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Blacks In Britain Before Windrush - Part 2

PICTURED: Frances Barber

DURING THE Tudor period there were two African men who stand out in the history records. The first was John Blanke, a black musician who it is believed came to England as a part of the African entourage of Catherine of Aragon in 1501.

The second black man, Francis Barber, was the African servant of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famous lexicographer, who many people consider to be “the most distinguished man of letters in the English history.”

The relationship between Dr. Johnson and Barber was described by contemporaries as more like father and son than master and servant.

Dr. Johnson paid for Barber to be educated at Bishop’s Stortford Grammar school. And, Barber served him for 32 years until Johnson’s death in 1784.

He was not only a valet but also his secretary, arranging his trips and keeping his diary. When Barber married, his English wife and children lived in Johnson’s home. In later years Barber served as an assistant helping to revise the illustrious “Dictionary of the English Language.”

Barber was designated by Johnson as his sole heir and was assigned an annuity of £70. He also bequeathed to him his books and papers. Barber was also an important source of information for James Boswell in writing about the life of Johnson.

In 1801 Barber died and today his descendants still live in Staffordshire. Cedric Barber, who is a white man and direct descendant of Barber, revealed from a family genealogy study, was chosen to unveil the BBC history plaque about his four times great grandfather, at Dr. Johnson’s house, now a museum.

One is left to speculate as to how many other white people, who without their knowledge, currently living in Britain, are direct descendants of the early Africans who came to live there. It also raises the question who is “white” in Britain?

There are many more examples of Africans who had unique and outstanding lives in Britain prior to 1948- each one is deserving of a full history. The following are a few examples with a brief note- the reader is invited to Google their names to discover more about them.

Sarah Bonetta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

SARAH BONETTA: Bonetta was born in West Africa in 1843, of Yoruba royalty. She was captured, at five-years old, in a slavery raid and was taken to England and presented to Queen Victoria as a “gift.”

The Queen accepted her as her Goddaughter, paid for her education and upbringing and she was a frequent visitor to the Royal household. When Bonetta married and gave birth to a daughter, she was granted permission to name her Victoria and the Queen also became her Godmother.

MARY SEACOLE: Seacole was the daughter of a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother. In 1853, during the Crimean War, she tried to offer her nurse services but was denied. She independently travelled to Crimea and set up The British Hotel to provide food and medical services to recovering British Troops. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991, and there is a statue of her opposite the House of Parliament.

CHARLES WOOTTEN: Wootten was a seaman who had served both King and country in WW1. A history plaque erected by the BBC now marks the place at the Liverpool docks where he was killed in 1919.

The information about the African people highlighted above is clear evidence that large numbers of Africans lived in Britain prior to 1948. And the arrival of the Windrush was not the birth of multiculturalism in Britain. The history demonstrates that in the early days of British history, some places in the country were more ethnically diverse and multicultural than we ever realised.

The achievements of these early Africans and their progeny in no way denigrates the achievements of the “Windrush generation”- their contribution to Britain and its place in world events are equally remarkable and praise worthy.

Today, we should honour and celebrate the achievements of both the Roman Africans and the Windrush immigrants who came to Britain, survived, multiplied and paved the way for other African people to follow them.

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