Review: “Black and British: A Forgotten History” by David Olusoga (BBC) – Towards participatory history

Unveiling of plaque to Jamaican-born slave, Francis Barber, by descendant, Cedric, outside Dr Samuel Johnson’s house, London (photo by Michael Ohajuru @michael1952)

“One thing that the British public does not realise adequately is that we are a coloured empire. You cannot prevent the black man from coming here. You could no more tell him that he must not come to Liverpool, London or Cardiff then he has the right to tell you that you must not go to Lagos or Durban or Johannesburg.”

So read a fifth generation Liverpudlian woman of black heritage in the last episode of David Olusoga’s BBC series, “Black and British: A Forgotten History.” The event was the commemoration and unveiling of a plaque for the life of a black sailor, Charles Wotten who was a victim of Liverpool’s racial tensions in 1919. Wotten was rushed by a white mob, including police, and ended up drowning in the River Mersey at Queen’s Dock.

The woman at the commemoration of Wotten was quoting the words of John Hobbis Harris, an early 20th century Baptist missionary and secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society. She was speaking to a gathering of the Liverpool community at Queen’s Dock, nearly one hundred years later. The hallmark of Olusoga’s Black and British series is that he engages communities and ordinary people and strives to make them meaningful participants in the documentary.

Olusoga’s series shows that the history – and in many cases, the ancestry – of the British people is very much “coloured” too. In the first programme, he discusses the presence, in the 3rd century AD, of a unit of Africans or “Aurelian Moors” guarding Hadrian’s Wall during the Roman occupation of Britain. This earliest known African community in Britain is commemorated as part of the programme by a plaque in what is now the village of Burgh-by-Sands, Cumbria. The local community, including schoolchildren and members of the African community are brought together for the unveiling.

As Olusoga continues his critical examination of British history, we learn of the third century remains found of an African woman in the quintessentially British town of Eastbourne. ‘Beachy Head Woman’ may have been of African descent but the studies of her remains reveal that she was brought up in East Sussex.

African blood runs deep in Britain. Episode one introduces Cedric Barber, an apparently white man who is, in fact, a descendant of the Jamaican, Francis Barber – Jamaican-born slave and, later, beneficiary of Dr Samuel Johnson’s will. Cedric was largely unaware of his personal black history until late in his life.

In episode four, Olusoga visits Aberysychan in Wales to meet women who are descendants of African-American US GIs stationed in the UK during WW2. The history of the so-called “brown babies” was suppressed by families. In the programme, the GIs are finally recognised by the community with a plaque unveiled by their descendants.

Olusoga investigates the slave trade, visiting the 16th century slave fortress of Bunce Island, Sierra Leone. He charts Britain’s rise as the greatest slave trading nation in the world and its rapid industrialisation on the back of white working class Brits working in the textile trade that, in turn, relied on slave-picked cotton. When the American Civil war caused cotton supplies to fall, livelihoods were destroyed, particularly amongst the millworkers and factory workers of North-west England. Despite their desperation and poverty, workers in Rochdale chose to refuse to handle slave-picked cotton in an act of solidarity.

The series shows, despite the slave trade and racism, black people, through the ages, have found support from white Brits. In episode four, the story of the three Christian kings of Bechuanaland Protectorate is told. Threatened by Cecil Rhodes expansionist desires, the kings came to England not only to petition Queen Victoria for protection but, also, to tour the country for support amongst the British public. They were successful in both cases and their nation, now Botswana, never did join the Rhodes’ empire.

The unveiling of the specially commissioned BBC plaques to commemorate individuals and communities, not only in Britain, but Africa and the Caribbean, takes the documentary beyond mere history-telling and into the realms of real participatory history.

Author and museum director, Nina Simon defines a participatory cultural institution as “a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.” Olusoga’s documentary-making process achieves much of that, as interviewees are more than just exhibits of evidence to corroborate his argument – but active participants in bringing their community together. Black, white, adults and children and brought together at the ceremonies and, no doubt, the plaques will live a life beyond the documentary.

Further information:

– Black and British was made in partnership with the BBC, The National Archives, The Black Cultural Archives, Heritage Lottery Fund England, Historic England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

– The four episodes of “Black and British: A Forgotten History”: First Encounters, Freedom, Moral Mission and The Homecoming are available to view for a limited time on BBC IPlayer with a UK TV licence.

– Information from the BBC about the individual episodes can be found by clicking the links: 1. First Encounters, 2. Freedom, 3. Moral Mission and 4.The Homecoming.

– David Olusoga introduces his series, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

“The first historians of black history in the UK, who began work back in the 1960s and 1970s, dedicated themselves to the reclaiming of a lost past. Through their work, a great pantheon of black Britons was brought to greater attention by the early black histories. The next stage, in my view, is to better integrate them and the worlds they occupied into the main narrative of the British and imperial past. Black and British – A Forgotten History, is, we hope, more than just a TV series. It is a call to arms.”

Interview with Cedric Barber, descendant of Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s slave and virtually, adopted son.

“I spoke to an international group about my feelings when I first felt this,” he continues, “and just blurted out ‘I want to be black!’. A young American black woman came up to me afterwards and said ‘I’ve never met anyone like you before!’. This wasn’t quite the compliment it sounded. She meant that many of the black folks in the USA wanted to be white like Michael Jackson!”

– Guardian review of the series accompanying book, “Black and British” by David Olusoga. Colin Grant asks if the book is “too temperate.”

“Finally I closed the book and thought: “Where’s Marcus Garvey?” Setting aside my bias in having written a book about him, Garvey, who led a mass movement of millions of black people, from his London headquarters between 1935 and 1940, is without doubt one of the most significant black men in Britain ever, but he doesn’t even merit a footnote.”

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