Black & British: A Surprising History

In this Expedition, we’ll travel through 1,800 years of Black British history to learn about African soldiers in Roman Cumbria; the former enslaved boy who became Samuel Johnson’s servant, friend and heir.

Plaque commemorating Sarah Forbes Bonetta who was under the protection of Queen Victoria (2016) by BBCBlack Cultural Archives

Queen Victoria’s Black goddaughter; life after the transatlantic slave trade for freed enslaved people; and contemporary Brixton, South London. The stepping stones of our progress will be a series of BBC Black History Plaques created for the television series Black and British: A Forgotten History (BBC, 2016).

Britain's first recorded African community

Julius Caesar led the first Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC, but it wasn’t until almost 100 years later that Rome conquered the southern half of Britain. By this time, the Roman Empire stretched from Gaul (in Western Europe) to the Mediterranean coastal regions of  northern Africa.

The Roman emperor Hadrian came to Britain in AD 122 and ordered the construction of a wall and forts, manned by soldiers from across the Empire, to protect his citizens from northern tribes. 

BBC plaque: First recorded African community in Britain

On the railings of St Michael’s Church in Cumbria hangs a BBC plaque marking the historical significance of the site: a Moorish unit from North Africa guarded the Roman fort that stood here in the 3rd century AD.

St Michael’s Church

Parts of St Michael’s Church and its tower were built using sandstone from the Roman fort and nearby Hadrian’s Wall. Hadrian’s Wall stretched over 70 miles and acted as the boundary between Roman Britain and Scotland to the north.

Roman fort

On the other side of this wall, a dip in the road marks what experts believe to be the edge of the Roman fort. Roman forts were manned by auxiliary units. A unit normally consisted of between 500 and 1000 men.

Roman settlement

Experts believe that close to the fort stood a Roman settlement that was probably multi-ethnic. It’s possible that, given the presence of the Romans stationed at forts along Hadrian’s Wall, Cumbria had a more diverse community then than it has now.

The freed slave and the English dictionary’s creator

In 1746, journalist and author Samuel Johnson was hired by a group of booksellers to produce a definitive English Dictionary. He was paid 1,500 guineas, enabling him to afford this house in London’s Gough Square. This is where he produced his legendary work.

With him was the young Jamaican Francis Barber. Their friendship was pioneering, but Francis wasn’t the first Black Londoner: from at least the period of Roman Britain onward, London has been a city of great ethnic diversity.

Roman diversity after Hadrian

Excavations beneath the streets of modern London have shown that the city had a diverse community over 1,500 years ago. The population of Roman ‘Londinium’ included people who were born in or had ancestral roots in places such as Asia and Africa. 

BBC plaque: Francis Barber lived here

Francis Barber had been an enslaved boy in Jamaica but became the manservant, companion and heir to Samuel Johnson. He lived here with Johnson between 1752 and 1756.

The room where Francis learned to write

In this room, Johnson worked on his dictionary, and the young Francis Barber practiced his writing on scraps of paper. Samuel Johnson and Francis Barber remained together on and off for more than thirty years. 

Francis Barber by Joshua ReynoldsBlack Cultural Archives

Francis nursed Samuel through his final illness, and Samuel did something remarkable in turn: he left Francis the lion’s share of his wealth. This was at a time when Britain was one of the biggest slave trading nations in the world.

Portrait of Samuel Johnson

This portrait shows Samuel reading a manuscript by writer Oliver Goldsmith.  His friendship with Francis though began before Samuel became the leader of literary London.  When Samuel’s wife died Francis, aged about 10, was sent by a friend to help the grieving author.

Writing practice

On this table are copies of slips of paper used by Francis to practice writing his signature and the word ‘England’. Maybe he was imagining his future in his new home country.

Diverse London today

London continues to be incredibly diverse—40% percent of residents would class themselves as of an ethnicity other than white. London is home to more spoken languages than any other European city, with over 300 languages currently spoken in London schools. 

Queen Victoria’s West African protégée

Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born in what is now Nigeria around 1843. She was enslaved at the age of 4 by African soldiers from the Kingdom of Dahomey and given as a gift to naval Captain Fredrick. E. Forbes, who was in Dahomey as an emissary of the British government.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) (1862) by Camille SilvyBlack Cultural Archives

Back in Britain, Forbes presented Sarah to Queen Victoria, who agreed to sponsor the girl’s education. Sarah and the queen met many times thereafter. Sarah named her first child Victoria, and the queen became the baby's godmother.

Palm Cottage in Gillingham, Kent

Palm Cottage was the home of the Schoen family, who took care of Sarah after the death of her benefactor, Captain Forbes, in 1852. Sarah lived here from 1855 to 1861. 

BBC plaque: Queen Victoria’s protégée

This plaque commemorates Sarah’s extraordinary life. Her relationship with Queen Victoria began in 1850, when she was presented to the Queen at the age of 6. The Queen, who commented in her journal on Sarah’s intelligence, took the formerly enslaved girl under her protection. 

Modern Gillingham

In Sarah’s time, Gillingham would have had a small black community. At the time, two-thirds of the Black British population were seafarers—the Chatham dockyard was nearby—or domestic servants. Today, black people are 2.5% of the town’s population.

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