editorial feature

5 Forgotten Black and Asian Figures Who Made British History

Unheard stories from English Heritage sites: from Septimius Severus at Hadrian's Wall, to Dido Elizabeth Belle at Kenwood House

At every point in history, there have been non-white individuals and communities living, working or traveling in Britain. In fact, with figures like the Beachy Head Woman and Ivory Bangle Lady, we know that there has been a black presence in the British Isles since at least the 3rd century CE.

So why do we so rarely hear about these people and their lives? For Andrew Hann, historian at English Heritage, it comes down to the way that history is written and the kinds of stories people have deemed worth preserving: “history tends to be written by the powerful,” he says, “it tends to be written by the people in charge. If you look at the archival history, which is the history that most people know of, it’s predominantly male, it’s predominantly white, it’s predominantly middle or ruling class, and it focuses very much on formal relationships to do with title and entitlement to land and that sort of thing. You don’t tend to get minorities or transient populations in recorded histories.” But this poses both a challenge and an opportunity to historians: “it’s up to us to try and winkle out information about these other people who still had a big impact on a place.”

The Family of Sir William Young, 1767 - 1769, Johann Zoffany (From the collection of the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)

There are dozens of English Heritage sites with some form of connection to black and ethnic minority individuals, ranging from places like Audley End with black servants, to Osborne House where there were Indian servants with their own quarters, and distinguished visitors from across the Empire, to Kenwood House which was home to a black gentlewoman. The darker side of this history is that many of these stories feature racism, segregation, and cultural intolerance, while many English Heritage sites themselves are built partly on the money and power that came from the slave trade and colonialism. Andrew says, "while this can be a challenging story to tell, tell it we must, as it teaches us important lessons about the present as well as the past."

Three Boys, Late 1660s, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (From the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Remembered in the history books or not, the history of Britain is closely entwined with these people’s stories. Here are 5 examples of these often forgotten historical figures who left their mark on British life, culture, and history.

1. Septimius Severus

There is evidence of a black presence in Britain going back to the first century CE, and probably even earlier. English Heritage’s work at Hadrian’s Wall has identified that many units serving at the Roman site actually originated in North Africa, with many Africans reaching high ranks of command within the army. It’s now thought that many people who live on the English-Scottish border today may be descended from these early black Britons.

Birdoswald Roman Fort, part of the Hadrian's Wall frontier system (From the collection of English Heritage)

The Roman Empire was wide-reaching and encompassed a multicultural mix of people from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, many of whom moved across borders, and some of whom ended up in Roman Britain. One such figure is Septimius Severus.

Small silver coin of Septimius Severus (From the collection of the Black Cultural Archives)

The African-born Roman Septimius Severus became Emperor in 193 CE and moved to Britain in 208 CE. He spent the last few years of his life strengthening Hadrian’s Wall, reoccupying the
Antonine Wall further to the north, and invading Scotland. Severus died in York in 211 CE and was succeeded by his sons, Caracalla and Geta, who were advised by his Syrian wife Julia Domna. He indelibly left his mark on Roman Britain and, under his leadership, the Roman Empire reached its greatest size and extent.

A sculpture of Septimus Severus (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

2. Abdul Karim

The controversial relationship between Queen Victoria and her young, handsome manservant Abdul Karim, has recently been celebrated with the film Victoria and Abdul.


Abdul Karim was hired as a servant in 1887, but soon became ‘Munshi’ or teacher to the Queen, and later her Indian Secretary. The unlikely pair became close friends and confidantes, which scandalized the Queen’s family and circle of advisers. Abdul Karim had a significant impact on Queen Victoria, and incidentally on Victorian British culture and aesthetics more widely. Curry was even on the Queen’s menu for Sunday lunch.

Abdul Karim is a perfect example of the way that history has been edited to remove the presence of non-white communities in Britain. After Victoria’s death, her eldest son and heir, Bertie, exiled Karim to India and ordered for the destruction of all of their photos, documents, and correspondence. It’s only through recent research that this lost figure of English history is getting his rightful place in the history books.

The Munshi Abdul Karim, 1890, Baron Heinrich von Angeli (From the collection of the Royal Collection Trust, UK)

3. Maharajah Duleep Singh

However, as Andrew Hann highlights, Abdul wasn’t the only Indian figure at Osborne. The Maharajah Duleep Singh was deposed by the British Army in India and then came to visit the royal family at Osborne House.

A portrait of Maharajah Duleep Singh by Spy (Leslie Ward) from the English periodical VANITY FAIR (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

In 1854, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary, “a most beautiful morning. We breakfasted in the Alcove with the truly amiable young Maharajah, who is so kind to the children.” There are even stories about him giving piggybacks to the princes and princesses. In this photograph, we can see Prince Arthur and Prince Alfred wearing traditional Indian outfits, which are thought to be gifts from Duleep Singh.

Prince Arthur and Prince Alfred in the costume of Sikh Princes, Osborne, 1854, Dr Ernst Becker (From the collection of the Royal Collection Trust, UK)

4.The Caribbean soldiers at Portchester castle

During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Portchester Castle was one of 12 main prisoner-of-war depots in Britain. In 1796, ships from the Caribbean brought over 2,500 prisoners of war to Portsmouth Harbor, most of whom were black or mixed-race. By the end of that month almost all of them, apart from about 100 women and children, were living at Portchester Castle.

After just over a year at Portchester, these men and women – like many 18th-century prisoners of war – were exchanged for captured British soldiers and sent to France. Many then served in the French army or eventually returned to the Caribbean, where some went on to become champions of abolition.

Portchester Castle

5. Dido Elizabeth Belle

In the 18th century, there were up to 15,000 black people living in London, mostly as slaves or servants, with few legal protections and little wealth or property. But there were a few notable exceptions, including: Dido Elizabeth Belle.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a royal naval officer, Sir John Lindsay, and an African woman, Maria Bell, who was possibly a slave. In her early years, Dido was brought to London, where she lived at Kenwood House with her great uncle, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Dido was raised as a lady and was taught to read, write, play music, and engage in high society.


At that time, the transatlantic slave trade was at its peak, and yet, public opinion about the practice was changing. In fact, it was Dido’s guardian Lord Mansfield – the most powerful judge in the country – who presided over many cases concerning slavery. In one of the most famous of these, he ruled that slave owners did not have the power to send enslaved persons out of the country against their will.

Historians have speculated whether or not Dido had an impact on his decision. While we don’t know for sure, in his summing up at the trial in 1772, he is recorded as describing slavery as "odious," and made sure to protect his niece’s rights by insisting that Dido was a free woman in his will.

Dido's story was brought to life in the 2014 film, Belle.


“People may think ‘oh, there weren't really any black people in Britain until the Empire Windrush in 1948’,” says English Heritage curator Andrew Hann. “Well, there is plenty of evidence out there to show that there were lots of black and ethnic minority people in this country for many centuries, in many different walks of life, from servants to gentlewomen, from prisoners of war to soldiers serving on Hadrian’s wall.”

“It’s essential that we do this research,” says Andrew, “our role is to tell the story of England in all its facets, so we have to make sure we are presenting a holistic picture of English life. We owe it to these historic figures and to our modern audiences to cover all different aspects of the history of our sites.”


You might also like:

- The Real Housewives of English Castles
- The Long, Forgotten History of Graffiti in England
- Back to English Heritage


Words by Leonie Shinn-Morris
Share this story with a friend
Translate with Google
Home
Explore
Nearby
Profile