Black and British: A Forgotten History Part 1

Black Cultural Archives

First Encounters.  Find out about the enduring relationship between Britain and the people whose origins lie in Africa. In this first part discover how the story begins as far back as Roman Britain and includes the ground-breaking relationship between a former slave and the author of the most famous dictionary in the English language, Dr Samuel Johnson. (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, demonstrating how the often forgotten story of black history 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. Explore our exhibition to discover the surprising stories behind the first four plaques.

Roman Migration
Black British history is much older than most people realise. It stretches as far back as the 3rd century, when Britain and North Africa were part of the same Roman Empire. There was movement of people, artefacts and ideas between these regions. This small coin shows Emperor Septimius Severus, who was born in North Africa but died in York in AD 211.
An inscription discovered in Cumbria has revealed that a whole Moorish unit from North Africa was stationed at a fort along Hadrian’s Wall, one of Britain's most famous Roman structures.The wall was built to protect the Romans from the tribes in the north. The location of the fort was known as Aballava then, today it's the village of Burgh-by-Sands. This is the earliest known example we have of a community of Africans living in Britain. This plaque commemorates their significance.

St Michael’s Church, Burgh-by-Sands, Carlisle

Burgh-by-Sands village church now stands on the site of the former Roman fort and even includes some of the original fort’s stones in its structure. Here is where the story of black Britain begins.

Beyond the Border of the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire encompassed territory where Libya, Algeria and Morocco are today.  But what about those who came from beyond the Empire's north African borders? Could they have travelled as far as the UK? The answer lies in skeletal remains, stored in the basement of an English town hall.

Near Beachy Head in Eastbourne, the skeleton of a young woman (pictured) was discovered over a hundred years ago. Now, the science of radiocarbon dating and isotopic analysis is revolutionising our understanding of her story, and of early migration. Her remains have revealed that she lived in Roman times and that she grew up in Eastbourne. But ethnically, she was African. Unlike other similar discoveries, Beachy Head Woman’s origins lie beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. She was sub-Saharan African.


This facial reconstruction lets us look into the eyes of one of the earliest black Britons we know of - not someone who came here as an adult but someone who was raised here.

A plaque now marks where the remains of the Beachy Head Woman were found.

The plaque is located in the quintessentially English East Dean Village Green.

Tudor Britain 
The Tudor world (1485-1603) we discover through text books and period dramas rarely includes black people. Yet there were black people in Tudor Britain, including at the highest levels of society - even at the court of the most famous of Tudor Kings, Henry VIII. 
One of his entertainers was the black trumpeter John Blanke. Blanke performed at the funeral of Henry VII in 1509, and soon after, at the coronation of Henry VIII. He also performed at a lavish tournament held in 1511 to celebrate the birth of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon’s short-lived son. A scroll was commissioned to depict this tournament, and it clearly illustrates John Blanke not once, but twice. Records held at the National Archives show that this court musician was savvy enough to write to Henry VIII to ask for a pay rise. A signature from Henry VIII shows that his request was granted.

No one knows where John Blanke came from, or how he got to Britain. But one theory suggests he arrived as part of Katherine of Aragon’s Spanish entourage when she first came to the country in 1501. With its proximity to Moorish North Africa, the Spanish court in which Aragon grew up in would have been multicultural.

On this site stood a Tudor Palace called The Palace of Placentia. It was from here that Henry VIII ordered a wedding gift for John Blanke.

Black Georgians
By the Georgian period (1714 – 1837) black people were a significant presence in Britain - contemporary estimates put their numbers at between 10 and 15,000. But their place in society wasn't secure.  Some struggled to make their way, while others fared far better. 

Samuel Johnson was the brains behind the most famous of English dictionaries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, 1755.

When Johnson’s wife died a black boy, who must have been about ten, was sent by a friend to help around the house of the grieving author. His name was Francis Barber and Johnson went on to share his home with this former Jamaican slave, who became like a surrogate son to him.

For many years, this portrait at Johnson’s house led people to believe it was Francis Barber. It probably isn’t, but it is a glimpse into Britain’s Georgian black community.

Samuel Johnson and Francis Barber remained friends for more than thirty years; Francis nursing Samuel through his final illness. In turn, Samuel did something remarkable. He left Francis the lion’s share of his wealth, as this newspaper report about Johnson's will shows.

This plaque commemorates the life long bond between Francis Barber and Dr Samuel Johnson. It's situated in Dr Johnson's former house in Gough Square, London.

Francis Barber married and had children. His descendants today, several centuries later, share his surname, but not his skin tone. Generations of marriage with white people mean the Barbers are now white.

It's estimated that as many as two to three million people in Britain have a black Georgian ancestor buried in their past. If only a few generations can hide this, it is not surprising that evidence of Britain's Afro-Roman presence has disappeared today.

Black and British: Part 2

In the next exhibition, Freedom, discover some of the most shocking stories from Britain’s black past in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And find out how black people were at the heart of competing definitions of what ‘freedom’ meant.

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