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

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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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‘Black people’s involvement in WW1’ – Free Public Workshop at Imperial War Museum London, 15th October 2016

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“Black soldiers have been omitted from mainstream history because those who research and write that history are predominantly white, middle-class and educated at Oxford and Cambridge. So they are almost exclusively the sons – and in some cases the daughters – of white colonials whose families were part of the ruling elite when Britain had an Empire. In my experience, these so-called historians have never shown any interest in the story of black people in Britain, and certainly not the two world wars.”

So said historian, Stephen Bourne, talking about his book “Black Poppies” – and something similar could be said about those who sanction official commemorations of WW1. Such claims are backed up by a visit to a typical British bookstore where you will likely find it easier to find a book on the role of animals in WW1 than the role of black or colonial people. This is despite the fact that over a million black and colonial soldiers from Africa, Asia and the Americas fought in WW1 and many more laboured in its cause.

Historians like Bourne, Dr Caroline Bressey and David Olusoga in his book, “The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire” which looks at colonial troops, are redressing this gross oversight and revealing stories of institutional racism as well as individual sacrifice and bravery.

The Imperial War Museum London and The Centre for Hidden Histories are holding a free public workshop on “Black People’s Involvement in WW1” on Saturday 15th October 2016. It will be held at the Imperial War Museum London on Lambeth Road, near Elephant & Castle. It is free to register for the event.

The workshop will examine the history of black people’s involvement, both in Britain and from the colonies, and also ways that experiences can be researched through official and private records. How black peoples’ contribution is remembered today will also be discussed in a talk by Patrick Vernon on ‘Black Lives Matter: Invisibility of the black contribution to WW1 by the government as part of the 100th anniversary commemoration’.

The event will feature talks from historians of Black Britain, Stephen Bourne, Dr Caroline Bressey, John Siblon, and Anna Maguire, and social commentator and political activist Patrick Vernon.

Scheduled speakers at the event


Dr Caroline Bressey will talk on ‘Black Britons on both fronts’. She is a lecturer and researcher of the black presence in Victorian and Edwardian London based in the Department of Geography, University College London. She has researched, amongst other areas of Black history, Black women and their experiences in four arenas of Victorian life: institutions, imperial elite society, work and anti-racist politics.

Watch Dr Caroline Bressey talk about some of her research in this mini-lecture from UCL, 2010.


Stephen Bourne will discuss ‘Family, first-hand testimony and local publishing.’ He is a community historian and author of several books on the presence of black people in Britain; his most recent book is Black Poppies – Britain’s Black Community & the Great War (The History Press), for which he received the 2015 Southwark Arts Forum Award for Literature.


Anna Maguire, a AHRC Colloaborative Doctoral Award Student at IWM and King’s College, London, will talk about ‘From the Islands of the Sea: Reading West Indian experience during the First World War.’ She has recently completed her thesis: ‘Colonial Cultures and Encounters during the First World War’


John Siblon is a history teacher and part-time PhD student researching commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen at Birkbeck College London. John will speak on ‘Between hierarchy and memory: commemoration of African and Caribbean servicemen after the First World War’.


Patrick Vernon OBE will discuss, ‘Black Lives Matter: Invisibility of the black contribution to WW1 by the government as part of the 100th anniversary commemoration’. He is a Clore Fellow, Associate Fellow for the Department of History of Medicine at Warwick University; founder of Every Generation Media and 100 Great Black Britons, which develops education programmes, publications and films on cultural heritage and family history.


Professor David Killingray, who will chair the event, is from the School of Advanced Study, University of London, formerly taught at Goldsmiths, London, and has written several books and articles on the two world wars and also the black diaspora.

There will also be the opportunity to find out more about conducting research in this area, learn about IWM’s collections and enjoy free refreshments.

Books currently available in IWM London’s bookshop

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“In 1914, there were at least 10,000 black Britons, many of African and West Indian heritage, fiercely loyal to their Mother Country. Despite being discouraged from serving in the British Army during World War I, men managed to join all branches of the armed forces, and black communities made a vital contribution, both on the front and at home. By 1918, it is estimated that the black population had trebled to 30,000, and after the war many black soldiers who had fought for Britain decided to make it their home. Black Poppies explores the military and civilian wartime experiences of these men and of women, from the trenches to the music hall. Poignantly, it concludes by examining the anti-black race riots of 1919 in cities like Cardiff and Liverpool, where black men came under attack from returning white soldiers who resented their presence, in spite of what they and their families had done for Britain during the war. The first book of its kind to focus on the Black British experience during World War I; this new offering from Stephen Bourne is fascinating and eye-opening.”
(Publisher’s Amazon review).

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“In a sweeping narrative, David Olusoga describes how Europe’s Great War became the World’s War – a multi-racial, multi-national struggle, fought in Africa and Asia as well as in Europe, which pulled in men and resources from across the globe.” (Publisher’s Amazon review)

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“Very little attention has been given to black British and West African and Caribbean citizens who lived and worked on the ‘front line’ during the Second World War. Yet black people were under fire in cities like Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, London and Manchester, and many volunteered as civilian defence workers, such as air-raid wardens, fire-fighters, stretcher-bearers, first-aid workers and mobile canteen personnel. Many helped unite people when their communities faced devastation. Black children were evacuated and entertainers risked death when they took to the stage during air raids. Despite some evidence of racism, black people contributed to the war effort where they could. The colonies also played an important role in the war effort: support came from places as far away as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana and Nigeria. Mother Country tells the story of some of the forgotten Britons whose contribution to the war effort has been overlooked until now.”
(Publisher’s Amazon review)