Black and British: A Forgotten History Part 3

Black Cultural Archives

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.

The Abolition of Slavery 
In 1833 Britain passed the Act for the Abolition of Slavery. Provisions in the Act raised the equivalent of £17 billion in compensation money. But this money wasn't for enslaved individuals. It was given to Britain's slave-owners for 'loss of human property.' This document is an Act, published two years later, carrying into effect further provision for compensating owners of slaves.  It’s a vivid illustration that while the Victorians would go on to see Britain’s new-found opposition to slavery as a moral mission – a crusade to end it across the globe – the reality would prove more complex.

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

This plaque, mounted in King's Yard, Freetown, commemorates the 150,000 enslaved Africans who were liberated by the West Africa Squadron.

Queen Victoria’s African Protégée
In the 1850s the West Africa Squadron began to expand its activities.  Increasingly they also attacked the bases of slave traders. Over time their activity began to merge with the opening phases of the colonisation of west Africa, but initially this was an anti-slave trade mission.  As well as force they also employed diplomacy: trying to persuade local leaders to stop doing business with the slave traders.  But when Captain Frederick Forbes visited King Ghezo of Dahomey, he was given an unexpected gift: a captive girl. He named her Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Forbes after Captain Forbes, and Bonetta after his ship the HMS Bonetta. She would go on to lead a remarkable life. 

On her arrival in Britain, Sarah was presented to Queen Victoria.

She was six years old.

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.

The Queen agreed to become Sarah’s protector.  She paid for her education, undertaken by missionaries at Palm Cottage in Kent, and ultimately became Godmother to Sarah's first child, Victoria. This plaque commemorates the six years that Sarah lived at Palm Cottage (1855 – 1861).

Present at the ceremony for the plaque unveiling at Palm Cottage was Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s great, great grandson, Arnold Gordon.

For years he didn’t believe his grandmother’s tales of their ancestor’s Royal connections. But then he had them confirmed by the librarian at Windsor Castle.

Pictured is modern day Palm Cottage in Gillingham, Kent, now the local social club.

While Sarah was in many ways very fortunate and lucky, her story is also a tale of a rather patronising social experiment. She was used to demonstrate that under British guidance an African could become educated, Christianised, and – in a key word for the 19th century – civilised.

Evangelising Speakers: Frederick Douglass
Abolition changed how the British saw themselves.  For many people opposition to slavery – abroad as well as at home – became a defining feature of what it was to be British.  Helping fire a sense of ‘moral mission’ were eloquent speakers who had escaped from slavery in the American South.  And in the 1840s one superstar emerged on the anti-slavery scene: Frederick Douglass.  He was one of the best speakers of his age.

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.

This plaque commemorates the occasion, on the 30th January 1846, when Fredrick Douglass spoke at the chapel.

He embodied the sentiment that if one of us is not free, none of us is free.

The British Industry Built on Slavery
But there was a blind spot at the heart of the Victorian ‘moral mission’.  Central to the British industrial revolution were the great cotton mills and factories of Lancashire and Cheshire.  By the 1860s, 430,000 people were employed in them. As many as four million were dependent on cotton in some way. And cotton clothes were Britain’s biggest export. But this economic boom was inextricably linked to what was happening 4,000 miles away. 

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.

This plaque commemorates the Rochdale mill workers who supported the struggle against slavery during the American Civil War. 
Morant Bay Rebellion 
While the cotton famine was highlighting the internal contradictions of Britain’s ‘moral mission’ another crisis was growing in Jamaica.   In the decades after the abolition of slavery the sugar islands of the British West Indies, which had once been so incredibly profitable, started to go into decline. With much of the island’s soil exhausted, by the 1860s there were thousands of acres that no-one was farming.  And hundreds of thousands of former slaves had no work and no land. People were starving. The crisis came to a head in a small town called Morant Bay.

The spark that ignited the flame was a case held in this courthouse in 1865 over the eviction of a man who had been farming on an abandoned estate.

A crowd of about 500-600 local people headed by rebellion leader Paul Bogle gathered outside.

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.

Paul Bogle was hanged on October 23 1865 for his part in the rebellion. He is now a national hero in Jamaica, and has been featured on one of their banknotes.

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.

A sister plaque to the one unveiled in Morant Bay was installed at the Black Cultural Archives as part of a remembrance event in September 2016.

Founded in 1981, the Black Cultural Archives’ mission is to collect, preserve and celebrate the heritage and history of black people in Britain. We opened the UK’s first dedicated black heritage centre in Brixton, London in July 2014.

Take a 360 tour of the Black Cultural Archives.

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.

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