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.
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.
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.
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.
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.