Black and British: A Forgotten History Part 4

Black Cultural Archives

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.

Colonisation and the three Kings who resisted it
Today’s multi-racial Britain would have been unimaginable during the Victorian era, when the Empire was nearing its height. Britons staked out territory across the world, creating what was known as ‘the empire on which the sun never set’. At its greatest extent it was the largest empire in history.  The pink areas in this map represent the British Empire in 1900. This was an age in which skin colour divided coloniser from the colonised; the rulers from the ruled.  

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.

The Manchester Evening news covering King Khama’s arrival in England.

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.

This plaque is in memory of the three African chiefs, King Khama, Sebele, Bathoen I. It is mounted on the exterior of the Botswana Embassy in London.Their story reminds us that the relationship between Britain and the people of colonised countries was sometimes open to negotiation. 
Liverpool Race Riots
Colonial greed and racism would cast a long shadow across the 20th century as more and more people of African origin made their homes in Britain.  A stark example of this was in Liverpool in 1919. There had been a black community here since the 1700s, largely due to shipping and the slave trade. During World War I, labour shortages swelled the black population from 3,000 to around 5,000.  But war’s end exposed deep lying racial tensions that would threaten the community’s existence. 

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.

This plaque, situated in Liverpool’s former docks, marks Charles Wotten’s death. The Liverpool race riot was just one of similar outbreaks of violence in seaports across the entire nation, including South Shields, London and Cardiff. They marked a stark change in British racial attitudes. While some argued that ‘we are a coloured Empire’ the growing black population had exposed the limits of tolerance.  
The Cabaret Star
Between the wars, there was one man who would confound all the rules to become the acceptable face of blackness in Britain. Lesley Hutchinson was born on the Caribbean island of Grenada. He arrived in London in 1927 via Paris and New York as the cast member of a musical.  But his aftershow cabaret performances in London’s exclusive café venues lifted him from the ranks. Better known simply as ‘Hutch’, he soon became one of the most celebrated and highly paid cabaret stars of the age. Good looking, charismatic and bi-sexual, part of Hutch’s appeal was the hint of forbidden sexual mystery.  

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.

This plaque, hung at Quaglino’s in London, commemorates Hutch's life. The interwar years had revealed Britain’s conflicted relationship with its black population. But as another war loomed, Britain’s liberal tradition would re-emerge. 
GIs and the British resistance to segregation 
This is Aberysychan, a small village in the Welsh valleys. During the second world war the parents and grandparents of these people, and those from villages up and down the country, became unknowing participants in a great social experiment. There would be a mixing of races, which would leave a lasting legacy across Britain.  By 1944, over a million US soldiers had landed in Britain. And around a 130,000 of these GIs were black soldiers, who were mostly sent to rural parts of Britain. One spring day, 300 or so arrived here in Aberysychan.

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.

Then, just as suddenly as the black GIs arrived, in June 1944 they were gone. To join the combat on the beaches of Normandy.


But they left a lasting legacy.

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.

The black GIs were a glimpse of what a post-colonial Britain might look like. By no means perfect, but many ordinary people showed a capacity to embrace racial difference.  This plaque commemorates the African American soldiers stationed in the Pontypool area during WWII.

The plaque is mounted on the Aberysychan church (pictured).

It would be another decade before the black population of Britain would reach the same numbers. Years in which the certainties of empire would be swept away, and colonies would fight for their independence.

Windrush
The arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks, London, in June 1948 has come to symbolise the founding moment of modern, black British history. It coincided with the passing of the British Nationality Act 1948, which gave right of entry to the ‘mother country’ to the entire population of the colonies.  It was hoped this would help hold Britain’s crumbling Empire together. What happened next took the authorities by surprise. Over the next decade and a half, more than a quarter of a million black British citizens came from the Caribbean.  

When the first immigrants arrived aboard the SS Empire Windrush many of them were initially housed in Clapham South air raid shelter, London.

They looked for work in the nearest Labour Exchange, in Brixton.

That geographical chance lead to Brixton becoming one of the most racially diverse areas in the country.

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.


Explore the earlier Black and British exhibitions, First Encounters, Freedom, and Moral Mission.

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