This year celebrates the 70th Anniversary of the Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury Docks, Essex, carrying hundreds of passengers from the Caribbean hoping for a new life in Britain.
This symbolic event heralded the start of a wave of Caribbean migration to Britain from 1948 to 1971.
As a child of one of these migrants, I grew up thinking that this was also the start of the Black history timeline in Britain. This was mainly because my history lessons in school were predominately based around subjects like the Industrial Revolution, War of the Roses and the individuals of those periods. It would be easy to believe that prior to 1948 there were no Black people in Britain.
Recently I have come to learn that Black history in Britain originates well before 1948, in fact almost 2000 years before.
A fourth century inscription tells us that a Roman Military garrison of approx 500 North African Moor soldiers were stationed on Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria. Evidence suggests that this unit was sent to protect the Roman Empire borders in Britain.
A few years ago in Eastbourne — an ancient skeleton named ‘Beachy Head Lady’ who lived during the Roman period and is thought to have originated from Sub Saharan Africa. There is strong indication that she grew up in Southeast England. She was possibly born in Africa and travelled to Britain while she was young, or it’s even possible that she was born in Britain. But she is certainly the earliest recorded Black Briton, 1700 years ago.
Fast forward a few hundred years to the Georgian period and I discovered the story of Francis Barber. Francis was born in Jamaica and travelled to England when he was 15. He was sent to be the valet of the writer Samuel Johnson and he assisted Samuel in revising his famous Dictionary of the English Language and other works.
His story isn’t an isolated one and there is evidence that during the Georgian Period there were approximately 10,000 black people living in Britain.
Examples like these are a few of many. Yet, when I look back at my history lessons in school, there was very little Black History being taught, let alone Black British history. Even now the timeline of most schools’ Black history curriculum follows slavery and Martin Luther King.
These are very important subjects but I can’t help but feel that it does leave a hole in British history. This is what the celebration of Black History Month endeavours to fill.
My parents came to Britain from Jamaica a number of years after the arrival of the Empire Windrush. Like many Caribbean migrants, the decision to leave the home where they grew up was a difficult one.
To most Caribbeans, Britain was seen as the mother country and as my parents were British Subjects. Britain was viewed as “having streets paved with gold”, and seen as an opportunity of a better life.
When they arrived the reality was much harder. Early in their arrival, it was a struggle. Facing racial inequality, adjusting to a new society and getting used to the weather.
The difficulties Caribbean migrants encountered with housing meant that my parents had to live in a house with 5 or 6 other families who were from the same area of Jamaica, until they were able to buy their own home. My mother eventually became a nurse in the NHS and my father a mechanic for British Telecom and they settled in Wolverhampton.
A shared experience builds a stronger community. As a result of migration, Wolverhampton became one of the cities in Britain with a large Caribbean community.
Many of the people in the community I was raised in were people that my parents grew up with in Jamaica. This meant that although I grew up in a multicultural society, my childhood was filled with stories of my parents memories of life “back home!”, (as my mother would say). So it is no surprise that as a child I had a vision of Jamaica being a place that had a story or a parable for every situation in life.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Yomi Adegoke, a celebrated journalist:
“Many of us have never quite felt fully British, nor fully identified with wherever our parents may be from. We’ve straddled two worlds, and sat uncomfortably at a junction of “either” and “or”. But for the first time – in my memory at least – we’re comfortably embracing both. Black Brits aren’t simply welcoming bits of our identity, but all of it at once, creating and strengthening an identity within itself: a Black British one.”
The recent events surrounding Windrush have been unsettling for the Caribbean community. In a time when our present is turbulent and our future is unclear, we should look to the past more than ever.
Black History Month is important and it raises awareness of the contribution Black people from many different countries cultures have made to Britain.