Histories

Black History

‘The Black history of Britain is by its nature a global history. Yet too often it is seen as being only the history of migration, settlement and community formation in Britain itself.’ 
– David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History

Black histories are a vital part of England’s story, reaching back many centuries. There is evidence of African people in Roman Britain as far back as the 3rd century AD, and black communities have been present since at least 1500.

Black history is a key part of England’s story, and helps us to reflect on the connections between the past and present, and the importance of history to our understanding of what’s happening today.

Passengers wave from the Empire Windrush
© Contraband Collection/Alamy

Voices of the Windrush Generation

As we passed through the white cliffs of Dover, it was beyond imagination. I just came out having something to eat in the mess hall and I saw this crowd with the camera-men at the docks and I was waving my teacup, waving to be noticed.
- Edwin Hilton

On 21 June 1948 the HMT Empire Windrush docked in the Port of Tilbury. The disembarkation of its passengers from the Caribbean the following day was captured by newsreel and cameras, becoming one of the defining images of 20th-century British history. 

Author and historian Colin Grant, Associate Fellow in the Centre for Caribbean Studies, shares the story of a generation of pioneers in their own words, tracing their history from the 1947 British Nationality Act to the injustice of the Windrush Scandal of 2018.

Read more from the Windrush Generation

The Caribbean Prisoners of Portchester Castle

In October 1796 a fleet of ships from the Caribbean carrying over 2,500 prisoners of war, who were mostly black or mixed-race, began to dock in Portsmouth Harbour. By the end of that month almost all of them, apart from about 100 women and children, were living at Portchester Castle.

New research is revealing the stories of some individuals, and we know that many would once have been enslaved peoples working on the plantations on the French and British islands of the Caribbean. Others were from the free black and mixed-race communities on the islands.

Like many 18th-century prisoners of war, the men and women from the Caribbean were eventually exchanged for captured British soldiers and sent to France. Some of the soldiers eventually returned to the Caribbean and it is also possible that others may have been recruited from Portchester into the British armed forces or started new lives in England.

  • The Black Prisoners of Portchester

    Read the extraordinary story of a group of over 2,500 prisoners of war who were brought to Portchester Castle in 1796 from the Caribbean island of St Lucia.

  • What Happened to the Caribbean Prisoners?

    After their release from Portchester, the Caribbean prisoners of war were forced to negotiate complex ideologies around slavery, race and colonial rule. Here we trace just a few of their journeys.

  • Black Lives in 18th-century Britain

    Historian Steve Martin explores the context of 18th-century British society that the prisoners would have faced.

  • Podcast: Speaking with Shadows

    In the second episode of the podcast Speaking with Shadows, Josie Long learns about the prisoners. And in a special bonus episode we hear extracts from Elaine Mitchener’s sound installation about their story.

More to Do

Recent events and Black Lives Matter protests have reminded us all of the connections between the past and present, and the importance of history to our understanding of what’s happening today.

Black history is part of English history, and we’re committed to telling the story of England in full. We know we have much more to do.

Dido Belle
The only known portrait of Dido Belle
© By kind permission of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland

Dido Belle

Dido Elizabeth Belle was raised as part of an aristocratic family in Georgian Britain. She was born in the Caribbean in 1761, the daughter of a black woman named Maria Bell and naval officer Sir John Lindsay. 

Dido spent much of her life at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath in North London. She lived there with her great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. He presided over a number of court cases that examined the legality of the slave trade. The most significant of these is Somerset v Stewart (1772), in which he ruled that slavery had no precedent in common law in England. This was a key milestone on the road to abolition.

In 2013 Amma Asante’s film Belle, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, brought a fictionalised version of Dido’s story to an international audience.

    

Read more about Dido Belle’s Life

Blue Plaques

London’s famous blue plaques link the people of the past with the buildings of the present. From musicians to politicians, discover some of the pioneering black figures whose achievements are celebrated with blue plaques.

  • Laurie Cunningham

    Laurie Cunningham was the first black footballer to play for England in a competitive match and the first Englishman to play for Real Madrid.

  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

    The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor achieved international fame for his trilogy of cantatas, ‘The Song of Hiawatha’.

  • Mary Seacole

    The Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole set up a hotel in the war-torn Crimea to provide shelter, food and treatment for injured soldiers.

  • John Richard Archer

    John Archer was the former Mayor of Battersea and the first black person to hold a senior public office in London.

  • Elisabeth Welch

    Singer Elisabeth Welch was one of Britain’s best-loved interpreters of popular song. Her recording career spanned eight decades and encompassed New York, Paris and London.

  • Sir Learire Constantine

    The cricketer and statesman Sir Learie Constantine became Britain’s first black peer in 1969.

  • Jimi Hendrix

    The guitarist and songwriter Jimi Hendrix became an overnight sensation with the release of his band’s first single, ‘Hey Joe’, in 1966.

  • Bob Marley

    Bob Marley was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. He is commemorated with a blue plaque on the house where he and The Wailers finished recording their iconic album Exodus.

  • Dr Harold Moody

    The campaigner for racial equality Dr Harold Moody founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931.

  • Ira Aldridge

    In 1833 Ira Aldridge became the first black actor to play Othello on a West End stage.

  • Jomo Kenyatta

    Jomo Kenyatta became the first President of Kenya after the country won independence from the British Empire in 1963.

  • Kwame Nkrumah

    Kwame Nkrumah helped secure Ghana’s independence from Britain in 1957 and became the country’s first Prime Minister and President.

  • Marcus Garvey

    Marcus Garvey was a black nationalist who became an inspirational figure for later civil rights activists.

  • Cetshwayo

    Cetshwayo kaMpande was king of the Zulus during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. In 1882, he visited London and stayed at 18 Melbury Road in Holland Park

  • Solomon T Plaatje

    The South African writer Solomon T Plaatje was a significant campaigner for African rights and played a pioneering role in the emergence of African literature.

Propose a blue plaque

We recognise the need to increase the racial diversity of the English Heritage blue plaques scheme in order to properly reflect London’s history. With this in mind we have set up a working group whose members will focus on nominating Black and Asian figures for blue plaques.

Public nominatons are still at the heart of the scheme and the new group hopes to work with the public to uncover the stories of those whose achievements have so far been unacknowledged.

Find out how to nominate someone for a blue plaque
Sarah Forbes Bonetta
Sarah Forbes Bonetta, goddaughter of Queen Victoria
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Learn: Black Lives in Britain

The story of black lives in Britain is long, varied and complex. To help you chart the story of black Britons, we’ve brought together teaching resources from across our sites to share with you.

Get involved by doing your own research, trying some of our suggested activities, and enjoying our selection of videos and podcasts.

Read more
Brodsworth Hall
Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire

Slavery Connections to English Heritage Sites

In 2007, to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade, English Heritage (now separately English Heritage and Historic England) commissioned research into the connections to slavery of English Heritage sites.

This report surveyed 33 properties that were built or occupied during the main period of the British transatlantic slave trade (c.1640–1807). Twenty-six properties with some level of connection to slavery or abolition were identified.

Connections included ownership of plantations, holding of official posts linked to the Caribbean, trade in goods produced by enslaved peoples, and owning of shares in slave trading companies. Several properties had connections to both those who campaigned for abolition and those who politically opposed it. Evidence was also discovered of the presence of black servants at a number of sites.

Subsequently in 2008, further research was carried out into four of the sites with the strongest connections to the slave trade: Brodsworth Hall, Bolsover Castle, The Grange at Northington and Marble Hill House.

More information about connections between English Heritage sites and the transatlantic slave trade is coming soon.

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