Researching my latest book is proving to be a huge voyage of discovery. I need to find out about the lives of black and Irish Liverpudlians in the 1850s, so I read this book by David Olusoga. I was completely blown away. Here is my review….
Even if you never read this book, it’s existence does an important job for you – it tells you that there is a significant history of black people in Britain. Long before the arrival of West Indian immigrants in the 1950s, there was a appreciable black presence – in Roman Britain, in Elizabethan Britain, in Georgian Britain, in Victorian Britain, fighting for Britain in the first and second world wars. There has been, and will continue to be, a concerted attempt to write black people out of British history and this book does a necessary job in giving them back their place in our history.
I come from Liverpool – former slaving port, former cotton port, former blockade-running port for the confederate South in the American Civil War. My ancestors were Irish – probably escaping the great famine in the 1840s. The African derived community in Liverpool began with slavery in the 1750s. So in terms of Britishness, the black people of Liverpool are more British than I can hope to be.
That these sorts of qualification are needed says all we need to know about racism in Liverpool and elsewhere.
Turning to the book itself – it is a masterly and scholarly piece of work. Well researched, well told, informative, engaging and, in many ways, life changing. Seeing how attitudes to black people ebbed and flowed over the years confirms that our current racism is not something we are doomed to live with, but something that can and will, hopefully, change.
David Olusoga is a black Briton, and the opening of the book takes us back to his childhood in the North-East and the racist attacks that his family had to endure in the 1970s at the hands of the National Front. That anyone should have to endure this kind of treatment is an indictment to the politicians of that era and the people who believed and followed them.
He then takes us to the slaving fortress of Bunce Island, in Sierra Leone to show even worse horrors before beginning the history proper with the Roman legions and progressing through the centuries from when black servants and courtiers were a symbol of wealth and Africa was a fabled land of strange races and curious customs. The slave trade and the movement for it’s abolition seems to have been a high point in the regard for black people by the British, but once it was abolished, the familiar patterns of racism reappeared, this time bolstered by the pseudo scientific concepts of racial Darwinism (not supported by Darwin, by the way – and not really by any actual scientists).
The book then progresses through the first-world war when debates raged over whether black troops should be deployed in Europe, to the first recorded racial murder – in Liverpool 1919 when Charles Wooton, who had served in the Royal Navy during the war, was drowned in Queens Dock by a mob of white Liverpudlians – possibly even including my ancestors.
During the second world war, there was some encouraging signs of progress when the appalling treatment of black GIs by their white American counterparts evoked greater sympathy on the part of the British – though this was soon forgotten after the war and in the subsequent decades. Very few white people emerge with any credit from this long sad tale but enough do to encourage those us to do better in future and to take a stand for universal humanity.
My final word – this is not a sad book, not a tale of woe – and much more than just a catalogue of the lives of the black British. It is also a celebration of how much black Britons have contributed to British life and to the country. An essential read.