The human race originated in Africa, with our species, Homo sapiens, coming into existence more than 260,000 years ago, evolving from earlier species who also lived in Africa. Both Homo sapiens and other early human species, such as Neanderthals, eventually began to migrate out of Africa and spread all over the world, dividing into different tribes, clans and kingdoms. For our species, this probably happened 60,000 to 70,000 years ago when the Earth’s temperature cooled. All modern humans have a common ancestor, a woman known as ‘mitochondrial Eve’, who lived between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago in Southern Africa.
The Roman Empire
At the height of its power, the Roman Empire controlled a large territory that included North Africa. As such, there are many examples of North African Romans who travelled to Britain, including troops who were stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. Other examples include the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, who died in York during the fourth century, and the ‘Beachy Head Woman’, who lived in Britain during the first half of the third century and, having lived here from a young age, is also the first person of sub-Saharan origin we know of in Britain. There are also stories of ‘Ethiopian’ troops, which indicate that they came from south of the Sahara. Roman Britain was even ruled by several Emperors who had African heritage, including Septimius Severus, who came from what is now Libya and is the only Roman Emperor to die in Britain.
The Medieval and Tudor periods
After the Romans left Britain, there appear to have been fewer travellers between Britain and other places around the world but there is evidence of people of African heritage living in Britain. In the second half of the seventh century, Adrian (also known as Hadrian) of Canterbury from North Africa was asked to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. He refused but still travelled to Canterbury to become an abbott. A black man appears in an abbreviated copy of the Domesday Book from 1241, and, in recent history, the skeleton of the ‘Ipswich Man’, who may have arrived in Britain c.1272, was found buried in the grounds of a monastery, and is believed to have come from Tunis in Tunisia. During the Tudor period, John Blanke, a black trumpeter, was employed by Henry VII and Henry VIII, and two black sisters were employed by James IV of Scotland at Dunfermline Palace and Edinburgh Castle.
Stories of slavery and voices for freedom
Black service personnel have been part of Britain’s armed forces for hundreds of years and have been present at some of the most important British victories, including the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo. Other contributions include that of Mary Seacole, who famously nursed British troops in the Crimean War. During the eighteenth century, black musicians were heavily in demand for military bands. In 1795, the British Army established the West India Regiments, composed overwhelmingly of black West Indians and Africans. These regiments served with distinction in the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, going on to serve in both Africa and the Caribbean before they were eventually disbanded in 1927. Two amongst their number, Samuel Hodge and William Gordon, were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry. During both world wars, black men and women volunteered to serve in their thousands, with many volunteering to serve in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. Serving as both ground crew and pilots, a large number would return to Britain as part of the Windrush generation.
In 1948, a ship called Empire Windrush arrived in Britain at Tilbury Docks. It carried many migrants from the British Caribbean, who came to Britain in answer to the government’s call to rebuild ‘the Mother Country’. They were the first of what was called the Windrush generation, as many more migrants came across the Atlantic in the decades that followed. Other migrants came too from all over the world, including Africa. Many faced discrimination when they arrived, often only being able to secure jobs that were below their skill and experience, but went on to establish new lives for themselves in Britain. These migrants helped to build and operate many of Britain’s public services, such as the NHS and public transport system, and others contributed to the development of private industry.