The Truth About Black History Month In the UK

group of people standing on metal stairs

“We hear about black Americans, but we don’t hear the British stories. About 30 million slaves were uprooted from Africa and sold in the new world, the Caribbean and the Americas, but what a lot of people don’t know is that only something like 5% of those slaves went to America”

Romero

In the UK, Black history month comes around every October. During this time, schools and corporations alike attempt to showcase information about black history. But for some reason, we focus on US black history rather than what happened in Britain all those years ago. So, what are some of the hidden truths about black british history?

Let’s find out, shall we.

There are many things Britain doesn’t want to talk about

There are many things Britain never owns up to. These include some awful things they orchestrated during and after the translantic slave trade.

For example, did you know that:

  • Britain and Portugal were the two most succesful slave trading countries. They accounted for about 70% of the Africans transported to America.
  • Even after the abolishment of slavery in Britain, slave owners from the UK were still heavily involved in the trading of African people to places like Brazil, Cuba, and even the US.
  • Abolishing slavery cost Britain a lot of money (around £20 million). Britain had to borrow a large sum of money to buy the freedom the black people they had enslaved. This debt was finally paid off in 2015. Lastly, instead of the money going to the people who were enslaved, it went to their owners instead. The reason that was given for this was to compensate for their loss of ‘property’.
  • This means that up until 6 years ago, the British taxpayer was paying off the debt racked up in order to compensate British slave owners for their loss.
  • The UK treasury continued to pay back the ancesors of British slave owners for several decades. Many of these ancestors who received the compensation are from well known prominent families in Britain.

The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slaveowners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission.

The Guardian

British schools purposely leave out a large chunk of black british history from the school curriculum

‘As a Black person who was born and grew up in Britain, I never learnt anything about my own history from school. I learnt that race was an American problem, yet that contradicted the daily experiences I would have in my majority-white schools, where derogatory remarks about Black people could be heard in the corridors. The narrative was that British history was a history of white people.’

Seun Matiluko

Recently there was a petition for the government to allow black history to be taught in schools, and they voted (wait for it), a resounding NO!

Their exact words were:

Within the history curriculum, there is already a statutory theme at Key Stage 3 titled “ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901”, as such we do not believe there is a need to take this action as the option to teach this topic exists within this compulsory theme.

Goverment response

That’s right; the government doesn’t want schools to be teaching about Britain’s tainted past. So it has been erased from the curriculum. 

Did you know that several thousand African soldiers fought for Britain during the world wars I and II? Unfortunately, all these historical facts were not mentioned in history lessons, but we did learn all of the names of Henry VIII’s wives.

‘During World War II, Britain recruited some 600,000 African men to fight against the Axis powers, from the Italians in the Horn of Africa to Vichy French forces in Madagascar to the Imperial Japanese Army in Burma, now known as Myanmar. But when the fighting was over, Britain sent these men back home with an end-of-war bonus that was roughly a third of the reward given to their white counterparts, even those from settler communities living in the same African colonies.’

Foreign Policy

Black people were in Britain long before slavery

Not all Black people in England’s history were slaves or servants. People worked as sailors, tradespeople of all kinds, businessmen or musicians.

Historic England

Black people were a part of Britain long before slavery. There are a lot of interesting facts about black people who made a name for themselves in Britian during the Tudor era.

Here are a few:

John Blanke – A Musician

John Blanke was a black musician at the Tudor Court who played the trumpet. He was paid a decent sum for his services (20 shillings to be exact). It is assumed that he arrived as part of Katharine of Aragon’s entourage when she was to marry Arthur, ( but later married Henry VIII).

It is also believed that John Blanke played at Henry VII’s funeral and Henry VIII’s coronation.

Black Romans

‘The University of Leicester found 83 skeletons in a Roman graveyard. Some dated back to as early as the 2nd century AD and six of the skeletons were found to have African cranial features, with two of them appearing to have been born in England.  DNA analysis on a group of Roman Londoners also revealed two with North African ancestry.’

History.co.uk

The Roman empire was one of the largest empires known in ancient history and it was also multicultural. The very nature of the Roman empire meant that through trade and military movement, they travelled far and wide. Through this, the first African people to come to Britain arrived around the 3rd century AD.

Jacques Frances

Jacques Frances was born in the west coast of Africa. He came to England and worked for someone in Southhampton. When England and France faught in 1545, and Henry VIII’s great war ship sank, Jacques was one of the divers hired to retrieve the guns and weapons on the ship. This sort of work would have required a great deal of skill. Since there were no scuba diving gear in those times, he would have had to hold his breath for a long time in order to retreve the items.

Final thoughts

  • Finding out about the history of black people in Britain outside of slavery is very empowering. It gives us a wholesome picture of our black ancestors outside of slavery.
  • Learning about black british history is a lifelong commitment and shouldn’t just be limited to black history month.
  • The UK we are witnessing today was built off the back of many black people – not all of whom were slaves.
  • There are many untold stories of black people who lived in Britain during the Tudor times. It is important that we keep these stories alive and start talking about them alongside the history of the British royal linage.
  • Britain is a multicultural country, therefore black british history is just as important for children of all races to learn.
  • Even though black british history might not be taught in schools, you can certainly teach them to your children today.

5 books you can read about Black British History

  1. Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire – By Akala
  2. Black and British: A forgotten history – by David Olusola
  3. Black Tudors: The Untold Story – By Miranda Kaufman
  4. The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Service Men & Women – by Stephen Bourne
  5. Homecoming: voices of the windrush generation – by Colin Grant

4 thoughts on “The Truth About Black History Month In the UK

  1. Thanks for sharing this Ibs. Isn’t it funny how the civil rights movement that took place all the way across the Atlantic, in the States, is what is taught in Britain rather than the movement in Britain? There were many race protests over the country which were key in the creation of the Race Relations Act in Britain! The clear message being enforced with this effort is this: Britain doesn’t have a race issue.

    What about the many soldiers from South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc.) or from the Caribbean (Jamaica, Barbados, etc.) That they fail to mention fighting in the first world war?

    What about one of the reasons that WW1 was started – because Germany didn’t get as much land when those Europeans were sat in their huge office all the way in Europe as they divided Africa for themselves (google the Scramble for Africa)?

    Lastly, as a teacher who has taught in Britain, the changes they have made to the teaching of history in Primary school is enough to endorse the propaganda of how Great Britain is on it’s own.

    I can go on and on, but I’ll stop here. Thank you for this post. British education must be reformed so it is more truthful about its past

    1. Thanks Ope I will certainly Google these things you mentioned. There’s so much to learn about black history and it must be very frustrating for teachers who want to teach a wholesome curriculum but aren’t allowed to. It just means parents need to teach their kids about black history at home.

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