Arts Reviews

October Book Of The Month: Black and British: A Forgotten History

Rory Beveridge

To celebrate Black History Month, Rory reviews October’s Book of the Month; Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga.

“Black History is a series of missing chapters from British History, and I’m trying to put those bits back in,” the historian and broadcaster David Olusoga said in a 2016 interview, and his book Black and British: A Forgotten History is a two-thousand year epic narrative which succeeds in just that. As suggested in the title of the book, this story is very much forgotten within the history of Britain. The simplicity of British history is put aside, and the complex and extraordinary lives of the thousands of people of African origin who lived in Britain is put at the heart of the book. 

The first chapter transports us to the third century A.D. and to the cold and desolate Roman province of Britannia. Previous assumptions of Roman Britain are disregarded, and a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society is explored. While archaeological evidence shows the cluster of African military units along the frontier at Hadrian’s Wall, modern forensic science shows us that there may have been high status citizens of African descent within Roman Britain – as the discovery of the Ivory Bangle Lady in York suggests. More forgotten than most histories, Olusoga perfectly brings alive the diverse and thought-provoking story of Africans in Roman Britain.

By bringing these figures to prominence, Olusoga deeply enriches the British historical narrative

The incorporation of famous characters in British history is where Olusoga highlights the transient nature of black people in Britain. We are introduced to new faces in famous places, such as the trumpeter John Blanke, who served Henry VIII – who would later receive wedding gifts and a pay rise from the King. We too learn about Francis Barber, an ex-slave and servant of Samuel Johnson, who not only helped in the revisions of Johnson’s highly influential dictionary, but became his sole heir when he died. Native British figures, such as the abolitionist Granville Sharp, are also celebrated in this book. By bringing these figures to prominence, Olusoga deeply enriches the British historical narrative.

With every detail we think we know examined in a new and refreshing perspective

Later, and perhaps more well-known, histories such as the Windrush Generation are brought alive in the latter part of the book, with every detail we think we know examined in a new and refreshing perspective. With recent political scandals surrounding the Windrush generation being prevalent in our national consciousness, a new and authoritative history is very much required.

What Olusoga achieves so poignantly is how the experience of many non-Black Britons is heavily interconnected with that of Black people on the British Isles and, crucially, across the British Empire. From the hundreds of thousands of slaves that produced sugar and cotton for consumption in Britain, to the people of the colonies who fought for Britain in the First and Second World Wars, Black experience and history has shaped this country in many more ways than is often realised. Accompanied by the fantastic and informative BBC television series, this book is not only essential reading for people that want to understand Black British History, but it is vital in the understanding of our country as a whole.

Rory Beveridge

Featured image courtesy of Vincente via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In article images courtesy of @edinburghtvfest and @waterstoneslincolnexchan on Instagram. No changes were made to these images.

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