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The history of Africans in British records

Alex Cox
3 August 2015

People of African and Asian origin have been living in Britain throughout history. Many of these individuals arrived hundreds of years before the massive migrations sparked by the slave trade and European colonisation during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

In fact, Britain's earliest African immigrants arrived in Roman times when black legionaries were sent to the Roman province of Britannia, a number of whom decided to stay when the legions left in the 5th century AD.

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During the 9th century, Viking fleets brought captured peoples from the coasts North Africa and Al-Andalus to Britain and Ireland and, during the Middle Ages, significant numbers of North African Moors arrived via Islamic Iberia in Spain. Queen Elizabeth is reported to have complained about the number of 'blackamoores' in London as early as 1556.

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1560 burial transcript of a 'John Blackamoore' in Cranbrooke, Kent

By the time the SS Windrush arrived in 1948, carrying the first postwar arrivals from the Caribbean, Britain was already home to established black and Asian populations. Whether working as servants in country houses, enlisting in the armed forces, marrying in parish churches, producing art or attempting social reform, evidence of these early immigrants can be found in many areas of British life.

Finding evidence in genealogical records can be tricky as black and Asian people were not always identified by their race. For example, records such asBritish Army Service Records may occasionally indicate whether a soldier was of African or Asian origin through descriptions of their complexion (“e.g 'Black', 'Copper', 'Negro' or 'Moor') although more often than not, no such indication was given. The fact that the first national census was not taken until 1801 also means that there is no way of being certain of how many black and Asian people were living in Britain.

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Private James Goodwin was born in Barbados and joined the British army in 1801. He served in the Battle of Waterloo and his British Army Service Records describes him as having 'wooly Hair, black Eyes, black Complexion'

While there had been an African presence in Britain since Roman Times, the most significant cause of African migrations was certainly the slave trade. By the 18th century, Britain was an active leader in the Atlantic slave trade and was transporting thousands every year to maintain the highly profitable plantations that were dotted around the West Indian colonies. Although most British-owned slaves were located overseas, a significant number were brought back to Britain.

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A number of early African immigrants can be found early Parish records such as this 1719 marriage. The grooms ethnicity is hinted in the notes section.

By the mid-18th century, London had the largest black population in country, made up of free and enslaved people, as well as many runaways. In 1764, the Gentleman's Magazine estimated that 20,000 black people lived in London, a figure that was accepted by the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp. Members of the wealthy upper classes regarded black servants as highly fashionable. They were seen as markers of wealth, status and refinement and would regularly be included in family portraits. There were also notable black populations in towns such as Liverpool, Bristol, Bath and Lancaster and smaller numbers were also found in rural areas throughout the country.

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The First Earl Spencer hunting with his son and a servant

The relationships between black people and their masters or employers in Britain appear to have been more complex than those of the planters and their slaves in the colonies. Some employers left money to their black workers in wills. One master elevated his servant, Mingo, to the position of lighthouse keeper in his will. However, cases such as this were still exceptional, as life was hard and opportunities were limited for all members of the labouring classes at this period.

In the late eighteenth century, the status of black servants in Britain radically changed. After 1772 slavery in Britain became rare and was likely to attract legal action or lead to ostracism. This change in attitude was brought about by the Somerset case of 1772 in which Somerset, a fugitive enslaved African brought a case against his owner who was attempting to force him to return to the West Indies. Lord Justice Mansfield ruled that it would be illegal to remove Somerset from the country against his wishes and the case partially extended the rights of enslaved Africans in Britain and formed the beginning of a much wider campaign against slavery. This landmark victory was celebrated by a ball held at a Westminster pub, which allegedly attracted nearly 200 Black revellers. That same year, Lord Mansfield put the number of Africans in the country as a whole at 15,000.

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Advertisements from our collection of historic British newspapers show how slaves were traded in Britain - Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette 1769

Not all Africans who arrived in the country during this period were enslaved. Many free Africans were recruited as sailors on merchant vessels or joine the Royal Navy. A number of these sailors will have settled and raised families in and around Britain's ports. Some African merchants also conducted business with British traders.

This landmark ruling also encouraged larger numbers of Enslaved Africans to seek refuge in Britain. This increase in numbers is evident in parish records, particularly in Baptisms. In many cases, Baptisms occurred in adulthood once the enslaved Africans had reached Britain. It was widely believed that a Christian baptism guaranteed full freedom and although this was not the case, Christianity certainly provided them with a new kind of acceptance in English society. From the late 18th century, parish records contain numerous references to 'black', 'negro' and 'blackamoor'.

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In 1755, former slave John Free (bottom left) was baptized in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster. His parents occupation was listed as 'Negroe'

After conversion, many Africans were given English Christian names, with Biblical names such as John Baptist proving incredibly popular. The celebrated abolitionist and former slave, Olaudah Equiano, was baptised Gustavus Vassa at St Margaret's, Westminster after fleeing to Britain from America.

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Olaudah Equiano baptised as Gustavus Vassa in a 1759 Westminster Baptism

It is often impossible to tell whether black people referred to in records were free or enslaved. It should not be assumed that a person described as a 'Negro' in the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries was a slave. Many Black people were never enslaved. And those that were, might be granted or buy their freedom, or claim it when they entered the military.