A first look at ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’

Kindle books are deceptive. You can’t see them in the flesh. So, if you’re not paying attention, you can end up spending £10 on a 100- page novella or pick up a ‘quick holiday read’ that is actually 700 pages long.

This is what happened when I bought Black and British: A Forgotten History (its page count is 624…)

That’s usually light work for me if I’m really into a book. I’ve raced through novels in days. But this book is different. It’s dense. It’s meaty. You need to take your time.

I’m more than 10 weeks in and at the time of writing I am only at the 50% mark. I am tired.

I’ll admit that there were points where I got frustrated or wanted it to end. It feels like work. This is a textbook and I am back in school again. But I started to tell myself off. This book is important. It’s called A Forgotten History for a reason. We often complain about how we weren’t taught Black History in depth at school or in the media. Black history especially Black British history is not easily accessible. We don’t have the luxury of having content spoon fed to us. It is hidden and hard and we have to do the work. It’s our job to do the work.

If I’m going to mention work, I have to talk about the writer of this book, David Olusoga. The sheer scale of research that went into it makes it worth all the awards and nominations it has earned. Waterstone’s History Book of The Year and the Longman History Today Trustees’ Award are just two. I sense that Black and British is this detailed because he did so much research he just needed to throw it all in. After all, there are so many hidden wonders in our history. What stories and facts deserve to be left out?

Now, I’m appreciating the length and the detail because I’m learning so much.

I have learned about Bill Richmond, Britain’s first black sporting celeb – a cabinet making apprentice who turned to bare-knuckle boxing in the 1700s.

I have learned about one of the first black raves in Britain. (It obviously wasn’t referred to as a rave but it’s fun to imagine). It took place in East London in 1764! Olusoga includes a quote from a newspaper that covered the party:

“On Wednesday last night, no less than fifty-seven of them, men and women, supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music consisting of violins, French horns and other instruments, at a public house in Fleet st till four in the morning”

We can party in East London knowing that some of our ancestors were doing the same 250-ish years ago!

I have learned about Julius Souboise, a black socialite in the 1770s. His life started in slavery in St Kitts but after moving to London he became an amateur actor, musician, swordsman and a ‘man about town’. His lavish lifestyle was funded by his boss/’owner’. It is unclear whether he was still formally a slave. He certainly didn’t live like one. (I won’t tell you how his story ends, go read the book and find out).

I have learned that in 1786, there were many black impoverished former slaves living in the streets of London. Three ships sent some of them off to spend the rest of their lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone- the Belisarius, the Atlantic and the Vernon. These ships were anchored in the docks of Deptford, South London.

I have learned about The Creole. By 1841, Britain had already made slavery illegal for its citizens in Britain and the British colonies.128 slaves were on an American ship named The Creole, being transported from Virginia (where tobacco was on the decline) to the booming cotton fields of Louisiana. The enslaved people teamed up, seized control of the ship while at sea and sailed it to the British Bahamas where they became free as soon as they landed on shore.

I have learned all this and I am only 50% through. I am breath taken and in awe and now even more curious.

I want everyone to go out and buy or borrow this book. Give yourself time. Take 6 months or a year if you want, but take it all in. Read with me! I want the world to know all that I have learned.