Madam Deputy Speaker,
“There were Africans in Britain before the English came here.”
That is the opening line of Peter Fryer’s monumental book “Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain”. Black and minority ethnic communities have roots in this country going back nearly two millennia. Among the Roman legions guarding Hadrian’s Wall in the third century AD was a unit recruited in north Africa. In 210 AD an African soldier serving in Carlisle went down in history as brave enough to make fun of the visiting emperor, Septimus Severus, who was at the time pretty much the most powerful person on the planet. In 1901 remains were discovered in York of a high-status woman living around 350 AD, born in Britain but likely to have been of north African descent, and forever known as “ivory bangle lady” for the ornaments buried with her. More recently, the remains of a young black girl were found in North Elmham near Norwich dating back to the Saxon era around the year 1000. A small black community appears in the account books of the court of King James IV at Holyrood shortly after 1500, and John Blanke was a black musician who performed for Henry VIII.
In past centuries, long before Windrush and the modern era, history records black British people as sailors, soldiers, teachers, craftsmen, retailers, nurses, writers, actors, singers, farm workers, entrepreneurs, vicars and chefs and in hundreds of other occupations. But from the late 1500s, of course, the majority of black people who came to live in this country were domestic servants, many initially brought here as slaves.
It is estimated that in the 245 years between the first British slave trading voyage and abolition in 1807, British ships carried around 3.4 million enslaved Africans to the Americas. The appalling depravity and cruelty of the triangular trade makes it one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed. It is true that there were brave and principled men and women in this country who campaigned for many years for an end to this abomination, including many who served proudly here in this Parliament, and it is also true that after the Abolition Act came into effect, the British Navy was prominent in stopping slavers who tried to carry on; but it is none the less a matter of national shame that the transatlantic slave trade was allowed to endure for so long, with involvement from across the British establishment, including MPs, the monarchy and the Church.
I am afraid that, even with the slightly extended time that we have available, the time is short to begin consideration of the complexities of the legacy of empire and colonialism, but I am in no doubt that those wishing to understand Britain today need an understanding of its colonial past.