Black and British: A Forgotten History Part 2

Black Cultural Archives

Freedom. From the birth of the slave trade, to the founding of Freetown in Sierra Leone, find out how the concept of freedom was used and abused, denied, claimed and corrupted in one of the most dramatic and shocking chapters in the black history of Britain.   (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 second of four online exhibitions and explores the surprising stories behind five plaques from the series.

Nelson's Navy
Lord Admiral Nelson is one of the most celebrated commanders in British naval history.  On 21 October 1805 he led the British fleet into battle against the combined forces of France and Spain off the Cape of Trafalgar.  Under his command were 18,000 sailors.  What is often forgotten is that over 100 of them were black. They helped the British fleet win one of its most famous victories, thwarting the ambitions of French Emperor Napoleon to invade Britain.  

In London, a bronze relief at the base of Nelson’s column shows one of these forgotten black sailors, guarding the wounded Nelson.

Nelson’s victory defeated the biggest threat to Britain in over 200 years but it cost him his life.

This memorial to Nelson, situated in the centre of Trafalgar Square, was completed in 1843.

Over 170 years later, sailors of the Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark laid a memorial wreath at sea as part of a ceremony to commemorate the black sailors who fought at Nelson’s side.

Some of Nelson's sailors were men from Africa; some were men born into slavery in the British colonies of the West Indies or North America. And some were black Georgians, men who had homes, wives and children back in Britain. But they were all fighting for Britain at a time when an enormous struggle was underway over their own freedom.

The slave trade is one of the darkest parts of human history as millions of Africans were captured and enslaved for profit. In the 17th and 18th centuries the British were the masters of the trade in the Atlantic, transporting over three million men, women and children into slavery.

Hidden beneath the trees, on a small island 3,000 miles from Britain on the Sierra Leone River, are the ruins of a fort.

Abandoned and forgotten for almost two centuries, it was in places like this that the British slave trade began.

At this fortress on Bunce Island enslaved Africans were imprisoned, bought and sold.

One of the companies that used to run Bunce Island was the Royal Africa Company whose Governor was the future Stuart King, James Duke of York.

The Royal Africa Company sold more Africans into slavery than any other company in British history.

This plaque commemorates the thousands of African men, women and children who were transported into slavery from here between 1670 and 1807.  But the Royal Africa Company’s dominance and virtual monopoly of the trade wasn’t to last. In the name of British freedom, independent businessmen demanded their right to trade in enslaved humans. Within 15 years they had increased the supply of slaves, from forts like this, to British colonies by 300%.
The Campaign Against Slavery 
The colonies with labour-intensive crops like tobacco were hungry for cheap manpower.  And as the slave trade developed, laws known as slave codes were created there. Over time, these laws systematically stripped black people of any rights and of their basic humanity.  This contradicted British ideas of liberty as this letter from the London Chronicle of 1765 shows.  The writer, ‘Curious’, refers to slavery as a practice often seen as ‘contrary to common justice and common decency’. But the letter goes on to elaborate ways to justify it.

By the end of the letter 'Curious' asks correspondents for their own opinions on the ‘veracity’ and ‘validity’ of the arguments.

This was more than just a philosophical debate. In Britain the law guaranteed the rights of all men.

The British Empire now had two contradictory legal systems.

And it was this contradiction in law that civil servant Granville Sharp (pictured) would use to challenge slavery after a chance encounter on a London street. It happened the very same year that the letter from ‘Curious’ was written.

In London in 1765, enslaved teenager Jonathan Strong was beaten by a slave owner and left for dead in the street. He was found by Granville Sharp who took him to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London (pictured). He paid Strong’s medical bills and probably saved his life.

Two years later Jonathan Strong was captured again and sold to a Jamaican slave owner.

Determined to keep his freedom he asked for Sharp’s help.

Sharp had no legal training but he went before a magistrate and successfully argued for Strong’s release.

Sharp then taught himself the law and in 1772 he won a ground-breaking test case to force the courts to confirm that slavery was not legal in England.

This plaque commemorates the two men and their victory.

A ceremony unveiling the plaque took place at St Bartholomew's Hospital in September 2016, attended by Granville Sharp’s descendants, lawyers and hospital staff.   
Fighting for Freedom
While Granville Sharp was fighting his battle against slavery in Britain, the British in 1775 were fighting a war in the American Colonies.  After 160 years American patriots wanted independence.  British loyalists, looking for a way to undermine them, made a bold promise: freedom to any slave who escaped from a patriot to fight on the British side.  Thousands of slaves did just that.  But it wasn’t enough to help the British to win the war.  As they evacuated their last outpost in 1783 it left them with a dilemma.  What to do with these former slaves?

Britain was still a major slave trader, but the British decided to keep the promise they’d made to those who’d fought alongside them (as depicted here.) They were to remain free men.

Some of these former slaves came back to Britain, among them a man who went on to take Georgian Britain by storm: Bill Richmond.

Richmond was an enslaved teenager from Staten Island, New York. During the revolutionary war he’d become a servant to Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland, and he returned to Britain with him.

He was given an education, apprenticed in a trade and married a local girl. But in his early 40s he took the extraordinary decision to give it all up to become a bare knuckle boxer in London.

It was a huge gamble that would pay off spectacularly.

Winning 17 of his 19 fights he became the first black British sports star.  Richmond was a true celebrity, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, dining with aristocracy.  He was also a guest at the coronation of George IV.  In retirement he became a publican  and ran a sports academy – passing his skills to the next generation.  This plaque was unveiled in his honour at the Tom Cribb pub in London where he spent the last night of his life.

Tom Cribb was another Georgian boxer who was Richmond’s friend and long-time rival. This pub belonged to him.

The Founding of Freetown
Unlike Bill Richmond most of the black loyalists from the American Revolutionary war lived in London in poverty. Many who’d joined the British in America found themselves destitute on the streets of the capital.  They joined others, like the young woman called Celia in this news report, who had made a bid for freedom, but were now struggling.  The sight of hundreds of black people, homeless, hungry, freezing on the streets of London attracted the attention of the great and the good.  Whether they were regarded as betrayed heroes, or a nuisance, it was agreed something must be done.

In 1786 the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was set up. A plan was hatched to send them thousands of miles away to establish a new colony of free slaves in Sierra Leone.

At the National Archives are the passenger lists for the 441 people who set sail in 1787 for a new life.

For some Britons the scheme was a way to get rid of them. But to abolitionists like Granville Sharpe this was an act of goodwill, and an opportunity to found a community built on ancient Anglo Saxon ideas of freedom.

He was convinced that the land was fertile, the climate mild, and that these people – the first Africans to travel back to the continent as free settlers – would thrive.

But when they landed on the shores of Sierra Leone, they didn’t find the utopia Granville imagined for them. Confronted with a hostile climate the settlers were plagued by crop failure and tropical diseases.

The scheme was disastrously impractical, and by 1787 most of the first settlers had died. This wasn’t the end of the story though.

Other settlers followed from other parts of the British Empire in the search for freedom. And the experiment kept going, holding on to some of Granville’s early ideals.

Today Freetown is the capital of Sierra Leone, a country of over six million people, and the first place in the world where women got the vote. This plaque commemorates the pioneers who first attempted to establish a community here.

The plaque is mounted under a huge Cotton Tree - the same kind of tree under which settlers held their public meetings, called “Palavers”.

This one, at the centre of Freetown, has become the symbol of the hopes and ideals brought here by these early settlers.

Black and British: Part 3

In the next exhibition – Moral Mission - the end of slavery; the West African Squadron who hunted slave ships to free slaves; and the enslaved child taken into the care of Queen Victoria.

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