Published in conjunction with the BBC series, this brilliant book aims to dispel the myth that black British history began with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. We can all acknowledge that the post World War II period marked the greatest influx of immigration from non-white countries, but the story of black Britons goes back much further.
The first known black Briton is ‘Beachy Head Lady’, discovered in 2012 amongst a collection of skeletons that had been excavated between the late 19th century and the 1990s. Modern analysis techniques enabled archaeologists to determine that this woman had lived around AD125 to 245 and that she had lived in the southeast of England during much of her childhood. The bones suggested that she had eaten a good diet and had been carefully laid out for burial, meaning it unlikely that she was a slave or servant. Just from looking at the skull it was clear that this was a woman of sub-Saharan African origin – proof that there have been black immigrant living in Britain for literally thousands of years.
From this early point, Olusoga takes us through the ages, looking at the origins of slavery and the wealth that was made in the British ports through the trade of human beings, into the plantations of Jamaica, the slave fortresses of Sierra Leone, and looking into the racial politics of Britain. Britain, it seems, has never quite known how to contend with the fact that it established an empire that was 90% non-white. It seems unbelievable now that in World War I, in the face of dwindling British forces, politicians chose not
Of course, slavery is a key theme of this book, how could it not be. Prior to slavery being outlawed in British colonies, there was a battle fought in the courts of England. This was my favourite part of the book and concerns the story of Granville Sharp, an ordinary clerk. In 1765 a black slave named Jonathan Strong was beaten almost to death by his master David Lisle. Strong managed to get to the surgery of Granville Sharp’s brother William who was a doctor. They took him to St Bart’s hospital where he spent over four months recovering from terrible injuries. Sharp found the boy a job and all seemed well until 1767 when David Lisle spotted his former slave and decided to take him back in order to profit from his sale. He had Strong ‘recaptured’ but Strong had spent his time wisely and was now literate, sending notes to Granville Sharp. Sharp went to the Lord Mayor and both parties were brought before him. The law was unclear but clever manoeuvring led to Jonathan Strong going free. This marked the start of Granville Sharp’s campaign. Over the next years he helped many black former slaves and was busy raising awareness and support for the anti-slavery movement.
The above is just a snapshot of the fascinating stories that Olusoga has tracked down and presented in an interesting as well as factual manner. I enjoyed reading it alongside the series so that I could read about Bunce Island one day and then watch Olusoga in Freetown, Sierra Leone the next. I would say that this was a luxury that is unneeded though. This is a book that gives a wealth of information and I think I’ll be flicking through its pages for years to come.