Last reviewed 20 January 2021

Michael Evans considers concerns behind the absence of Black History in the English school curriculum.

The current situation

For some time, there has been a growing concern that the English school curriculum is not reflecting the current nature of multi-ethnic British society. Particular criticism has been levelled at a “dominant white, Eurocentric curriculum, that systematically omits the contribution of Black British history”. This has been brought into sharper focus by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and the growth of the world-wide Black Matters movement.

Black British is the term most commonly used to refer to people from the New Commonwealth, but probably a more appropriate term is Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME). For reasons of space, this article will focus primarily on black history.

The BAME group now makes up more than one in eight of the UK population, but in spite of this relatively high proportion, a 2017 survey of children’s books found that only 4% featured a BAME character, and this character was the main one in only 1% of these books. Bearing in mind that 32% of children in England come from BAME backgrounds, something is clearly wrong. In our multi-cultural society, it is important for everyone to feel valued.

Historical context – From Roman to Elizabethan times

It is not always realised is that black people have been living in Britain since Roman times. Evidence suggests that a number of Roman Legionaries were black North Africans, some of whom inevitably married into the local population.

By the time of King Henry VIII, hundreds of black migrants were living in England, contributing to life as servants, entertainers or musicians. One of these was John Blanke, the King’s trumpeter. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the black population continued to increase after the landing of galley slaves and servants from captured Spanish ships and in 1569 a court decreed that any former slave who settled here was to be treated as a free person. It is thought that at that time as many as 20,000 black servants were living in London alone. Black people were so much part of society that Shakespeare made two of his greatest characters black and researchers have found evidence of black people living all over Britain.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade

The 18th century saw the growth of tobacco and sugar cane plantations in the Americas. All needed a substantial labour force and the European maritime nations soon began to transport captured Africans across the Atlantic to fill this gap.

Throughout history there had always been slaves. For many years the Spanish and Portuguese had used small numbers of African slaves to help crew their ships, but the 18th century saw a trans-Atlantic slave trade that was to develop on an industrial scale.

A circular route evolved, with ships transporting African captives to America, before loading with local commodities and sailing to European ports. The ships then sailed back to Africa with supplies and weapons for the slave traffickers, before loading up with a fresh cargo of captives for America.

The unfortunate captives were regarded as nothing more than commodities to be bought and sold. Plantation owners saw nothing wrong in the fact that their enormous wealth was solely dependent on the labours of black slaves and many UK cities benefitted from the growth of trade that resulted. By 1795 Liverpool had 62.5% of the European slave trade. It is now home to Britain’s oldest black community that dates back to the 1730s.

Many men who had been working overseas brought their slaves with them when they returned to Britain. In 1774 a court confirmed that under English common law, slavery did not exist, so between 10,000 and 15,000 slaves gained their freedom.

Slavery persisted in the British Caribbean colonies and British banks continued to provide financial backing, but opposition was growing in Britain despite this. Eventually the anti-slavery movement began to hold sway and in 1808 both Great Britain and the United States formally abolished the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery was completely abolished in the British Empire by 1834.

Resettlement in Africa

In 1787 a group of freed slaves sailed from England to Freetown in Sierra Leone. They were subsequently joined by others who had liberated themselves from American or Caribbean slavery. Many of these were literate and Christian. After the Atlantic slave trade became illegal, the British government established a naval base in Freetown where slaves that had been captured in transit could be brought and freed.

Between 1807 and 1864, the British navy brought more than 50,000 so called “liberated Africans” to Freetown. They had originated from all over western Africa and had no common language, but a concerted education policy turned them into a homogenous Christian community, creating an educated West African elite. Many subsequently became prosperous traders, and some entered professions, qualifying in Britain as doctors and lawyers.

The Americans set up a similar settlement in Liberia.

20th century events – The Windrush generation

In the 20th century thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen of Afro-Caribbean and Asian descent served with distinction in both World Wars. After World War II there was a labour shortage in Britain and the government decided to recruit workers from the Caribbean.

According to the National Archives, the first ship, the Empire Windrush, arrived at Tilbury from Jamaica on 21st June 1948 with 492 men on board. Many ships were to follow, creating what has become known as the “Windrush Generation”.

By 1951 the number of Caribbean and African-born people in Britain was estimated at 20,900, but by 1961 this had risen to 191,600 and Britain now had the largest overseas population of West Indians.

Early discrimination and the Race Relations Acts

Life was not at all easy for these newcomers. Discrimination was rife, with accommodation often advertised as being for “whites only” and usually a colour bar as far as jobs were concerned.

By 1963 non-white bus crews had become a familiar sight across much of the UK, but the Bristol Omnibus Company had a strict whites-only policy that was endorsed by the bus crews’ union.

A boycott of the buses was organised that caught the attention of the national media. This quickly gained pace, with several prominent politicians showing their support and eventually the bus company backed down.

Harold Wilson’s new Labour government were determined to prevent a situation like that from ever happening again and this led to the introduction of the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968.

Sadly, undercurrents of hostility continue to manifest themselves from time to time, with many young non-whites in particular still feeling that they are being discriminated against. Nobody should feel this way, and this stresses the value of a school curriculum that makes it clear that everyone in society is to be valued, regardless of ethnic background.

Achievers

Over the years there have been countless numbers of non-white British achievers. While some have become household names, many others have gone without any form of recognition and are completely unknown to all but a few. This is a further element of black British history that needs to be addressed in schools.

Summary

  • The current situation – there is growing concern that the English school curriculum is too Eurocentric and does not reflect the true nature of our multi-ethnic society.

  • Historical context – Britain has always had a significant, if small, black population.

  • The trans-Atlantic slave trade – lasted for most of the 18th century. Captured black Africans were transported to the Americas to be sold as slaves. Slavery was not finally abolished until 1834.

  • Resettlement in Africa – Sierra Leone and Liberia were two African destinations for the resettlement of freed slaves.

  • The Windrush Generation – in June 1948 the Empire Windrush landed the first group of immigrants from Jamaica. Many ships were to follow and by 1961, Britain had the largest overseas population of West Indians.

  • Discrimination and the Race Relations Acts – discrimination was initially very common, particularly with respect to accommodation and employment. The Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968 made this illegal.

  • Achievers – there have been countless numbers of non-white British achievers, all of whom have played a significant role, but have often gone unrecognised.