted.
Charles Wotten was pursued all the way down to the Queen’s Dock (pictured during a ceremony marking the event). At one point it seems that the police managed to get hold of him and then the mob seized him back. The crowd pelted him with missiles and Charles ended up in the water.
Eyewitness accounts capture the ugly scene:
‘When the crowd was at its height, there would be about two thousand white people there.’
‘The witness could not say whether the negro was thrown into the dock, or dumped in.’
‘They shouted: ‘Let him drown!’’
Wotten died. Over the next three days, widespread rioting aimed at the black community took hold.
He had connections – and romantic liaisons – with the stars of Broadway and Hollywood. But it was among the ‘bright young things’, the thrill seeking British aristocracy, where he was most in demand. He played at private after hours parties to an ‘in crowd’ that included Prince Edward and Mrs Simpson.
But his position in Britain was fraught with contradictions – he could perform for crowds of adoring fans on stage, but be forced to enter the theatre by the back door. He wasn't even allowed to book a room in some of the hotels where he performed.
Eventually, Hutch’s high wire act – caught between being an insider and an outsider – would catch up with him.
Since the 1930s Hutch had been conducting a passionate and indiscrete affair with Edwina Mountbatten (pictured), a wealthy society heiress, closely connected to the royal family through her aristocratic husband Louis.
When Edwina’s affair with ‘a coloured man’ was exposed in a tabloid, even though the wrong man was identified as her lover, the ranks of high society turned their backs on Hutch.
Dropped by the Palace, he was banned from Royal Command Performances, his name airbrushed from many newspapers and BBC reports.
Hutch finally made a comeback in Quaglino’s (pictured) in the 1950s – at last brought back into the fold of the upper classes.
But by this time musical fashions had moved on and Hutch faced a long spiral downward.
He died aged 69 with a few thousand pounds to his name. His funeral was paid for by Lord Louis Mountbatten – only forty two people attended.
But there was a problem. The segregated US sent a segregated army to Britain. Black and white troops lived in separate camps, they ate in separate canteens, and spent their free time in separate clubs.
The question for the British government and the British people was would they tolerate segregation in the towns and villages of Britain? Would British pubs, dance halls and restaurants in Britain refuse to admit black men? Would railway carriages be reserved for whites only?
From 1942 onwards, white GIs tried to use violence and threats to force racial segregation upon the British. But millions of people were so appalled by what they witnessed that they refused to have anything to do with American racism or segregation. Across the nation there were countless acts of kindness towards the black GIs.
There were hundreds of so called ‘brown babies’ who were left behind across the country.
For some this would lead to years of shame and secrecy. In many communities, the secret history of the mixed race children is only now being uncovered.
Here, in Aberysychan, some of those descended from GIs, and the families that welcomed them, gather to celebrate their impact on the community.
Most of the immigrants quickly found a job. It wasn't just that people from the Commonwealth wanted to come to Britain. In truth Britain needed them.
Not least for the newly founded NHS. Right from the start it would employ thousands of the new migrants – many of them women.
Some would endure racism from the very people they had travelled thousands of miles to care for.
But those who arrived as children, or who were born here, would face their own unique challenge in asserting their identity.
Discrimination, deprivation and the systematic harassment of young black people by the police became flash points that exploded on to the streets of Britain in the 1980s.
In April 1981 Railton Road in Brixton became a battleground as predominantly black youths and police violently clashed. The inner city areas of Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester all witnessed similar uprisings.
Yet the civil unrest sent a powerful message to the authorities: this new generation of black Britons were here to stay.
At around the same time the Black Cultural Archives were founded to record and preserve the history of people of African descent in Britain.
As this promotional material from the time comments ‘The past is what all people build their present and future on; without this they sit in a void waiting to reclaim their history, suspended in a bottomless pit’.
More than 30 years on, Britain is enormously changed. Black people continue to face all sorts of disadvantages – discrimination, high rates of unemployment, higher levels of poverty.
But one barrier that confronted the Windrush generation has been overcome. There are very few people these days who question the idea that it is possible to be both black and British.
This plaque commemorates the 278,000 Caribbean men, women & children who migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1962, known as ‘the Windrush generation’, who helped shape Britain.
Some of the remaining migrants who came to Britain in the post-war period gathered to mark their journey in November 2016.
They were joined by more recent migrants from Africa. The on-going connections between Britain and many different African nations means that for the first time, probably since the Atlantic slave trade, there are more people in Britain with African heritage than Caribbean
Today Britain has come to resemble the nation that it might always have been; one that was at the heart of a vast multi-racial empire.
That this is where we would end up was never a foregone conclusion.
Yet, if we look further back, to a longer, more complex and more nuanced history. To a history that begins with the Romans some 1,800 years ago - a history that tells us that Britain has always been global and that black and white lives have always been entwined – then perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised.