For Diverse Book Week this year, I’m reading David Olusoga’s Black and British A Forgotten History. I explained in this earlier post on why I chose this book, and you can read my first daily post, covering the preface an introduction here: #DiverseBookWeek 2020 – Day 1.
I have now read the first two chapters of the book which take us from the Romans in Britain up to the Georgian period – a big chunk of history but research has relatively few records to draw on compared to modern times. A lot interested me here and certainly helped fill in some of the gaps in my very patchy understanding of this period.
I knew that the Roman Empire was ethnically diverse and that people from all over that empire came to live in Britain in the second to fourth centuries. What I hadn’t appreciated fully was the extent to which radioisotope analysis of bones and teeth, coupled with painstaking research, has been able to reveal the origins of those buried here and whose remains have been recovered by archaeologists.
The next element that struck me was the extent to which views about Africa and Africans (or for that matter Asia, since the two appear to have been commonly conflated) in the medieval period were formed not by fact but by fiction. Ideas about a supposed extreme otherness of African peoples, the existence of monsters and mythical beasts in regions below the Sahara, and the fabulous wealth of ‘lost kingdoms’ abounded. These views also seem to have persisted beyond the experience of direct contact when Europeans began to explore the Coast of West Africa and to trade with the nations they encountered. Some of the attitudes and beliefs that persist into modern times have their roots in these myths.
A consequence of this trade was that Britain became a lot more cosmopolitan than schoolbook history (certainly the school books I had) would lead us to think. I was interested to read about some of these Black British lives and their contributions to society, revealed, again, by dedicated archival research. In what I consider to be one of the marks of a good book, I have been inspired to find out more.
What is covered next in the book is the rise of the triangular slave trade, with so many in the hierarchy of British society, from Royalty downwards, keen to profit from this exploitation of human beings as a commodity. I found myself reading of the brutality of the Royal Africa Company alongside media commentary on Black Lives Matter protesters pulling Edward Colton’s statue from its plinth in Bristol and dumping it in the harbour. Instead of asking should they have pulled it down, I think the question is why did we let it stand for so long?
In a broader sense, Black and British is making me think about identity; the sense of identity of those racialised as White as well as Black. I’m sure further reading will help me coalesce my thoughts, which I hope to be able to share in a later post.
You can read the day 3 update here.