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Black and British: A Forgotten History Hardcover – 3 Nov 2016
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You could not ask for a more judicious, comprehensive and highly readable survey of a part of British history that has been so long overlooked or denied. David Olusoga, in keeping with the high standards of his earlier books, is a superb guide. (Adam Hochschild)
[A] comprehensive and important history of black Britain . . . Written with a wonderful clarity of style and with great force and passion. It is thoroughly researched and there are many interesting anecdotes. (Kwasi Kwarteng The Sunday Times)
A radical reappraisal of the parameters of history, exposing lacunae in the nation’s version of its past. (Arifa Akbar Guardian)
A thrilling tale of excavation (Colin Grant Guardian)
Lucid and accessible. (Herald Scotland)
An insightful, inclusive history of black people in Britain . . . Rich in detail and packed with strong personalities, this is an important contribution to our understanding of life in the UK. (History Revealed)
Olusoga's account challenges narrow visions of Britain's past. By tracing the triangulated connections between Britain, America and Africa, he presents black British history in global terms [...] His subjects, even those who barely figure in the historical record, appear as individuals who matter, both in their own right and as historical exemplars. (The London Review of Books)
Ambitious . . . Long overdue (Hakim Adi Spectator)
A vital re-examination of a shared history, published to accompany the landmark BBC Two seriesSee all Product description
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It might seem strange to begin a review for one historian with a story about another, but bear with me... For those that are not clued to all the best history themed Twitter fights, eminent Classicist Mary Beard recently provoked uproar when she said that Roman Britain was ethnically diverse after a BBC cartoon dared to include a black Roman soldier and his family. It was not supposed to represent the 'typical' but the 'possible'. Some of the vitriol she received was unfathomable and all because, it seems to me, that there seems to be a whole lot of people who want to see this country as the whitest of white places. Most importantly, the potential for reasoned debate based on evidence was shut down by denial, personal attack, and modern ideological ideas about race. It was a vivid demonstration of the intellectual space into which Olusoga was stepping.
Indeed, this is the period with which he begins his chronological history, noting the role of imperialism that brought different peoples to these lands and how much later it would take Britons to Africa [loc 760]. From Roman soldiers to black slaves to WW2 GIs, Olusoga traces the changing role of black men and women in British society, as well as the attitudes towards them. The specific focus is on the international slave trade, with a much smaller section on post 1900, but there are significant holes in the story due to the nature of the evidence. He notes the difficulties in researching a subject with limited primary/autobiographical sources, especially when looking at black women, which is why there is inevitable repetition of the big names such as Olaudah Equiano. This is no surprise as the underlying theme of the book is the deliberate exclusion of black men and women from the historical record, an interpretation which might have seemed extreme had it not been so clearly illustrated in contemporary debates. That the subject has only recently come to the forefront indicates we have a long way to go.
With all of the horror contained within, it would be impossible to point to a worst time or greatest act of immorality, yet for me, the story that stopped me in my tracks was that of the slaver ship, the Zong. On a journey in 1781, fears arose that there was not enough water to last the trip, so over a period of days, 133 slaves were thrown overboard and left to drown. Even worse, once in port, the slavers tried to cash in the insurance policy on the slaves they had killed, for the loss of their property. The cruelty and sheer disregard for human life that this evinces sickened me, yet it is one of many stories of inhuman action towards people simply because of the colour of their skin.
And the best part of it? The stories that run in the background of the book, often without detail, because they represent the lives of ordinary people, every shade of colour, who lived and loved and married each other despite social conventions, laws, or any other issue that might have stopped them. Real people living as families, producing children, being friends. In a society where race can still affect your opportunities in life, these are the things to hold on to then and now.
I come from Liverpool - former slaving port, former cotton port, former blockade-running port for the confederate South in the American Civil War. My ancestors were Irish - probably escaping the great famine in the 1840s. The African derived community in Liverpool began with slavery in the 1750s. So in terms of Britishness, the black people of Liverpool are more British than I can hope to be.
That these sorts of qualification are needed says all we need to know about racism in Liverpool and elsewhere.
Turning to the book itself - it is a masterly and scholarly piece of work. Well researched, well told, informative, engaging and, in many ways, life changing. Seeing how attitudes to black people ebbed and flowed over the years confirms that our current racism is not something we are doomed to live with, but something that can and will, hopefully, change.
David Olusoga is a black Briton, and the opening of the book takes us back to his childhood in the North-East and the racist attacks that his family had to endure in the 1970s at the hands of the National Front. That anyone should have to endure this kind of treatment is an indictment to the politicians of that era and the people who believed and followed them.
He then takes us to the slaving fortress of Bunce Island, in Sierra Leone to show even worse horrors before beginning the history proper with the Roman legions and progressing through the centuries from when black servants and courtiers were a symbol of wealth and Africa was a fabled land of strange races and curious customs. The slave trade and the movement for it’s abolition seems to have been a high point in the regard for black people by the British, but once it was abolished, the familiar patterns of racism reappeared, this time bolstered by the pseudo scientific concepts of racial Darwinism (not supported by Darwin, by the way - and not really by any actual scientists).
The book then progresses through the first-world war when debates raged over whether black troops should be deployed in Europe, to the first recorded racial murder - in Liverpool 1919 when Charles Wooton, who had served in the Royal Navy during the war, was drowned in Queens Dock by a mob of white Liverpudlians - possibly even including my ancestors.
During the second world war, there was some encouraging signs of progress when the appalling treatment of black GIs by their white American counterparts evoked greater sympathy on the part of the British - though this was soon forgotten after the war and in the subsequent decades. Very few white people emerge with any credit from this long sad tale but enough do to encourage those us to do better in future and to take a stand for universal humanity.
My final word - this is not a sad book, not a tale of woe - and much more than just a catalogue of the lives of the black British. It is also a celebration of how much black Britons have contributed to British life and to the country. An essential read.
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