Black and British: A Forgotten History - Book Review

In most of my book reviews I go through each chapter to analyse what I've learned. This one will be a little different because: 1) I still haven't actually quite finished this 600 page book and 2) There is soooo much to take from it. I mean, it is a phenomenal piece of work. Much like I do on Instagram then, I will include a few of my favourite quotes and describe the book in more general terms. There is actually a new, shorter edition of Black and British, so this may the one to look at if you have other deadlines to meet! Either way, I'd thoroughly recommend reading it.

This book is so important. It sheds light on the history that black people have in Britain - a history that is either forgotten about of intentionally erased. I had no idea how vast and extensive the history was and found it fascinating, not only the content but the detailed descriptions. David Olusoga writes with such authority and passion that his message is flawless. Black people have a history that deserves to be read about and needs to be read about. Not just post-Windrush but Georgians, Victorians and Tudors; men and women; enslaved and free. This book corrects the history as we know it.

Before I share some of my favourite quotes, I wanted to briefly describe something I learned about, the reason for which will become clear later on...

Harry Washington

I cannot express enough just how well researched, communicated and compiled this book is. To put this in context, let me tell you about one person I learned about: Harry Washington. In Chapter 3, Olusoga describes the war between the English loyalists and the American patriots and the sides that black slaves sided on. In 1783, soon to be President, George Washington, forwarded a list of escaped slaves who were believed to be in this city, in expectation of their recapture. Among them was Harry Washington, who had been in The Black Pioneers (a group of former slaves who, in 1776, has taken up British arms and formed a second regiment of the Ethiopian Regiment). Harry was one of the slaves captured but the fate of these slaves was to be decided by the British commander, Sir Guy Carleton.

"In May 1983, when Carleton met Washington, the evacuation of black loyalists to Nova Scotia in British Canada had begun but what Washington did not know what that on the first evacuation fleet from New York were some of his own slaves." Washington accused Carleton of breaking the Paris Peace Treaty but Carleton's counter argument was that as "As the black loyalists had been freed by the Crown, they no longer counted as property to be returned or reclaimed."

In 1783, the British government established the Loyalist Claims Commision, which was charged with recompensing loyalists from the American colonies who had lost their land and property. Some were brought to the mother country but most, unsurprisingly, were not recompensed with nearly enough resources to make any sort of living and became a part of growing population of 'black poor' in London. Britain, in the 1780s, was in a deep recession so it was hard to accommodate for this growing number of desperately poor people - people who had actually fought for Britain and their own freedom. Long story, short, a lot of these black people were then sent back to Africa - some just wanted rid of them, some thought it would be better for them, but off to Sierra Leone they were sent. Ships of former New World Slaves, their white wives and mixed-race children settled in 1787 in a settlement dubbed by the great Granville Sharp as the Province of Freedom.

This experiment was ultimately a failure. The settlers arrived soon before the rainy season, weren't given enough resources, the land was un-usable and a three day war killed off even more. Despite this, the Nova Scotians, were also eventually transported to Sierra Leone too. Many of whom were keen to leave, highlighting just how desperate they were to leave the conditions afforded them in Canada. In this second wave came Harry Washington.

"Having been born in Africa and sold into American slavery, this last journey represented a form of return for Harry Washington, the third great migration of his life." What happened soon after, because of a change of leadership, was a rebellion. Washington ended up fighting for the losing, rebellious side, the leaders of whom were killed in action or hanged, and he became an exile, never to be seen again.

The reason I write about Harry Washington is that his story is intermittently dropped into the book without Olusoga needing to emphasise it at all. I find it utterly remarkable that this person had the most phenomenal existence and yet this book is so rife with information that it is mentioned almost casually, dropped in alongside a multitude of other details. He provides so much space to talk about so much and so many people that it is utterly compelling. The deeper exploration of black British people such as Olaudah Equiano, John Locke and Mary Seacole provide so much fascination. Olusoga has clearly poured his heart into this and it is impossible not to recognise it.


Favourite Quote #1

"There were black men on the English ships that encountered new lands. Sir Francis Drake's mission to circumnavigate the globe in 1577 was achieved with a crew that was what we would today call inter-racial"

Favourite Quote #2

The people of the British Isles and the people of Africa met for the first time when Britain was a cold province on the northern fringe of Rome's intercontinental multi-ethnic, multi-racial empire. We were colonized long before we were colonizers.

Favourite Quote #3

With black history and black people largely expunged from the mainstream of British history, we have been left with a distorted and diminished vision of our national past. Black history, in one sense, is a series of unwritten chapters that together make sense of the wider history of Britain.

Favourite Quote #4

Black British history is everyone's history and all the stronger for it.

Favourite Quote #5

The notion that enslaved people had played a role in their own emancipation, that liberty had been demanded and fought for, rather than simply given, was for the most part forgotten. This version of the history of slavery and abolition... remains dominant in the 21st century, despite half a century of challenge and reassessments by generations of Caribbean and British historians.

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