Moral Mission: Explore the Victorian moral crusade against slavery, and its flaws. Find out how Queen Victoria came to take a black girl under her protection; why the mill workers of Rochdale stood in solidarity with enslaved Africans in the American South; and remember the victims of a tragedy in Jamaica. (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 third of four online exhibitions and explores the surprising stories behind five plaques from the series.
Getting to Abolition itself had been a series of steps. First, in 1807, Britain made the capture and trade of new slaves illegal.
With competitors' businesses still booming, the Royal Navy made an extraordinary transition – from an enforcer of slavery to a liberator. A special task force was set up, the West Africa Squadron, to intercept slave ships and free the Africans on board.
The mission was undermined by being poorly resourced and plagued by corruption. The Squadron only managed to capture around 6% of the slave ships heading across the Atlantic.
Nevertheless, over 50 years of patrolling three thousand miles of African Coast, between 1808 and 1860, it liberated 150,000 Africans.
These liberated slaves were taken to King's Yard, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to be counted and their names recorded.
Their shackles were cut off, their wounds dressed. Each received a piece of cotton clothing and a ladle of rice. Then, nearly 200 years ago, they walked through this gate to freedom.
Shown in the picture are ribbons, inscribed with the names of liberated slaves, tied to the gates in an act of remembrance by the people of Freetown.
The names are taken from the records of the Freetown archives, where the identities of some of the 150,000 men, women and children who were liberated are recorded.
It wasn’t a happy ending for all – some were apprenticed to exploitative employers, others were press-ganged into the navy. But it is evidence of a change that was sweeping across Britain and its empire
Sarah makes her first appearance in the private journals of the Queen on the day the two of them meet, 9th November 1850. The encounter took place at Windsor Castle (pictured).
The Queen describes Sarah as "sharp and intelligent and speaking English". She notes that she’s dressed as any other girl, but when her bonnet was taken off, that her little black head and big earrings “gave away her negro type.”
What Sarah made of this encounter with the most powerful woman on earth, is something we will never know. Like most black people who are drawn into British history in this period her words are lost to us.
Frederick Douglass arrived in Britain in 1846.
He’d just published his best-selling autobiography and people flocked to his sell out tour of Britain and Ireland.
By the time he arrived in Dundee, Scotland, Frederick Douglass had already been on the road for six months. So many people in the city wanted to hear him speak that he had to give four separate lectures to meet demand.
One of them took place in this music centre (pictured), then the Bell Street Baptist Chapel.
The cotton that fuelled Britain’s mills and factories came directly from the American South – produced through the labour of nearly two million African slaves.
Slavery may have been made illegal across the Empire, but economically Britain was dependent on it.
Pictured is the former family mansion of the Routh family - in 1860 they owned over 5,000 slaves and John Routh was known as the 'Cotton King'.
The contradiction between British morality and Britain’s economic interests came into stark relief in 1861 with the American Civil War.
The Northern states and the Southern states went into battle over the issue of slavery.
The North established a Naval blockade on the Southern cotton trade and the free flow of cotton from the Mississippi valley came to an abrupt halt.
For the previously productive workers of Britain’s cotton industry this was a social and economic disaster. Lancashire was soon in the grip of what became known as ‘the cotton famine’.
By the end of 1862, a total of 485,444 were receiving some form of poverty relief. The Northern states even sent food aid.
The British government remained officially neutral. And some in Britain even found ways to break the northern blockade on cotton.
But not everyone put their own interests first. One mill town was determined to do what was right. Rochdale.
This road was cut across the landscape by unemployed workers from Lancashire in a public works scheme – a response to the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding in the region. It’s still called today what it was known as then – 'Cotton Famine Road'.
Rochdale had a long history of working class radicalism. It had been one of the hot beds of the abolitionists and the anti-slavery movement.
In front of the courthouse the demonstrators were met by the local militia, and the local magistrate began to read the riot act.
People in the crowd responded by throwing stones and then the militia opened fire, killing seven of them. By the end of the day, the crowd had killed 18 people, including militia men and other officials.
Then the riot fizzled out.
This was a serious local incident. But in the grand scheme of things it was a riot in a backwater town, in a part of the empire that didn’t matter very much anymore.
The reason that every Jamaican has heard of Morant Bay is because of what happened next.
On the orders of the governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, a brutal act of vengeance began, with the killing, beating and terrorising of men, women and children, singled out because of the colour of their skin.
This plaque was unveiled in Morant Bay in memory of over 1,000 Jamaicans brutalised or killed, following the rebellion.
As well as it’s devastating effect in Jamaica, Morant Bay also delivered a fatal blow to the 'moral mission' in Britain.
Political opinion divided over the actions of the governor, drawing in some of the most high profile thinkers of the period.
For some, like philosopher John Stewart Mill, the brutality of the response demanded an enquiry. Others, like writer Charles Dickens (pictured), deemed it entirely appropriate.
Racist arguments claiming black people were innately savage, came to the fore and were now given a terrifying new slant from pseudo-scientific racist ideas.
Black and British: Part 4
In the next and final exhibition, The Homecoming: 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.