This is a hefty block of a book, but with the subtitle of ‘A Forgotten History’, it ought to be. It was written for the 2016 TV series, which is now almost out of watching time (maybe the BBC will let it be seen again soon), and occasionally the writing does betray the cadences of a script written for people who might need pulling back to the subject, reminded of this or that fact. But overall, Black and British is a solid work of sound history, with four excellent sections of colour images, that opens the cracks in UK history to record how black people have been treated in the British Isles, and its posessions, since Roman times.
The Roman people whose remains show that they came from Africa seem to have been better treated and have had a better life than later black African immigrants, most of whom came unwillingly. Likewise John Blanke, trumpeter to Henry VIII, who asked the king for a job and got it, and is recorded forever, black skin and turban and all, in an ink portrait on the Westminster Tournament Roll. After the Tudor period, the British acceptance of slavery began, and with it came degradation and suffering for centuries, making the rest of the book a grim slog through miseries and horrific injustice.
There are some moments of relief, of doing the right thing for a change, as when Britain seemed to be leading the fight against slavery in the late 18th century, and resisted US segregationalist attitudes to its GIs during the Second World War. Some sections on the history of slavery take us a long way from Britain – the history of Sierra Leone as the processing depot for most of Africa’s slaves, the history of Haiti, and what happened to black slaves and black non slaves in the USA between the War of Independence and its Civil War – but they are necessary adjuncts to Britain’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, which colours modern Britain ineradicably. It probably isn’t enough to be glad that one’s ancestors were farmers and very small businessmen, who could never have had the money to buy or sell a slave: slavery and its results have implicated everyone in Britain in its practice for hundreds or years, merely by eating sugar and wearing cotton, and profiting from its sale (like my grocer great-great grandparents near Bristol).
The thing to do now is celebrate the black men and women who came to the UK and made British history. The book is rather short on the stories of black women compared to those of black men: Mary Seacole isn’t mentioned at all, but Dido Belle is, in detail. Scraping through archives and registers to find fragments of life stories produces pitifully little data on people whose existence in Britain was inimical, and an embarrassment, inconvenient even. Men were brought to the UK as decorative servants, or were stranded as sailors: there was little reason to bring over women as property, unless they were presents, as was Sarah Forbes Bonetta, presented to Queen Victoria as a gift when a little girl. But the stories that Olusoga and other historians have recovered are inspirational and daunting.
Black and British is an essential read for filling in the gaps of modern British history that you didn’t know were there.