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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2002

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Black Britons - where are their monuments?
John Siblon

In the early nineteenth century there were an estimated 20,000 black people living in London. Individually they rarely appear in public records although you will often find them mentioned in parish registers. Samson Battyn was one of three black adults baptised at Warfield in 1760. Another infant was buried at Midgham and yet another burial took place at Pangbourne. In the main our understanding of the black presence in England during the eighteenth century comes from black authors like Equiano and Ignatius Sancho and the many artistic images found in our public galleries. Black images were often used as a startling contrast to white women. Gainsborough, Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynolds often included black people in their art. Here John Siblon, Head of History at St. Andrew’s International High School, Blantyre, Malawi, examines the reasons why public monuments are rarely found to black people in Britain.

Among the few things I remember about my time at school were my history lessons. In particular, I remember a trip to the British Museum. This was the first time I had travelled to the centre of London. My memories of the trip were of grand buildings, colonnaded facades, statues and monuments. Suddenly the history lessons about Britain’s majesty and imperial dominance seemed to come alive and make sense. I had seen with my own eyes the evidence of Britain’s greatness through the vast number of statues and monuments to the great and good scattered around the capital. From Lord Nelson to Winston Churchill, Oliver Cromwell and Boudicca, around me stood the historical figures that made up the vast patchwork of British history, their monuments signalling as much a notion of Britishness as the deeds for which these people were celebrated.

It is no surprise, therefore, to relate that I grew up with the notion that British history, or for that matter English history, was made exclusively by English men and women of a particular sort. That sort was predominantiy a white Anglo-Saxon male. Our history lessons at school contained no alternative to the endless procession of heroic men and sometimes women, usually royal or titled, who contributed to Britain’s greatness. Absent were the working men and women who surely must have made contributions, apart, from the General Strike of 1926, and leaving aside the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. More glaringly absent although I didn’t apply much thought to it at the time, was the black and Asian presence in Britain.

Dido Elizabeth Lindsay (photo)

Perhaps the most striking portrait, attributed to Zoffany, is of Dido Elizabeth Lindsay or Dido Belle. She was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay and brought up by her uncle Lord Mansfield.

Over the years, I have come to realise that the histories made by men and women of minority ethnic groups have not been fairly represented in the mainstream of the British education system at any sector, whether that is primary, secondary, tertiary or higher. That is not to say that there have not been attempts over recent years. If this situation is to change then two things have to happen. Firstly, the government must make firm changes to the National Curriculum and secondly, historians must make further contributions in researching and informing the public at large of Britain’s settled black presence going back some 500 years and the contribution this community has made to Britain’s wealth and development.

A neglected area of this ongoing research is the lack of public space given to monuments to black Britons or their achievements. There have been recent acknowledgements to the black post-war presence such as the Windrush celebrations of 19981. However, the primary focus here was the arrival of Caribbean immigrants and returnees in 1948. The article here aims to focus on the lack of public monuments to those Africans, Asians and Chinese who have lived on these shores as visitors, servants or slaves over the last 500 years and so make up part of Britain’s history and heritage.

The black presence in Britain can be traced back over 500 years, indeed in the period of the Roman occupation almost 2000 years ago, African soldiers and indeed an African emperor, Septimus Severus, were stationed in Britain. One of the first visible records of a black person is from a Westminster tournament roll of 1511, which clearly and colourfully shows a black trumpeter on a horse.2 Henceforward, as Britain’s role and involvement in the slave trade assumed greater prominence, so do the amount of records and documents charting the black presence in Britain. One of the most prominent of these shows that, as early as 1596, Queen Elizabeth I wrote to the mayors of various cities requesting them to deport Africans from her territory.3

Since the 1980s, a few historians and educationalists have produced a number of excellent articles, books and educational packs on the subject of the black presence in Britain.4 Sadly, the basis of these books has still to ifiter through into the mainstream of the National Curriculum in British schools.5 Museums and galleries have made attempts recently to incorporate the black presence into their exhibits. The Merseyside Maritime Museum opened in 1994 a Transatlantic Slavery Gallery. One of the themes of the exhibits is that Liverpool’s involvement in the slave trade left a lasting legacy in terms of wealth, landscape and population. There is also a guided tour and virtual Internet tour of places in Liverpool that had connections with slavery. In 2001, the museum commemorated August 23 as International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition with a programme of events. Similarly, in Bristol, another city which grew on the back of the profits of slavery, the Industrial Museum has a small but important permanent exhibition on Bristol’s role in the slave trade. It too has a slavery heritage trail and has published guides for public use. In 1997, a plaque dedicated to those who suffered as a result of the slave trade was unveiled outside the museum. More significantly, in 1999 a bridge in the redeveloped dock area of Bristol was named after a black servant of the Pinney family. ‘Perot’s Bridge’ is one of the only public monuments in Britain to reflect Britain’s inglorious role in the slave trade and the fact that a settled community of black people in Britain was a consequence of this involvement. This public monument was indeed a step forward but only after decades of denial. But what of the metropolis, London, the other major port to have grown rich on the profits of slavery and the first port of call for immigrants and settlers from distant shores? How many public monuments are there to the black presence in the capital?

Like Bristol and Liverpool, London museums and galleries have made efforts to signal the black presence in the capital through exhibitions, displays and conferences. The Museum of London runs courses for teachers on black British history, runs a programme of events for Black History Month and has a London Voices project to engage communities under-represented amongst its visitors. It also hosted the Peopling of London exhibition in 1993. In 1995, the Tate Gallery held an exhibition entitled ‘Picturing Blackness in British Art, 1700—1990’. The National Portrait Gallery had an exhibition on Ignatius Sancho in 1997 and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich staged commemorative events on slavery and its abolition on 23 August 2002.

But, what of permanent monuments to the black presence? Here the picture is somewhat different. For many tourists coming to London, the initial attraction is the capital’s long and public history. For others, London’s appeal is its diversity and its explicit multicultural and cosmopolitan outlook; but if you seek monuments reflecting that diversity do not look around you. There are statues to renowned black and Asian figures such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi but they were visitors from other shores as was Jimi Hendrix, who has a welcome blue plaque.

There are many blacks who took up residence in Britain or were native-born, who could quite easily have statues commemorating them. The most celebrated are Olaudah Equiano, Mary Seacole, Ignatius Sancho, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Dadabhai Naoroji. It would be instructive to confine any search to these five figures and to see if they have been permanently commemorated in any way.

Olaudah Equiano (photo)

Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography in 1789. It was the most realistic account of a black person’s life that the world had yet seen. He was invited to dinner parties and soirees across the country to talk about his life.

Olaudah Equiano was a former slave in the late eighteenth century, who bought his own freedom and wrote a book about his life as a slave. By committing his experiences to print and actively campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade, he surely played a major part in the downfall of the iniquitous trade and its eventual abolition. However, whereas William Wilberforce, Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson are rightly commemorated (many times in the case of Wilberforce) there is only one permanent monument to Equiano. This is a green plaque in Riding House Street in Westminster, which was erected in 2000. The green plaque signifies it was the local council, not English Heritage, who erected the plaque. Similarly, there is no plaque or statue to another famous eighteenth century blackman, Ignatius Sancho. There is a picture of him with a small caption and on an information board on a small green in Broadway, Westminster where there was formerly a burial site.

The most glaring absence is the lack of a plaque or monument to Mary Seacole, surely one of the most celebrated of nineteenth century black women. There used to be a plaque in London but that was removed in a dispute about its siting on private property. This example demonstrates that where there is no visible monument then a person can be written out of the history books. Mary’s loyal service and bravery in attending to the health of British troops in the Crimean war is an amazing piece of history but most people would have only heard about Florence Nightingale. Florence’s contribution to the development of nursing is well documented. She has a blue plaque, a statue and a museum next to St Thomas’ hospital in the heart of London. The only monument to Mary is her gravestone.

Mary Seacole (photo)

Mary made her own way to the Crimean War front and set up her 'British Hotel’. She provided hot meals and looked after the sick and wounded. Hailed as a national heroine back home, she received a commendation from Queen Victoria.

Britain’s most celebrated composer at the turn of the century was black. He was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor but the only monument to him is a blue plaque hidden behind a large hedge in South Norwood, near Croydon. Britain’s first black MP was elected to Parliament in 1892: he was Dadabhai Naoroji, originally from India. In Islington there is a road named after him but he has no permanent monument or plaque.

A cursory glance at the statues and monuments of the metropolis and other cities shows them trying to affect a pomp and majesty from a bygone age of Empire and colonialism when Britain’s black and Asian subjects were at the receiving end of endemic racist attitudes. In the twenty-first century, Britain’s ethnic make-up is fast changing, as is its national identity. The truth, though, is that this diversity is not new; it has always been there. However, this is not reflected in statues or public monuments. In London there are at least 500 statues and monuments but not a single one to the black and Asian presence. 15 out of 750 blue plaques are dedicated to blacks and Asians. This simply isn’t trying hard enough and is feeding a false perception of a ‘white’ British history.

There needs to be an effort of will by those in English Heritage and other bodies to ensure that this diversity is reflected in the visible landscape. An excellent example of this is the monument to Walter Tull, outside Northampton FC’s football ground. Here, one of Britain’s first black footballers is permanently commemorated in stone of black, white and grey, representing Britain’s diverse community. Who designed and paid for the monument? The fans, of course.


1 Phillips, M and Phillips, T. Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain. Harper Collins 1998
2 Merriman, N. The Peopling of London: Fifteen Thousand Years of Settlement from Overseas. Museum of London 1993
3 Edwards, P. The History of Blacks in Britain. History Today. Volume 31 September 1981
4 See for example File, N and Power, C. Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958. Heinemann 1981; Fryer, P. Staying Power: The history of Black People in Britain. Pluto Press 1984; Vizram, R Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in 1700-1947. Pluto Press 1986
5Ali, L The case for Including Black History in the National Curriculum. Improving Schools, Volume 3, Number 1.2000.

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