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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.