The erasure of Black Victorians, Tudors, Stuarts and Romans from curriculums and culture means we know little about Black history before 1948
This article is part of a series by Athian Akec: Beyond Black History Month.
The Windrush generation, the community of Caribbean people who had been invited over by the British government between 1948-1973 to help rebuild the nation after the chaos and destruction of the Second World War, have had an undeniable impact on British society. This ranges from Windrush generation nurses being some of the first staff in the NHS to their role in the foundation of the Notting Hill Carnival, and the prominence that Black art today has in our cultural landscape.
In recent years stories of the Windrush generation — both of their achievements and their tribulations — have come to increasing prominence, driven by TV productions like Stevie McQueen’s Small Axe and the national scandal that erupted after the wrongful deportation of members of the generation and their descendants as a result of the British government destroying their landing cards. It’s important that we continue to learn about their stories and embrace them, recognising their importance. But in the process of this, we should not be blinded to the fact that Black life in this country started long before the arrival of the Windrush generation.
Ask yourself this: Over the course of your life, after the countless hours in compulsory primary and secondary school history lessons, how much did you learn about Black Tudors, Black Stuarts, Black Romans, and Black Victorians? As a result of the erasure of these stories from school curriculums and popular culture, we typically think that Black life in this country is a recent development, one that belongs in the pages of modern history. However, the reality is that in nearly every chapter of British history, there has been a Black presence.
Educating ourselves collectively about this history, in the mission of building a more racially just society, will help undermine the view that too many hold: that Black people are not British. Too often, our stories, lives, and contributions are considered marginal — when, in reality, they are integral to British history. Learning more about this should also drive home how many of the present-day ideas about race are directly tied to the historical impact of slavery, empire and colonialism. The rich and complex stories, legacies, and lives of Black people in these eras are worthy of their own books, but this article is aimed at being an introductory starting point in a journey of learning more about these historical figures and the importance of remembering them.
Let’s start with one of the most interesting stories, one that has a lot to teach us about the presence of Black life in the Stuart and Tudor era. John Blanke was one of King Henry VIII’s royal trumpeters. He was a Black musician in the royal court, who would have been present for the most important royal events of the era, and his face is considered to be the first and only Black Tudor for whom we have a surviving historical image. One of the most interesting aspects of his story is when he wrote to King Henry VII asking for a pay increase in line with that of others in the royal court. The documentation of his interaction with the King is one of the surviving documents of this time period. His application for the pay increase, which was granted by the King, is a testament to the levels of complexity of the stories of Black people in this era. John Blanke’s story also makes it clear how empire, colonialism, and slavery are not the only forces which have driven the existence of Black life in Britain.
Ancient Rome captures our historical imagination as few other historical periods do. Countless movies, history, lessons, and exhibitions all centre around teaching us about Roman history. Yet the diversity of Roman society is consistently erased. One story that makes clear just how diverse Roman society was is that of Lucius Septimius Severus. In AD 193, he made history by becoming the first Roman Emperor of African descent. He played the role of restoring stability to the empire and was involved in several architectural projects, such as the reconstruction of Hadrian’s Wall.
The extent to which some people want to erase this history could be seen in the racist backlash against the depiction of a high-ranking Roman official as having Black skin in a BBC educational documentary. This root of this has multiple layers. It is partly because the diversity of Roman society has been systemically erased and not discussed in the cultural and educational depictions of Romans. One of the country’s most prominent Roman historians, Mary Beard, spoke openly about the abuse she endured from people on Twitter who refused to recognise that Black people were a part of Roman society. Another interesting dynamic is that Roman society did not have the same contemporary ideas that we have about race — they acknowledged different ethnic makeups but did not have a system of racial classification that is similar to the one we have today.
That’s not to say the lives of British Black people before the Windrush Generation weren’t shaped by prejudice in ways that overlap with present-day issues. One group of Elizabethan royal officials wrote a letter to the Mayor of London asking for the deportation of Black people from the city. The letter called for “take up…Blackamoores here in this Realm and to transport them into Spain and Portugal”. The deportation never happened because the letter was written requiring the permission of their “masters”, and the vast majority of Black people in the city at the time did not live in slavery.
These small examples help illustrate the level of complexity for Black people in this country long before the Windrush generation arrived. Expanding our understanding of this history will allow us to see just how deep the Black presence in this country is.