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Black History - Articles - Making History

Black History - Articles - Making History

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Published by: YorubaGyal GrownWoman on Nov 06, 2010
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06/11/2010 21:13Black History - Articles - Making HistoryPage 1 of 3http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/black_history.html
Black British history
Kathleen Chater
Black people have lived in Britain for many centuries, certainly from the times of the Romaninvasions and perhaps before.(1) There were never any Acts of Parliament enshrining legal discrimination against them on the grounds of colour or race so they are difficult to identify inrecords. Until immigration following the Second World War, there were very few (estimates varybetween 10,000 and 20,000 between 1500 and 1807) and they did not live in separatecommunities. These factors mean that their history in Britain has largely been subsumed in widerstudies of racial prejudice, the British slave trade, slavery itself or abolition, on which a great dealhas been written, and in most the focus has been on how white people perceived Blacks.There seem to be three distinct phases inwriting about the history of Black people in Britain: thefirst covered the period up to the 1960s, the second the 30-odd years up to the 1990s and the lastfrom that time up to the present day. These three correlate to what might be called intellectualfashions in historical interpretation so also apply to other fields of history. To over-simplify, thefirst phase was the product of a period of social stability. After the Second World War, thepolitical and social landscape changed dramatically.Marxisttheories became more influential,until the late 1980s saw a change from collectivity to individualism.M. Dorothy George seems to have been the first modern historian to mention the presence of Black people in London in the 18th century.
 London Life in the Eighteenth Century
(London,1925) containedsix pages on the subject. There seem to be no other scholarly worksdealing with Black people in Britain until 1948, when Kenneth Little became the first to look atthe history of Black people in Britain as a distinct group. Although Little’s book mainly detailedthe results of a sociological and anthropological survey into the contemporary Black communityin Cardiff, there was a chapter containing a brief history of Black people in Britain from 1600 ADto 1948, which contained a section on the development of English racial attitudes. He seems to bethe first to explore the development of racial prejudice.(2) Little also created a template forsubsequent works: a historical survey from 1500, a description of the events leading up to theMansfield Judgement of 1772, the effect of scientific racism in the 19th century on thedevelopment of prejudice and discrimination, and much more detailed work on the involvement of Black people in political movements of the late 19th and 20th century. In the 1960s EdwardScobie developed Little’s work on the history of Black people in England with more detail.(3)These early works treated Black people as part of the British (or more precisely English)population, not separate from them. What is called ‘Black history’ developed in America from the1960s onwards. It was part of the growing interest in the history of minority groups or hithertounregarded sections of the population, like women and the working classes, and emerged in aperiod when Marxist theories dominated academic study. The Nigerian Folarin Shyllon’s books
 Black Slaves in Britain
(Oxford, 1974) and
 Black People in Britain 1555–18
33 (Oxford, 1977),
 
06/11/2010 21:13Black History - Articles - Making HistoryPage 2 of 3http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/black_history.html
published for the Institute of Race Relations, had a very different tone from previous works.Shyllon, who was then based in the United States, made assumptions about the experiences of Black people in Britain which cited American writers about slavery and discrimination in theUnited States. The history of Black people in America has continued to influence studies of theirposition in Britain, not least in assuming that Black people in Britain were enslaved, a belief thatpersists today, despite Lord Mansfield’s judgement that only positive law, i.e., specific Acts of Parliament, could introduce it. As well as those who saw Black people as a distinct sub-section of the British population, there were some who regarded them as part of the working class, like RonRamdin, Peter Linebaugh and Maurice Redeker.(4) The latter two in particular saw Black peopleas part of the oppressed underclass, whose ‘struggle’ (a key word for socialists) was paramount.The journalist Peter Fryer’s
Staying Power
(London, 1984), which is generally taken to be thestandard work on the subject, began the move to look at individuals. The chronological structurewas similar to that of previous writers but he took a wider view of the subject. Previous historianslooked at Black people in Britain as if slavery and poverty were the only things that defined them.Although Fryer, who was a communist, wrote a great deal about slavery and politicalinvolvement, he looked beyond them to see how Black people were not stigmatised outsiders butwere woven into English society as workers and founders of families.Most works in the second period took the institution of slavery as their starting point: individualsappeared primarily to illustrate arguments. They were issue-driven. More recent studies take analternative approach. They focus on individuals and events: issues still emerge but are secondaryto the people themselves. It is perhaps not a coincidence that an increasing number of these worksare by women. There is a marked contrast in the way men and women in general approach thesubject. Men are much more concerned with authority and the obvious manifestations of itthrough laws and financial power and women interested in social relationships, although there arealways individual differences. It is therefore unsurprising that it was a woman, M. DorothyGeorge, who first noticed Black people in London and another, Gretchen Gerzina, who in
 Black  England: Life Before Emancipation
(London, 1995) made two important contributions. The firstwas to realise that in 18th-century England class (or, as it would have been called then, rank)seemed to be the determining factor in how Black people were perceived, not colour or race. Thesecond was to look at people as human beings, not pieces of evidence in abstract arguments aboutcolour, race and prejudice.With the move away from theories of collectivity, the emphasis has shifted to individuals andempowerment. It has also changed from examining how white people in authority regarded themto foregrounding the experiences of the Black people themselves. For example, StephenBraidwood’s work on the Sierra Leone project of 1787 did not assume this was, as previouswriters considered, a way for the government to get rid of poor, stigmatised Black people inLondon but he looked at the aims, ambitions and actions of the poor Blacks involved to bring outtheir own agendas.(5) Other people have carried out thematic examinations of the role Blackpeople played in areas of British life, like the armed forces, music, the arts, religion and so on.However, their presence in and contribution to Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the various islandshas not yet been explored in depth. If Black men are hard to recover, Black women are even moreso because there is so little evidence about the lives of the majority of them before the 20thcentury.Because of the problems of identifying Black people in records before the 20th century, themajority of academic studies of Black people in Britain have concentrated on the handful of 

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