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Black and British

A Forgotten History

By David Olusoga
18-minute read
Audio available
Black and British by David Olusoga

Black and British (2016) traces Britain’s long and complex relationship with the people of Africa and the Caribbean. Reaching all the way back to Roman Britain, when the first Africans arrived in England, the book reveals that black people have been at the heart of British history from the very start. A major player in the transatlantic slave trade, Britain further entwined its destiny with that of the Africans it enslaved. Ultimately, David Olusoga illustrates how the story of black Britain is the story of all of Britain. 

  • History buffs interested in a deeper insight into British history
  • Cultural enthusiasts eager to learn more about the African diaspora
  • Scholars interested in uncovering marginalized histories and stories

David Olusoga is a British Nigerian historian, broadcaster, and filmmaker. He is currently Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester. His previous books include The World’s War (2014), which won the First World War Book of the Year award, and The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism (2010). 

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Black and British

A Forgotten History

By David Olusoga
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Black and British by David Olusoga
Synopsis

Black and British (2016) traces Britain’s long and complex relationship with the people of Africa and the Caribbean. Reaching all the way back to Roman Britain, when the first Africans arrived in England, the book reveals that black people have been at the heart of British history from the very start. A major player in the transatlantic slave trade, Britain further entwined its destiny with that of the Africans it enslaved. Ultimately, David Olusoga illustrates how the story of black Britain is the story of all of Britain. 

Key idea 1 of 11

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

There’s an island at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River in West Africa called Bunce Island. This island contains the ruins of a fortress that, for over a century, was at the heart of the British slave trade in Africa.

From that fortress, tens of thousands of enslaved Africans were shipped to plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. Between 1618, which marked the rise of the British slave trade, and 1807, when the country abolished it, Britain was the premier slave-trading nation in the Atlantic. Half of all the millions of Africans carried into slavery in the eighteenth century were transported on British ships.

Nonetheless, Britain’s role in the slave trade is often glossed over or ignored. This is evidenced by the fact that Bunce Island itself remained forgotten for generations. It wasn’t until the 1970s that archeologists rediscovered the site and identified it as a major British slave fortress in West Africa, a site that the historian Joseph Opala called the “Pompeii” of the Atlantic slave trade.

Even today, most British people have a far clearer picture of American slavery than they do of their own country’s involvement in it. This is compounded by the fact that historically, British plantations were located in the West Indies, in places like Jamaica and Barbados, far away from the British populace residing in Britain.

But black people were not just victims of the British slave trade. They were also important actors in British history. The explorer Francis Drake’s famous mission to circumnavigate the globe in 1577 included four Africans as part of his crew. And in another journey to Panama, Drake formed an alliance with mixed-race Africans known as the Cimaroons in order to outwit the Spanish in Central America.

Likewise, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, renowned for his defeat of Napoleon’s French navy in 1805, was accompanied by black sailors during his battle against the French at Cape Trafalgar. Among those who served under Nelson that day were 18 men who were born in Africa and another 123 who were born in the West Indies. One African and six West Indians served directly under Nelson on his ship HMS Victory. In fact, Nelson’s Column, the landmark in central London that commemorates his achievements, includes a brass relief depicting a black sailor standing near Nelson at the moment of his death at Cape Trafalgar.

Both as victims and as actors, black people have been central to British history. It’s high time their story is heard. 

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