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Black people have lived in Britain since before the English came here – it is time our curriculum reflected that

A protester at a Black Lives Matter protest, June 2020 | PA Images

4 min read

It is not possible to understand modern Britain without an understanding of its past. That means teaching the nearly 2000-years of black history in Britain in our schools

There were black people living in Britain before the English came here. Black and minority ethnic communities have roots in this country going back nearly two millennia.

Among the Roman legions guarding Hadrian’s Wall in the third century AD was a unit recruited in North Africa. In 210 AD an African soldier serving in Carlisle went down in history as brave enough to make fun of the visiting emperor, Septimus Severus.

In 1901 remains were discovered in York of a high-status woman from around 350 AD, born in Britain but likely to have been of North African descent.

A small black community appears in the account books of the court of King James IV at Holyrood shortly after 1500, and John Blanke was a black musician who performed for Henry VIII.

In past centuries, long before Windrush and the modern era, history records black British people as sailors, soldiers, teachers, craftsmen, retailers, nurses, writers, actors, singers, farm workers, vicars, chefs and in hundreds of other occupations.

But from the late 1500s, the majority of black people who came to live in this country were domestic servants, many of whom were brought here as slaves.

It’s estimated that in the 245 years between the first British slave trading voyage and abolition in 1807, British ships carried around 3.4 million enslaved Africans to the Americas.

The appalling cruelty of the triangular trade makes it one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed.

It is true that there were brave and principled men and women in this country campaigned for an end to this abomination. It is also true that after the Abolition Act came into effect, the British navy was prominent in stopping the slavers who tried to carry on.

But it is nonetheless a matter of national shame that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was allowed to endure for so long, with involvement from across the British establishment, including MPs, the monarchy, and the church.

I want children from BAME communities to understand that people of colour have been an important part of our island story for nearly two thousand years

The racism and injustice to which black and other ethnic minorities were subjected in this country’s history was pervasive and often violent, it lasted for centuries, and its legacy continues to have an impact today.

Even a cursory understanding of black history provides a reminder that the values we are rightly proud to espouse, that everyone should be entitled to equal concern and respect, whatever their ethnicity and from wherever their ancestors might have come, were the result of long and often bitter struggles. Many steps forward were strongly opposed at the time.

The reason why I have raised this issue in Parliament is because I believe black history should have a more prominent place in the school curriculum. I want children from BAME communities to understand that people of colour have been an important part of our island story for nearly two thousand years.

I want them to know that it wasn’t just William Wilberforce who campaigned to abolish the slave trade, it was also people like Olaudah Equiano who had themselves been enslaved but who achieved freedom, fame and success against incredible odds.

I want them to know about Ignatious Sancho who, in 1772, was the first black prose writer to be published in England, and John Kent who became the first black police officer in 1837.

And I want them to know about thousands of soldiers from Africa, the Caribbean, and India who fought and died for this country in two world wars.

I can well understand why changes to the history curriculum have been a key demand from many who took to the streets to protest about inequality and racism earlier this year.

It is not possible to understand modern Britain without an understanding of its past. In diverse, complex, multi-ethnic Britain, we need more people to understand that we have a diverse, complex, multi-ethnic past.


Theresa Villiers is Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet. Her Adjournment Debate on inclusion of black history in the history curriculum is scheduled for 8 September 2020

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