A story of struggle

Black and British: A Forgotten History

By David Olusoga

Published by Pan, 2017, £12-99

Reviewed by Geoff Jones

The historian David Olusoga is both Black and British. One of his earliest memories, growing up as a mixed-race child on a council estate in the 1970s, is of his white mother and their family being driven from their home by National Front thugs. His excellent book gives a detailed history of the relationship between white and black people in Britain from earliest times – a history largely ignored in our schools even today.

Until the sixteenth century Britain had very little direct contact with the African continent. The very few black people who made their way here, such as John Blanke, court trumpeter to Henry VIII, were probably regarded with curiosity rather than hostility. However, from the 1600s on, in the age of exploration, things changed dramatically.

Olusoga rightly devotes over half of his book to slavery and the slave trade – it was the massive profits from this trade that formed the basis for the development of today’s capitalist class and fuelled the industrial revolution.

Slavery, as a form of exploitation, has existed for thousands of years of human history. However, the organised slave trade only mushroomed in the eighteenth century via the Royal Africa Company, who made huge profits from the infamous ‘triangular trade’ – goods from Britain to buy slaves in West Africa, ship the slaves to the Caribbean plantations, and bring sugar or molasses back to Britain. Some West African kingdoms also grew rich from the capture and sale of slaves. It is estimated that through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century about twelve million slaves were shipped from Africa to plantations in the Americas. Conditions on the ‘middle passage’ were so dreadful that at least a tenth of those held and chained on board did not survive the voyage.

Olusoga details the movement to abolish this appalling trade. It was not a simple task, with the rich and powerful fighting tooth and nail every step of the way. In this battle, fought in the name of Christian values, William Wilberforce is usually accorded a leading role; in fact the less well known Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson were far more significant. But even more significant were former slaves like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano who travelled the country addressing countless meetings and raising a tide of support for abolition.

However there remains a tendency to portray black slaves themselves as passive objects of white charity. The opposite is actually the case. There were literally hundreds of documented slave rebellions in the 18th and 19th centuries and, no doubt, many more undocumented. These rebellions were savagely put down, but weakened the slave owners’ hold on their plantations. It is no coincidence that parliament’s final Abolition Act followed Jamaica’s so-called Baptist War of 1831, when tens of thousands of slaves burned plantations, causing millions of pounds worth of damage. The rebellion was crushed by the British army, with 600 slaves and 14 whites killed in the fighting and a further six hundred black people hanged.

Victory for abolition came in 1833 with the ban on slavery in the British Empire. But grotesquely, while slave owners were awarded a massive £17 billion in today’s money as compensation for the loss of their ‘property’, the freed slaves themselves received nothing at all.

Olusoga gives due weight to the role of the Royal Navy West Africa Squadron, which between 1808 and 1867 had the job of suppression of the Atlantic slave trade. In that time they captured some 1,500 slave ships and freed up to 90,000 of their human cargo, delivering them to Freetown in Sierra Leone which had been established to take in freed slaves from the Americas. Of course, this also served to strengthen British imperialism against its competitors.

The last time the issue of slavery directly affected British working people was in the mid-19th century. Britain’s cotton industry had boomed, on the back of cheap, slave-produced raw cotton from the southern states of the USA. In 1860, the US civil war meant a Northern Union blockade of Southern Confederate trade. In general, Liverpool merchants and Lancashire mill owners supported the Confederates. Liverpool shipyards built ‘blockade runners’. Lancashire mills closed their doors, throwing their workers on the stones, leading to some starving workers demonstrating in favour of the South. One shining contrast was the town of Rochdale, where workers were strongly pro-Union and the mill owner John Bright, an abolitionist, continued paying workers 70% of their wages, just enough to survive. 

The late nineteenth century saw the so called ‘Scramble for Africa’, a key aspect of the struggle between rival imperialisms which led finally to the first world war. In that war, although many black citizens of the Empire were eager to join up, the authorities were firmly against their participation in the ‘white man’s war’ in Europe. By the middle of the war, however, slaughter had led to a desperate manpower shortage and the recruitment of black troops, but only in menial positions where they would not receive firearms training or fight against (white) German troops. It recently came to light that black servicemen killed at the front were not buried in the beautifully cared for war cemeteries, but dumped in unmarked mass graves. To add insult to injury, no black faces were allowed to be seen in the huge victory parade past the cenotaph in Whitehall in November 1919.

A final legacy of the war was a major outbreak of racial violence in British ports in 1919, when demobilised servicemen desperate for work demanded that black workers be sent home. Serious rioting broke out in Cardiff and in Liverpool, lasting for some days and with fatalities in both towns.

The last section of the book, dealing with events up to the 1980s, is more patchy. Socialists would want to hear more about what was going on in the working class as a whole, and particularly in the organised working class at that time. An attempt by the National Union of Seamen in 1948 to enforce a colour bar on crews is mentioned, but no examples of the many battles against racial discrimination. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the six-month Bristol bus boycott in 1963, when the local labour movement, including Tony Benn (then a Bristol MP) along with Bristol Trades Council, and the Black community, forced the council-run Bristol Omnibus Company to drop its bar on non-white crews, despite the shameful racist attitudes of the local Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) branch. In 1965 parliament passed the first Race Relations Act which made ‘racial discrimination unlawful in public places’.

Another development barely touched upon is the growth of the openly racist National Front, which attracted a large chunk of Tory party supporters. In 1977 the NF attempted to march through Lewisham, an area with a large black population, emulating the German Nazis’ policy of ‘taking over the streets’. A mass mobilisation of anti-fascist organisations met the march, together with local people, and despite the best efforts of the police stopped the NF in their tracks. The beginnings of the collapse of the National Front can be traced to that event.

But while Olusoga’s book has a few weaknesses, it is extremely readable and accessible, and forms an invaluable counter to the whitewashed history still taught in schools. Even better, he has recently produced a shortened version, Black and British: A Short, Essential History, specifically for school students aged 12 plus. Hopefully, it will get a wide distribution.