Black and British Book Summary By David Olusoga

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Black and British (2016) is an insightful and illuminating book that delves into the long and complicated relationship between Britain and the African people.

The history of this relationship goes back all the way to Roman Britain, when the first Africans arrived in England - thus marking them as fundamental part of British historical from the very beginning.

The book demonstrates how closely bound England was with Africa through its active role in transatlantic slavery trade, intertwining both countries' destinies ever since.

With an engaging narrative style, author David Olusoga highlights how Black Britain has been a crucial element in the formation of modern-day Great Britain - and ultimately, shows us that their story is our story too.

Black and British Book

Book Name: Black and British (A Forgotten History)

Author(s): David Olusoga

Rating: 4.4/5

Reading Time: 31 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio

David Olusoga is a renowned British-Nigerian historian, broadcaster and filmmaker who currently holds the position of Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester.

He is an incredibly knowledgable and respected figure in academia.

His award-winning books include The World’s War (2014) which won the prestigious First World War Book of the Year award, as well as The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (2010).

His latest book, Black and British, provides an insightful look into Britain's overlooked history of black people throughout the centuries.

Uncovering Britain’S African History: Exploring The Illusory Divide ‘Us’ And ‘Them’

Britain'S African History

The past few years have been tumultuous, and debates around migration, borders and climate change have become increasingly urgent.

Brexit raised questions about who is considered a part of British history.

But when you deepen your understanding of the historical context, you’ll see that the “us” and “them” dichotomy between white Britain and Black Britain is merely an illusion.

Black and British offers a unique opportunity to enrich our understanding of British history.

You can explore the stories of the first Africans who arrived in Britain more than a thousand years ago, learn about Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, as well as find out more about people of African descent who served to defend Britain during both World Wars.

With these insights, we can get a more complete picture of Britain’s true heritage.

The Forgotten Role That Black People Have Played In British History

The importance of Black people’s role in British history is often overlooked or forgotten.

Despite the fact that Bunce Island, a fortress located in West Africa which was at the center of the British slave trade for over a century, remains one of the most well-known and important sites related to British slavery today—it remained forgotten for generations until rediscovered in 1970.

Similarly, the contributions African and Caribbean people made to British history largely go unrecognized.

Take Francis Drake’s 1577 expedition to become the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, for example.

This historic voyage included four Africans as part of its crew, while another journey to Panama saw him forming an alliance with mixed-race Cimaroons in an effort to outwit Spanish forces.

In Nelson’s victory over Napoleon at Cape Trafalgar—being heralded as one of Britain’s greatest naval successes—it was 18 Black men born in Africa and 123 born in the West Indies who served directly under him on HMS Victory including some standing by his side during his death at Cape Trafalagar; depicted in brass reliefs on Nelson’s Column.

It’s clear that Black people have been a significant part of British history, both as victims of the transatlantic slave trade as well as actors contributing to British successes throughout time.

We must then learn from past mistakes by recognizing their legacies, celebrating their stories and broadening our views on what it means to be ‘Black and British’.

The Astonishing Historical Evidence Of Early Black Residents In England

Black Residents In England

For centuries, Britain has had a rich and diverse history of racial equality and inclusion.

In fact, there is evidence that black people have been present in Britain since as far back as the Roman Empire.

This was demonstrated by the discovery of the remains of a North African woman who lived in what is today the county of Cumbria—the “Aurelian Moor”—as well as other relics from her time.

Radio isotope scans also revealed that another young woman, nicknamed “Beachy Head,” was of sub-Saharan origin and lived in England between 125 and 245 BCE.

These discoveries prove that Black people were not only settling in England during the Roman period, but were part of a comfortable class offering their own unique contributions to society for centuries before 1945 when many more African Americans became citizens in the United Kingdom.

The Ambivalent Attitudes Of Elizabethan England Towards Black People Before The Rise Of The Slave Trade

In Tudor and Elizabethan England, views of Black people were complex and contradictory.

Historical records reveal mere glimpses into the lives of Black people living in England during that time.

We know they occupied the lower social rungs and a few even reached the top of society, like John Blanke, who was probably part of Catherine of Aragon’s entourage when she arrived from Portugal to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales.

The work of William Shakespeare reflects these contradictions in how he portrays Othello, a ‘Moor from Venice’ and a high-ranking General in the Venetian army.

On one hand, his dark skin and exotic origins reflect Elizabethan anxieties but at the same time, he is depicted with sympathy, empathy and nuance – unlike his evil subordinate Iago who has nothing but hatred for him.

However following this period leading up to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, extreme views on Black people prevailed over nuanced perspectives.

Any understanding or empathy previously held towards Black people disappeared with its onset.

The Growth Of Slavery And The Creation Of New Racial Hierarchies Drastically Reduced Black People’S Liberties In Britain And Its Colonies

The British slave trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had far-reaching consequences for relations between Black and white people both at home and abroad.

Prior to this period, society was divided based on class, not race – which meant that Black and white servants occupied similar positions in the hierarchy.

However, with the rise of slavery and its rapid expansion, there came new laws that emphasized “white” versus “negro” categories, thus creating a racial divide in society.

This fueled a hardened type of racism that devalued Black people as human beings and allowed those in power to enforce their entitlement over those without it.

These rigid hierarchies were reflected in artistic works from the time, such as portraits where a young Black man holds the reins of his master’s horse or adjusts his costume.

What’s more, physical means were used to symbolize property rights of enslaved individuals; young Black people were subjected to padlocks locked around their necks as a form of branding them as property rather than humans.

Even an advertisement showed up offering services to produce “silver padlocks for Blacks or Dogs.”

Mansfield’S Ruling Changed The Lives Of Enslaved Black Britons Everywhere

Black Britons Everywhere

In 1772, the judgment from Lord Mansfield in the famous Somerset vs.

Stewart court case dealt a critical blow to the rights of slave owners in Britain.

This despite the fact that British colonies had clear laws designed to protect their slave system and enforce their rights over slaves on their soil.

The court case revolved around James Somerset, an escaped slave who had been enslaved under Charles Stewart in Virginia.

When Stewart brought Somerset with him to London two years prior and then was captured once again after escaping, he sought out Granville Sharpe’s aid in helping him maintain his freedom.

Sharp assembled a team of advocates and lawyers to defend Somerset, arguing that legally speaking, Charles Stewart had no right to recapture or forcibly return to him given the lack of laws authorizing slavery on British soil.

After deliberating for a month, Lord Mansfield concluded that because there was no “positive law” affirming slavery on British soil, ‘the black must be discharged’.

This meant that any person held as a slave upon arriving at British shores would now be freed – giving rise to popular understanding amongst suffering people Britain-over and abolitionists alike that all those England are free.

All of this combined made Mansfield’s judgement one of the first and most important victories for enslaved Black Britons against their masters.

The Zong Massacre Was A Key Catalyst For The Abolition Of Slavery In Britain

The Abolitionist Movement was a popular and political force that motivated the end of the slave trade and slavery in Britain.

It began in 1787, when nine Quakers and Evangelicals formed the Society Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade to publicly advocate for an end to this abhorrent practice.

Black Britons were also deeply involved in efforts to abolish the trade.

Formerly enslaved individuals such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano wrote powerful autobiographies which raised awareness among Brits of what was actually happening abroad, while also prompting people throughout London to form groups such as Sons of Africa made up of those who had experienced slavery or were descendants of slaves.

Together these groups spoke out about their experiences in hopes of gradually changing public opinion on the matter.

In addition, members of the growing movement organized boycotts against many rums and sugars produced by slaves, while successfully circulating 1.5 million petitions from 1787 – 1792 which demanded an end to this wicked practice ichoutstanding effort paid off when Parliament passed two bills – first The Slave Trade Act in 1807 which officially ended it, then The Slavery Abolition Act 26 years later (1833) which ultimately abolished slavery altogether.

All enslaved peoples within British dominions were emancipated 3 years afterwards (1838).

How The Inventor Of The Cotton Gin Forced Britain To Confront Its Complicity In American Slavery

American Slavery

Although Britain abolished slavery and the slave trade more than half a century prior, it was still indirectly complicit in American slavery due to its economic entanglement in cotton production from southern plantations.

With the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, more and more planters were turning to cotton cultivation, significantly increasing the demand for slave labor.

And with this growth came a merging of interests between British manufacturers and American slave owners – between 1848 and 1858, 73-97% of all imported cotton into Britain came from US plantations alone.

This reality only made itself apparent once the Civil War broke out and disrupted cotton production in the south.

Faced with huge job losses across its northern manufacturing towns and a crippling economy, many sided with the Confederacy while Britain refused to support President Abraham Lincoln’s Union forces out of neutrality — even though they had previously outlawed slavery in their own dominions.

But after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, explicitly regarding this conflict as one against slavery, Britain finally aligned itself behind him and acknowledged that they had been complicit in American slavery up until then.

The Scramble For Africa: How Europe’S Rapid Expansion And Technological Advances Ushered In An Era Of Colonialism And Social Darwinism

The rise of colonialism in the late nineteenth century saw an exponential increase of British influence in Africa.

Thanks to technological advancements, shallow-drafted steam-powered riverboats enabled European powers to navigate African rivers and penetrate the continent’s interior.

Medical advances, as well as the development of quinine, provided much needed protection from disease for Europeans.

The Maxim machine gun was another significant factor; this military technology allowed small numbers of colonial forces to overwhelm vast African armies.

By 1900, 90 percent of Africa was under the control of European powers – and Britain had become one of the most powerful colonial forces in Africa with 45 million new subjects.

This period also saw a shift in attitudes towards race due to social Darwinism.

The idea that “superior” races would naturally conquer “inferior” ones became popular during this time, and these views were reflected in exhibitions such as “human zoos” where African peoples were put on display for public entertainment.

This marked a new era in Britain’s relationship with Africans – one characterized by exploitation and domination.

The Dark Reality Of Life For Black People After Wwi: Discrimination, Backlash, And Even Lynching


During World War I, Black servicemen from the British Empire made a significant contribution to the Allied cause.

Over one million Africans were recruited as “carriers” – porters carrying supplies to British troops fighting the Germans in Africa.

While some of them achieved high military ranks, such as Second Lieutenant William Tull, many more could not be allowed to fight due to widespread racial prejudice against them which was even more evident in Europe itself, where the British War Office refused to let Black troops fight against their German enemies.

In spite of their support and contribution to the war effort, they faced widespread discrimination and abuse after the conflict had concluded.

No Black soldier was allowed at the Victory Parade of 1919 held in London after the war had finished and returning white soldiers were resentful towards Black servicemen because of competition for limited job opportunities post-conflict.

This resulted in a massive backlash against Blacks that manifested through attacks on them by white mobs in major cities like Glasgow, Liverpool, and London throughout 1919; a tragic culmination of this racism being Charles Wootton’s lynching despite his having served in the Royal Navy during World War I.

Ultimately, it can be said for certain that while Black servicemen played a key role in helping Britain win World War I, they sadly faced widespread discrimination and abuse once it had ended.

The Long History Of Black People’S Oppression And Discrimination In Britain

At the end of World War II, Black people in Britain faced a tough situation.

Despite the contribution of Black soldiers who fought against Hitler’s army in both Europe and Africa, racism continued to persist.

Understandably, many looked for better prospects abroad.

This surge in migration from the West Indies was most strongly felt in the 1950s when numbers peaked at over 50,000 immigrants.

While Black migrants were welcomed for providing much-needed labor to help rebuild post-war Britain, there were attempts to curtail their movements in light of racist outbursts like those seen in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill district.

Despite these efforts by politicians and media outlets to cast immigrants as some kind of ‘alien horde’ trying to ‘swamp’ the country, they could not stop the tide of Black people migrating to Britain – something that can only be attributed to its long ties with slavery and colonialism which forged an indelible connection between Blacks and Brits.

Wrap Up

The final summary of Black and British is that Africans and people of African descent have been an integral part of the British Isles for centuries.

Though their stories may often be pushed to the margins or omitted completely from traditional accounts, it is impossible to understand Britain’s history without accounting for their contributions.

To truly appreciate and understand Britain’s story, one must look beyond accepted historical narrative and look at those whose stories have so often been omitted.

So always be mindful of who is telling a story and what perspectives are missing in order to uncover the full truth of these histories.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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