Early Black Britons

Discussion in 'Honoring Black Ancestors' started by I-khan, Feb 19, 2006.

  1. I-khan

    I-khan Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Dec 27, 2005
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    (despite the fact that the article reduces all of them to slaves when all of them were not, it is still interesting.)

    Black people have lived in Britain for centuries - although their circumstances have varied greatly. Some have been enslaved and exploited, while others have enjoyed privilege and status. Trace their story to discover some of the quirky highs and lows of British history.

    Records show that black men and women have lived in Britain in small numbers since at least the twelfth century, but it was the Empire that caused their numbers to swell exponentially in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    As the British Empire expanded, African and Afro-Caribbean slaves were ferried across the seas to work on plantations in the Caribbean or the Americas, where they had to do back breaking labour all their lives under the scalding sun.

    Others, in much smaller numbers, were ferried into the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol - on the same ships that brought imperial products such as tea, sugar, cotton, coffee, rum, fruit, wine, tobacco and oil to enrich the national economy.

    Not for nothing did a coin - the guinea - derive its etymology from the West African region of that name, the area from which hundreds of thousands of indigenous people were seized against their will. For traders of 17th- and 18th-century Britain, the African was literally a unit of currency.

    Those who came to Britain were often brought in by planters, government officials, and military and naval officers returning to the United Kingdom - the slaves were seen as reassuring companions, who might staunch some of the loneliness felt by the white expatriates on their long voyages back to an island they had not seen for decades.

    Other blacks were offered to the commanders of slaving vessels as gifts, and were later sold into domestic service at quayside auctions or at coffee-houses in London, where they were given names such as John Limehouse or Tom Camden.

    Slavery was legal in Britain until 1807, and many of these Africans found themselves working as butlers or other household attendants in aristocratic families. Their duties were not necessarily onerous; their chief function often seems to have been just to look decorative. They served as human equivalents of the porcelain, textiles, wallpapers and lacquered pieces that the English nobility was increasingly buying from the east.

    These slaves were often dressed in fancy garb, their heads wrapped in bright turbans. Owners selected them on the basis of their looks and the lustre of their young skin, much as dog fanciers today might coo and trill over a cute poodle.

    Black men and women found life in the UK infinitely preferable to the lives of punishing work they would have faced elsewhere, but, though they were comparatively well treated, they were not treated as fully human.

    Oil paintings of aristocratic families from this period make the point clearly. Artists routinely positioned Negroes on the edges or the rear of their canvasses, from where they gaze wonderingly at their masters and mistresses. In order to reveal a 'hierarchy of power relationships', they were often placed next to dogs and other domestic animals, with whom they shared, according to the art critic and novelist David Dabydeen, 'more or less the same status'. Their humanity effaced, they exist in these pictures as solitary mutes, aesthetic foils to their owners' economic fortunes.


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