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Black Britons don’t need black history

Edward Enninful, this week voted Britain's most powerful black person. Credit: Getty

October 28, 2023 - 3:35pm

“I think disbelief is really the only word.” This was the reaction of Nigerian-born author Atinuke to news from a recent survey, reported on Thursday in the Guardian, that over half of Britons can’t name a prominent black historical figure. On top of this, more than 75% of British adults admitted they knew barely anything about black history. This, of course, is meant to be a clarion call to “raise awareness” about black contributions to the British nation. The problem, however, is that it is so aloof from the concerns and imaginations of ordinary Britons, black and white. 

One day later Edward Enninful, the editor of British Vogue, was voted “the most powerful black person in the country”. Most black Britons, let alone white ones, wouldn’t know who he is, nor identify with him. That’s before one gets to the rest of the top 10 Powerlist, which is mainly composed of business and media executives, an effort clearly more targeted at elite and middle-class circles than working-class ones. 

This debate over the representation of black people is part of a long process to redefine British national mythology to accommodate black history, given that the traditional definition — that of Britain as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation — is passé for a society that is now unquestionably multi-ethnic. The discourse around “representation” and history is an effort within the black middle and professional classes, like the 1619 Project stateside, to insert and see themselves reflected in the national mythology, even while seemingly “deconstructing” traditional myths. 

Previous efforts to bolster black people’s place in British history focused on the links forged by empire and migration. But recently there’s been a surreptitious shift to identify an ancient and sustained black heritage. This is why the Guardian makes the slippery claim about “the first known people to come directly [to Britain] from Africa settling approximately 2,000 years ago” or, as Atinuke has put it previously, “the very first Britons were black.” For this to make sense, it entails imposing modern racial categories onto epochs of history where they do not belong and would not make sense.  

The truth is that in the longue durée of British history, extensive black settlement on these isles via mass immigration is still a new phenomenon. While it is of course true that one can find documented stories of sub-Saharan Africans in Britain even as far back as the Tudor period, their presence was always exiguous compared to the native white population. The overwhelming majority of black Britons can trace their ancestry to the various phases of mass migration after the Second World War. 

Hence why it is disingenuous to claim Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a governor of Roman Britain for three years who did little of note (and an ethnic Berber), was “black”. At the time, sub-Saharan Africans would not have been classified by others nor seen themselves as members of a unitary “black race”, but instead through the medium of local, tribal, clan and kingdom affiliations, since the idiom of “race” as we understand it now would not exist until the early modern period. 

This is in the same league as Afro-centrists who try to claim Cleopatra as “black”, despite her Greek-Macedonian heritage, which ironically is akin to how British colonialists in the 19th century tried to whitewash the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as pale skinned, fair-haired Anglo-Saxons. Most Britons can’t name any Roman governor regardless of skin colour, which reveals a more general problem about historical illiteracy in society than racist ignorance. 

All this means that there is a lot of potential for new history to be made in the future, instead of scrambling in the past for obscure figures to satisfy the impulse to justify the black British story. Black Britons don’t need propaganda and pseudo-history to justify their national identity. That they are already here and have established rooted, integrated communities — ones that will endure for many generations — is more than enough.


Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.

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Saul D
SD
Saul D
5 months ago

The Guardian said more than half the population was unable to name a Black British historical figure. However, if the survey had asked people to name famous Welsh historical figures I doubt responses would have been much better.

N Forster
NF
N Forster
5 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

Or white working class. Other than those in sports.

Last edited 5 months ago by N Forster
Kirk Susong
KS
Kirk Susong
5 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

The real point is that it is perfectly OK that blacks have not contributed famous names to British history. There’s no reason the general public should be able to name one… there aren’t very many. Why is this fact somehow threatening to the race baiters and wokesters?

William Amos
WA
William Amos
5 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

I wonder if the ‘tall black man Charles Stuart’, as he was described by the Parliament during his escape from the Battle of Worcester, counts?

Steven Carr
SC
Steven Carr
5 months ago

Before 1948, there were more people with the surname Black in Britain than there were black people.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
5 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

That’s true.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

That’s the thing. As of the 2011 census, black people accounted for 3% of the population. That number will undoubtedly rise in the 2021 census, but Britain historically was almost 100% white – and this is a country with 2,000 years of history. Black people didn’t play a role in 99% of the nation’s history.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Oh yes they did, according to Brilliant Black British History (aka the Big Black Book of BS).

Geoff W
GW
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

You mean, except as colonial subjects?

j watson
JW
j watson
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I know the point you are making but the last line is too simplistic. As is well known now slavery, esp N American pre 1776 and Caribbean, help power economic development that helped give GB advantage in the 17th and 18th and into 19th Centuries. So v clearly black people have contributed massively to the GB of today, just not in a way we like to sometimes admit.

Simon Denis
SD
Simon Denis
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Bilge. Slavery accounted for at most two to three percent of British industrial output prior to abolition – an uniquely European achievement, by the way, given that no other society or culture saw fit to close the practice of slavery down. Rather than slavery supporting economic growth, growth allowed relatively small countries to join in the global trade in human beings – it’s called the industrial revolution and it massively enriched and enlightened the west. Why not acquaint yourself with a few facts before offering us your pious flatulence?

Matt M
Matt M
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

A uniquely British achievement, not European. Napoleon was keen on the practice.

Steven Carr
SC
Steven Carr
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

So it wasn’t immigration that enriched Britain?

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

This is a common claim. The fact is that that such contribution to 18th and 19th economic development that colonial economies contributed to the British economy was derived from the commercial ingenuity of the colonial entrepreneurs not from their employment of slaves since many countries employed slaves during that period without enjoying any particular extra economic development. Black slaves in the Caribbean simply replaced indentured servants largely because they were thought to resist tropical diseases better. You could equally argue that the purchase of slaves from Africa provided development capital to the African slaving nations of Africa, however they failed to develop indigenous industries to rival European development.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Wrong.

You should have said – not as historically significant individuals.

Generations of dirt poor white farmers also contributed massively to the GB of today and are not known to history. That is just how history and society works.

How did slavery give GB and advantage pre 1776 when every other society in the world up to that time also practiced slavery?
The Spanish, French, Arabs, Ottomans, Chinese, Mughals, Aztecs and Africans also had slaves yet GB came out on top, so it must be something else that gave it an advantage.

Simon
Simon
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

It actually isn’t that much higher to be honest. At the very most it’s 5%, but the interesting thing is how the black demographic is changing. Black Africans under the age of 18 outnumber their Afro-Caribbean peers by 4:1 and the only age groups where the latter outnumber the former are among over 50’s.

William Amos
WA
William Amos
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Before 1948 nationals of the United Kingdom, the Dominions and the Colonies shared a common citizenship status as British Subjects without distinction of race, colour or creed.
The population of Colonial Nigeria in 1948 was almost 37 million.
As much as we might view ‘England’ in isolation from her Empire, the distinction is an arbitrary and imaginary one. Or so it seems to me.

T Bone
TB
T Bone
5 months ago

The end result of this all is going to be the “awakened public consciousness” that Anthropology is a Marxist scam to reimagine history.

Mrs R
Mrs R
5 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

There is plenty of evidence for the Marxist scam. Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, spelt it out clearly in 1915. The idea caught on in academic circles and other bright ideas were woven into the scheme. And here we are.
“Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity. … In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”

Last edited 5 months ago by Mrs R
T Bone
T Bone
5 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Yes. He along with Lukacs and a few others inverted Marxism into the cultural synthesis.

D Glover
D Glover
5 months ago

In 2018 the New Scientist published an article stating that the paleolithic ‘Cheddar Man’ was black.
The next week they printed a partial retraction, saying that no-one
could be sure about that.
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2161867-ancient-dark-skinned-briton-cheddar-man-find-may-not-be-true/
The original claim about Cheddar Man is still being repeated in the media.

Mrs R
MR
Mrs R
5 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

And no doubt taught in schools. Just another example of how easy it is to seed and spread lies.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
5 months ago

Most Britons can’t name any Roman governor regardless of skin colour,
To be fair, I’m a pretty well-educated American, but I don’t think I could name any Roman governor of America, let alone Britain.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
5 months ago

Is this a joke? Sarcasm?

Last edited 5 months ago by Aphrodite Rises
Fiona Hook
Fiona Hook
5 months ago

I did Classics and the only Roman governor of Britain I can name is Suetonius Paulinus, the guy who defeated Boudicca.

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago
Reply to  Fiona Hook

You did Classics but didn’t read the Agricola?

laurence scaduto
LS
laurence scaduto
5 months ago

There was a famous Cheyenne warrior known as Roman Nose. Does that count?

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
5 months ago

Imagine imagining the far right wherever you go 😀

Last edited 5 months ago by Dumetrius
Frederick Dixon
Frederick Dixon
5 months ago

And all here “against the will and without the consent of the British people” according to the late, great Enoch Powell, the best PM we never had.

Last edited 5 months ago by Frederick Dixon
Champagne Socialist
CS
Champagne Socialist
5 months ago

This guy seems to have missed the far right memo that you’re not supposed to say the racist stuff out loud. Somebody had better bring him up to speed.
Powell made the same mistake and he is remembered for what he is – a racist through and through. No wonder he’s Nigel Farage’s hero…

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago

…. or he missed the left-wing memo that all speech must be pre-approved as sufficiently anti-white.

Last edited 5 months ago by Ian Barton
Steven Carr
Steven Carr
5 months ago

Powell warned about immigration running at 50,000 a year.
The Left would also be appalled at the very idea of immigration running at 50,000 a year. Like Powell, they would regard that level of immigration as disastrous.
Fortunately, the demographic that Powell represented has been replaced, and the people in his constituency (Wolverhampton) are now rather different.

Last edited 5 months ago by Steven Carr
Geoff W
GW
Geoff W
5 months ago

Although it was OK for them to fight for the British people in the British people’s wars?

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
5 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

You mean Indians should not have helped the British fight off the Japanese who wanted to capture, colonize and enslave India?

Geoff W
GW
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

No, I mean that Indians and other non-whites made significant contributions to “Britain” as soldiers.
Indeed, the army is one of the contexts in which they counted as “British.”

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
5 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Capture, colonize and enslave India in the exact same way the British did?

j watson
j watson
5 months ago

Others already commented on the racial prejudice here, but to add – Powell never condemned Imperialism which of course never had the consent of the countries we colonised. Do you believe that in those instances consent wasn’t relevant? Powell then went to become an Ulster Unionist, one of our first imposed colonies. Did the indigenous Irish get to consent to that or not relevant too?
And on the ‘never consented’ by the time Powell made his dreadful speech there’d been 6 post Windrush General Elections.
‘Rivers of Blood’ – never happened did it. Was total cobblers. We are a much better people overall than Powell could ever imagine.

D Glover
D Glover
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

When you refer to the indigenous Irish you mean the ones who were there before the Protestant plantation. That was 400 years ago.
Will you distinguish between the indigenous English and immigrants for quite so long? Did the indigenous English get to consent to any of the post-war population changes?

N Satori
NS
N Satori
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Consent of the countries we colonised? Are you serious watson? The British Empire was all about exploitation of resources for the benefit of Britain and especially England. What other purpose would it serve? Do you imagine there were benevolent Empires in history, intent on colonising for the benefit of the colonised (only with their permission of course)? What we now call the third world suffered the consequences of their own underdevelopment. History teaches harsh lessons. I cannot sympathise with your standard issue hand-wringing socialist moralising.
As for ‘Rivers of Blood’ (a histrionic line to be sure) it’s early days yet. There is still plenty of time for Britain to become a very, very anti-white society. The POC:white ratio is shifting. Even at this early stage we are expected to pander to Black self-esteem at every opportunity. But I guess you and your fellow Lefties regard that as payback.
A much better people overall (?) Boilerplate Lefty sentiment – file it alongside Diversity is our strength. I meanwhile will say The jury is still out (and may never return a unanimous verdict).

Geoff W
GW
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Powell didn’t actually use the phrase “rivers of blood.”

Andrew R
Andrew R
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Sigh…

Here’s a link to Wikipedia on fallacies, scroll down to “Intentional Fallacies”. You must have used every single one of these in your various comments.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy

Doug Mccaully
DM
Doug Mccaully
5 months ago

Most Britons can name one Roman governor: Pontius Pilate. Just sayin.

Right-Wing Hippie
RH
Right-Wing Hippie
5 months ago
Reply to  Doug Mccaully

The strength-training kingpin, right?

R Wright
R Wright
5 months ago
Reply to  Doug Mccaully

And Pontius Pilate wasn’t even a governor, which was a formal administrative position in the early empire. He was a procurator underneath the governor of Syria. I believe it was later that Judea became a full fledged province in its own right with its own governor.

John Murray
JM
John Murray
5 months ago

To be honest, when I tried to think about it without googling I came up with Viv Anderson and Daley Thompson (and to be honest, when I did google it turned out Laurie Cunningham was the first black England footballer, not Viv). I stand by Daley though who was fantastic.

j watson
JW
j watson
5 months ago
Reply to  John Murray

One of the more obvious is Mary Seacole, and of course for over a century she was written out of our history whilst we focused on Florence Nightingale. A racial tinge for sure to how this happened.
There won’t be loads of course because they are a minority and more recent wave of migrants to British Isles. The number will build. Sports and Music stars often in the vanguard.

D Glover
DG
D Glover
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Florence Nightingale was a nurse, and also founded the discipline of health statistics.
Mary Seacole was mainly a business woman who ran a club called the British Hotel where she sold liquor.

Steven Carr
SC
Steven Carr
5 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

A very enterprising lady who should be admired for her daring, especially in those days. But not a nurse.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Mary Seacole ran a very profitable hotel in the Crimea and sold refreshments to spectators who wanted to watch the battles in the Crimea.
She was never a nurse.
Mary Seacole wrote her own history. She had a section entitled ‘My share of the plunder’ after the British conquered Sevastapol.

Geoff W
GW
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Perhaps she should be celebrated as the first black Thatcherite entrepreneur? (entrepreneuse?)

N Satori
NS
N Satori
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Come off it watson! Mary Seacole is one of those black historical figures regularly wheeled out as evidence of the allegedly enormous, yet hidden or undervalued, contribution of blacks to our culture.
More recently Seacole’s reputation as the “black Florence Nightingale” has been seriously challenged by real (as opposed to activist) historians – but I guess you didn’t get the memo.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Once again, you’ve taken to ruining any good points you might make by your juvenile use of the last name. When will you realise how counter-productive it is to civil discourse?

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Using last names is standard writing practice.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

If that’s true (especially for direct conversational replies) then we should be reversing the trend.

Last edited 5 months ago by Ian Barton
jane baker
JB
jane baker
5 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

I can imagine the likes of Flashman(I’m on that book now) much preferred Mary Seacoles kind of establishment to Miss Nightingales. I guess she did bring an element of comfort to an unpleasant situation,for those who could afford it.

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Correction – she was written into history and it was subsequently discovered that perhaps she should not have been. At least not for the reason claimed, anyway.

Last edited 5 months ago by Dumetrius
Chris Hume
Chris Hume
5 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The desperate attempts to make the marginal figure of Mary Seacole into a figure of national consequence only serve to highlight how few notable black British people there were prior to World War II. She was a hotelier who never worked in any hospital, nor ever claimed to. And yet we have a statue of her outside St Thomas’s Hospital describing her as a nurse of the Crimean War.
She considered herself neither a nurse, nor black for that matter, but these minor difficulties must not upset the narrative. The brazenness and success of the fabrication is actually quite incredible.
It is no slight on black Britons to say that there were few such figures of note before the war, it’s simply a reflection of demographic figures. Recognition of the contribution made by immigrants to the Health Service, for example, in the post-war period would surely be more illuminating.

Mike Downing
MD
Mike Downing
5 months ago

Edward Enninful only got the job as the first black, gay bloke and, rather like Dame Sharon White, was evidently a box-ticking choice who has hardly set the world alight.

Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Agreed. He’s just not meanin’ful.

Geoff W
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

No white person has ever been appointed to a sinecure, of course.

Steven Carr
SC
Steven Carr
5 months ago

‘ At the time, sub-Saharan Africans would not have been classified by others nor seen themselves as members of a unitary “black race”, ‘

The Guardian is pushing the idea that there is a ‘unitary black race’?
That is racist in itself. Ethiopian Jews are not Bantus.

‘British colonialists in the 19th century tried to whitewash the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as pale skinned, fair-haired Anglo-Saxons. ‘

A quick Google images search of how the Ancient Greeks painted their statues shows how the Greeks regarded themselves.

jane baker
JB
jane baker
5 months ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

I thought the Berbers of that day were descended from Greek settlers who sailed across the Med a few hundred years before. I know the Berbers hate that name cos it just means ‘Barbarian’ which the Romans called everyone who wasn’t them.
Berber toddlers are cute,they have blue eyes and astonishingly blonde hair. So I think that people of note from North Africa,even.St.Augustine,they were descended from the Greek settlers,with a bit of Arab type intermixture. They definitely were not negroid.

W. Theo
WT
W. Theo
5 months ago

What about the bloke from Rising Damp? (not Rigsby)

Fiona Hook
FH
Fiona Hook
5 months ago

The voice of stout common sense, nicely expressed.

Max Price
MP
Max Price
5 months ago

Entitled, solipsism.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
5 months ago

Like many of this type of article the comparison is always made between black history and English, or British history. The only true comparison would be between black history and white history or, say, Nigerian history and British history.
Most British people know was much about Italian or German history as they do about Nigerian history, they might have heard of Bismarck or Mussolini but beyond that?
For most people there is absolutely no interest in history outside their immediate surroundings so want would they be able to name black historical figures unless they happened to be from their local area and the chances of that are very minor.

William Brand
WB
William Brand
5 months ago

Britain kept slavery out of Britain and confined to the colonies. It stopped in the West Indies about1820. Only a few rulers started in Jamaica to impose Jim Crow on the former slaves. Jamaicans regained their self respect without having to grovel before any white peasant. . As a colony, America got hooked on slavery and had the entire south seeing their social. status as dependent on a white peasant. out ranking the most exalted black in a cast system. similar to India.

j watson
j watson
5 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

You need to go study some proper history WB. You may well be a classic example of how we’ve ‘whitewashed’ our history for the comfort of ourselves.
Pointers – Demerara Uprising; and the earlier Maroon Wars for a start.

Geoff W
GW
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

“Britain kept slavery out of Britain and confined to the colonies.”
And who ran the colonies? And who profited from them? 

Lindsay S
LS
Lindsay S
5 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

The same few elite families who also profited from the very cheap white labour in England. Poor white people were cheaper to use in England.
The problem with this idea of “Britain profiting from the slave trade”is that it comes with the assumption that all British people today are the descendants of Slavers, whereas most of us are descendants of miners and mill workers! The truth is, it sucks to be poor no matter the colour of your skin!

Lindsay S
LS
Lindsay S
5 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Also going to add that when Queen Vic declared that women could no longer work the mines, they weren’t replaced by slaves, they were replaced by horses! Slaves were expensive, more so than white women or horses!

Fiona Hook
FH
Fiona Hook
5 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Slavery had been abolished in the British Empire by that stage.

Geoff W
GW
Geoff W
5 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

“Britain profiting from the slave trade” is putting words in my mouth. I was objecting to WB’s dubious distinction between “Britain” and “the colonies.”

jane baker
JB
jane baker
5 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

We can’t grow sugar cane in this country so there would have been no point in having black slaves in this country. As for the “Satanic mills” there were more than enough workhouse orphans and dispossed and starving labourers all over England,no longer able to scratch a living from access to common land or carry on the skilled work of a weaver in the dignity of their homes so we didn’t need to import black slaves into England for that purpose. I was 5 in 1960 and I don’t recall all this stuff about desperately begging people to come here to do all these jobs and rescue our economy. Has it been made up in retrospect to create a narrative. Only to me,but I was only 5,I dont recall it being a thing. But I didn’t live in a northern industrial town on the other hand we had the radio on in our house all the time and I still recall a lot of the political rhetoric of then. Just like now,the morals of the nation were falling badly,our economy was on the point of collapse and unemployment was rife.
Nothing changes.