Black history is British history

Authors: Joel Harvey
  • Reading time: 7 min.
  • Posted on: June 10, 2020

Black history is British History, but you probably weren’t taught it at school.

The following is just a brief overview of the struggles faced by Black people in British history, but all of it is vital to shaping the way we as Britons define our country and our identities. As a social impact communications agency we strive to authentically connect with and emotionally move people and communities. But it’s simply impossible to shape history tomorrow without learning from and respecting today’s consequences of past events.

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.

– Maya Angelou

Much of British history involving Black and Brown people has been either distorted or purposefully suppressed. Hugely influential Black figures that should be ‘household’ names have been forgotten, such as Mary Seacole who set up her own hospital to tend to British soldiers during the Crimean war. Her accomplishments are often compared with Florence Nightingale, however, most people in Britain have never heard of her. This suppression, and this history, has socialised the term ‘black’ in the eyes of the white population. 

This is not just black history, this is British history and it should be mandatory to teach these topics in every school across the country.


Britain colonised nearly a quarter of the landmass on Earth. It stole countries’ natural resources, forced indigenous people off their land, and killed and tortured millions.  Much of the worst of our Empire’s history has been permanently erased In 1961, thousands of reports detailing the British Empire’s worst crimes were destroyed by order of Iain Macleod, Secretary of State for the Colonies. The aim was to avoid reporting truths that would “embarrass Her Majesty’s government”. The importance of these topics were, and still are, monumental and should no longer be shied away from. The following are a few examples of the many atrocities committed in the name of Empire that haven’t been covered up.


On the 13th of  April 1919, acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians in Jallianwala Bagh, Punjab. This brutal attack reportedly killed at least 379 people and injured over 1,000. However the Indian National Congress calculated the number of deaths to be closer to 1,000 with 1,500 injured. Britain has never issued a formal apology for this massacre.


In 1943, up to 3 million Bengalis starved to death when Winston Churchill diverted food from Bengali farms to British soldiers in the colonies. He is recorded as saying: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” in response to the growing peaceful resistance led by Mahatma Gandhi.


This conflict began with rebels in Kenya resisting British colonisation from 1951 to 1960. Thousands of Kenyan rebels were put into concentration camps, tortured and killed. The death toll is estimated to be anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000.


A YouGov survey in 2014 found that 59% of the British public are ‘proud’ of the British Empire, while only 19% regretted what had happened. These statistics are potentially influenced by deficiencies in the education system and politicians pushing the rhetoric that colonised countries benefited from British rule.  On a visit to Jamaica in 2015, David Cameron said the British Empire should be “celebrated” and similarly Boris Johnson said of Winston Churchill: “I think he would be amazed at India, the world’s largest democracy – a stark contrast, with other less fortunate countries that haven’t had the benefit of British rule.”

The pro-British empire sentiment that is abundant in this country can lead to the thought process that white people are the saviours of colonised countries; they tamed the ‘savages’ and they should all be thankful for this. It is easy to see how this attitude may give many white people a sense of superiority over people of colour, sometimes known as the ‘white saviour complex’.


Britain was one of the largest slave traders in the world. It is estimated that about 12.5 million people were transported as slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean between the 16th century and 1807.

However, due to the majority of British slavery taking place 3,000 miles away in the Caribbean, it has been largely airbrushed out of British History. 

Statues have, however, been erected to celebrate the achievements of many historical slave traders, such as Sir Thomas Guy, Robert Milligan and Sir John Cass, ignoring the fact that these figures profited from and contributed to the enslavement of their fellow human beings. Many of these statues still stand today, which shows that Britain has an unwillingness to face much of the truths of its past. The public is now taking this matter into its own hands – last week the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was pulled down by Black Lives Matter protesters and thrown into the Bristol harbour. A hugely symbolic event, this will hopefully lead to other similar statues being removed, forcing Britain to acknowledge its links with slavery.

A common misconception is that Britain abolished slavery due to a ‘moral enlightenment’. In fact, the more prominent reason was due to the slave trade becoming less profitable. After the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, 800,000 African slaves were freed. Thousands of slave owners were reimbursed £20 million for a loss of ‘property’, which in relative terms was the largest government bailout until the 2009 bank bail-out. In contrast, the slaves received nothing and were still required to provide 45 hours a week of unpaid labour to their former owners for a further four years after their ‘liberation’.


After the Second World War, Britain’s workforce was depleted. This led Britain to invite workers from the Caribbean – with the promise of being welcomed with open arms – to help boost the economy. This wave of immigrants, later to be named The Windrush Generation, were met with segregation and institutional discrimination. Black people in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s had to fight for their lack of rights to be recognised.

The forgotten organisers of the Bristol Bus Boycott


Youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council led the boycott of the Bristol Omnibus Company’s busses after their refusal to employ black or Asian bus crews.

This boycott lasted for four months until the company backed down and overturned the colour bar. This incident was hugely influential in achieving the Race Relations Act in 1965, which outlawed racial discrimination in all forms.

Claudia Jones, black feminist hero


In 1958 a 400-man mob of white nationalists, fueled by the hatred of a new community that had arrived in ‘their’ country and a desire to ‘keep Britain white’, attacked the homes of West Indians one evening armed with iron bars and knives.

This commenced five nights of violence between these white nationalists, black people defending their homes and the police. The events shocked some in Britain into realizing that they were not above the racial conflict that occurred in America. The Notting Hill Carnival was created by activist Claudia Jones as a direct response to this event, its aim being to help improve race relations in London.

Britain's Black Power movement


In 1970, nine Black British activists, known as The Mangrove Nine, were tried for inciting a riot during a protest against the police targeting of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill. The restaurant was the heart of the West Indian community in that area and was raided by police 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970, claiming the restaurant was a drug den.

No evidence was ever found to support this story despite these numerous raids. The Mangrove Nine won the case and this was the first time a judge acknowledged that there was institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police force.


A riot is the language of the unheard.

– Martin Luther King Jr 

One of the most recent high profile cases of police brutality in the UK was the shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011. What followed was one of the biggest riots in modern English history. With parallels to current events in America (in response to the murder of George Floyd), these murders proved to be the tipping point of decades of oppression.

The Tottenham riots – as they were soon named – were caused by years of economic inequality and distrust in the police among Black British communities. A generation who felt disenfranchised had hit breaking point. Decades of racial profiling and random beatings (which was a regular occurrence for their Windrush generation grandparents), plus the numerous deaths of black people at the hands of the police on the street and in custody, had taken their toil. Young black people had been continually criminalised by the media and as studies showed had been disproportionately targeted by Police under the ‘sus’ (suspected person) stop and search laws. As a consequence, the black community felt oppressed by the very organisation supposedly ‘protecting’ them. 


Black students have long been punished for being a product of their culture. For example, “kissing their teeth”,  a commonly used sound in African and Caribbean culture, is ranked by the government’s School Behaviour Tsar (set up in 2015 to help reduce low-level disruptions in the classroom) to receive the same sanction as bullying, mainly due to a lack of cultural understanding. Black hair can also present an issue at school. Children have been sent home or punished for wearing their natural hair just because it does not fit in with western beauty standards.

I myself can recall when I was 13 and moved to a new school, was forced to cut my hair as they wanted me to “be known for [my] achievements and not just for [my] hair”. Black students are three and a half times more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts. My mother recalls the deputy-head teacher of my primary school telling her that both my sister and I had an ‘attitude’ problem. Whereas in reality we both mild-mannered, conscientious children (our very embarrassed form teachers confirmed this). Too often black children are portrayed to have a natural instinct to cause trouble, and have an ‘attitude’ whereas the more rational reason for this statistic is due to many educators’ conscious or unconscious perception that black children are distracting, inferior and helpless, regardless of their behaviour.

The literal white-washing of British history and the struggles of the black community have been hidden for too long.The topics covered above should be widely taught in all schools in the UK. This can help to encourage conversations and remove ignorance within the population. The time has come for Britons to receive a more accurate representation of their country and its history. Change is needed to break down prejudices and the institutional racism in this country.

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