David Olusoga says Britain’s black history has been shamefully whitewashed

Historians in the News
tags: Black History, britain, David Olusoga



Hakim Adi is professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester.

I have been researching and writing about black British history for over 30 years but never before have I been fortunate enough to review a 600-page book on the subject, published to accompany a recent major BBC documentary. The book and the four-part series give some indication of the extent of a history which David Olusoga presents as ‘forgotten’: the subject, he argues, has been largely excluded from the mainstream narrative of British history. Why it should be forgotten, and who might have forgotten it should give us all pause for reflection, since the denial of black British history by those who should know better could be considered tantamount to racism.

Olusoga reminds us that Britain’s ‘island story’ cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the world and certainly not from Africa and other parts of what was once the British empire. He also demonstrates that Africans were often a central part of Britain’s history centuries before the empire, going back to the Roman period and beyond. Indeed, he argues that black British history is not just about black people but about encounters between blacks and whites, including intermarriage or the ‘mixed relationships’ that have been commented on since Elizabethan times.

The latest archaeological techniques and historical research show that in Roman Britain there were many individuals of African heritage of all classes. We are now becoming more familiar with the fourth-century ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ of York and ‘The Beachy Head Lady’ from sub-Saharan Africa, thought to have lived in East Sussex c. 200 AD. It seems likely that soon we will have more conclusive evidence that Africans were travelling to Britain long before the arrival of the Romans.

Black and British also builds on the work of previous historians for its depiction of the African presence in Tudor England, including individuals becoming better known, such as the royal trumpeter John Blanke and the diver Jacques Francis. Olusoga explains the conditions that led to this African presence in Shakespeare’s time but curiously makes no mention of Shakespeare’s alleged friendship with an African woman.

But he is certainly at pains to remind us of Britain’s links with enslavement and empire, with Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. It is perhaps not surprising that, when describing the centuries of imperial expansion, historians have underplayed the fact that Britain then led the world in human trafficking. But it is impossible to understand the industrial revolution, the creation of Sierra Leone, the use of the guinea and much else besides unless Britain’s history is presented in its entirety. ...




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