Missing from British history

Authors: Jece Shunmugam, Antoinette Lansana, Ed Fletcher, Zoe Dawson
  • Reading time: 9 min.
  • Posted on: October 5, 2020

British history is steeped with incredible figures of every race. But too often, Black people are written out of the history books, or in many cases, not remembered in the first place. To mark the start of Black History Month 2020, we’re highlighting a poster series that’s taken the streets of London by storm. Its aim? To inform and remind the public of some of the most inspiring, and relatively unknown, Black historical figures in British history.

| MARY SEACOLE

Mary Seacole, or “Mother Seacole” as she became known by many British soldiers, was one of the most famous nurses of the 19th Century, rivalling the popularity of Florence Nightingale. Mary, originally born in Jamaica, spent much of her early years travelling between Britain and the Caribbean. Wherever she went, she invariably found ways to help people, whether it was nursing soldiers to health at her boarding house in Kingston, Jamaica, or helping fight a cholera outbreak in Panama.

In 1853, she returned to Kingston where she was invited to lead the nursing of Up-Park, the British HQ on the island. And later that year, as the Crimea War broke out in mainland Europe, she requested to be sent to the front lines to support the war effort against Russia as a nurse. But even though she was flat out refused, this did not stop her.

She funded her own travel and made her way to what we now know as Ukraine. There, she founded the British Hotel, an impromptu field hospital just yards from the frontline. Comparatively, Florence Nightingale’s infamous hospital was several hundred miles back from the fighting, whilst Mary would walk amongst the men providing emergency care in between battles. This was where she gained the name “Mother Seacole” by grateful soldiers.

Following the end of the war, Mary received endless praise from soldiers, generals, even the Royal Family – a fundraising gala which hosted 80,000 people was thrown in her honour. However, following her death in 1881, her name was all but forgotten to history and didn’t resurge until the late 20th Century. In 2004, she was voted the Greatest Black Briton and in 2016, a statue was erected in her name just down the road from our office near St Thomas’ Hospital. When we think of the pride we hold for frontline workers today, no one in our history more epitomises their determination and selflessness quite like Mary Seacole.

To find out more about Mary Seacole, go to the Mary Seacole Trust.

| OLIVE MORRIS

In 1969, when Olive Morris was just 17, she was involved in an altercation with police that would change the rest of her life. At Desmond’s Hip City, a record store in Brixton, she was beaten by police officers along with her friends. Uncertainty around the incident remains, but what is clear is that the event was caused by the police acting on the so-called “sus law” which allowed “suspected persons” to be stopped and searched for possible wrongdoing, despite minimal evidence.

Images of Morris, with black eyes and a swollen face, soon circulated and she quickly became the face of the movement fighting for Black rights in the UK. Morris sought to raise awareness of existing inequalities by organising protests, pickets, setting up support groups, as well as using her writing. She did all of this during arguably the height of racial tensions in the UK, as Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, one of the most fervently racist speeches in British history, had recently been broadcast and was shaping the political discourse.

Morris also helped to set up the Brixton Black Women’s Group and the Organisation of Women of Africa and Asian Descent, or OWAAD, some of the very first networks for women of colour in the UK. These groups were instrumental in leading protests, and Morris herself was often the loudest voices at demonstrations, particularly when it came to issues that intersect with race, like immigration and housing.

Her pivotal role in shaping and fighting for Black Civil Rights in the UK is often one that goes overlooked. But in recent years, Morris has had somewhat of a renaissance, becoming the face of Brixton Pound, a currency designed to support South London businesses. Most of all, many wish that Morris was still around today to fight against the injustices that remain, including police brutality and systemic and institutionalised racism. 

“If she was alive she would still be out there demonstrating, she would still be fighting.”

Jennifer, Olive’s sister, said recently

You can sign a petition to erect a statue for Olive Morris in Brixton, here.

| IGNATIUS SANCHO

Ignatius Sancho was a man of firsts. Sancho was the first Briton of African descent known to have been eligible to vote and then cast that vote in a British general election. He was also the first Briton of African descent to have an obituary published in the British press, and he is credited as the first composer of African descent to publish music in the European tradition. But, his life tells a far more remarkable story.

Ignatius Sancho - missing from British history. Black History Month 2020

Born in 1729 on a slave ship, Sancho spent his first few years of life as a slave on the island of Grenada. Sancho was able to educate himself, eventually becoming an avid writer calling for the abolition of slavery. He was published in various newspapers, a huge achievement in its own right, but what makes this even more remarkable is that this exposed many audiences to writings by a Black person for the first time. His writing, therefore, shaped the way many perceived of the slave trade, gradually getting more and more people to view it as immoral. He expressed through his writing the reality that black people in Britain faced, including being ostracised and sidelined as citizens. 

His dedication to the arts, particularly music, led him to establish a name for himself as a composer, paving the way for future Black Britons to participate in the arts as well. 

Sancho has since become a celebrated figure to many in London, but wider audiences are still relatively unaware of who he is and his role in pushing for equal rights for Black people.

| PHILLIS WHEATLEY

Despite only living into her early 30s, Phyllis Wheatley gained Transatlantic fame as one of the best writers of her generation. Born a slave in Senegal, she was kidnapped and taken to Boston, USA, in 1761 where she was purchased by the Wheatley family. Her extreme intelligence was quickly noticeable, typified by her quick mastery of Latin, Greek, and English writing. 

At just 13 years old, she published her first poem, and by 20, she released a book of prose called “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral“, which received widespread acclaim across both the USA and Britain. As a strong supporter of independence, she went on to write poems about the War of Independence, even sending them to George Washington. The President found them so inspiring that he invited her for a private audience in March 1776 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Unfortunately, Wheatley’s adult life was clouded in tragedy despite continued notoriety for her writing. First, her own health deteriorated, and subsequently, all three of her children passed away. Growing national tensions between the USA and Britain caused her popularity to wane, and in 1784 she passed away, having lost her recognition as one of the most influential and promising writers of her time.

| JOHN EDMONSTONE

Most know of Charles Darwin, but few know of the man who inspired him, John Edmonstone. Born in the late 1700s, John spent his early years as a slave on a plantation in Demerara, a region in present-day Guyana. He was taught taxidermy by renowned naturalist John Waterton and the two would travel and explore together on expeditions into the rainforest. 

In 1817, shortly after travelling to Glasgow with his master, John gained his freedom. In the years that followed, John moved to Edinburgh and settled there, earning a living stuffing birds for museums, and teaching taxidermy to students at the University.  In exchange for 1 guinea per lesson, Edmonstone opened Darwin’s eyes to the world of taxidermy and nature, arguably planting the seed for Darwin’s future work. 

Edmonstone gave Darwin inspiring accounts of tropical rainforests in South America, of the lush flora and wild fauna. Those skills would prove indispensable throughout the historic voyage Darwin took to the Galapagos Islands and certainly helped him form his theory of evolution by natural selection whilst observing the wildlife whilst there. In particular, the taxidermy Darwin learnt from Edmonstone helped him greatly during the infamous voyage of HMS Beagle.

Unfortunately, Edmonstone’s later years, date of death and place of burial remain a mystery. If Darwin hadn’t mentioned him in his autobiography as a key mentor in his life, we may have known nothing about this brilliant man.

| CLAUDIA JONES

Claudia Jones was a political activist, community organiser, writer and Black feminist whose lasting legacy is as the “Mother the Notting Hill Carnival”. Born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, she would later move to Harlem, New York with her family.

She lived in New York for over 30 years and during this time she became an active member of the American Communist party, where she grew her journalist and community leadership skills. By 1948, she had become the editor of ‘Negro Affairs’ for the party’s paper, the Daily Worker, and had evolved into an accomplished speaker on human and civil rights.

In 1955, she was deported from the US and given asylum in England, where she spent her remaining years working with London’s African-Caribbean community. She founded and edited The West Indian Gazette, which despite financial problems, remained crucial in her fight for equal opportunities for Black people.

She also helped launch Notting Hill Carnival in 1959 as an annual showcase for Caribbean talent. These early celebrations were held in halls and were epitomised by the slogan: “A people’s art is the genesis of their freedom.”

| OTTOBAH CUGOANO

The abolition of slavery is typically associated with a select few remarkable individuals, usually from the United States. Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman are the names most likely to appear in history books. However, one man seldom acknowledged for his amazing work is Ottobah Cugoano.

Cugoano was born in present-day Ghana in the 1750s. He was kidnapped as a teenager, and taken to Grenada to work on plantations. In 1772, he was purchased by an English merchant, taught how to read and write and go on to become a free man. In 1773, he was baptised as ‘John Stuart’ and used this name whilst working as a servant for the artist Richard Cosway.

It was during his time working for Cosway that Cugoano began to put his abolitionist ideas into writing. He wrote “Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Commerce of the Human Species“, the first directly abolitionist publication in English by an African, in 1787. The book was a powerful critique of the immorality of slavery, and Cugoano attacked the British people for letting the practice continue. He travelled around the country with fellow abolitionist Olaudah Equiano promoting their autobiographies together. Four years after the original publication of Thoughts and Sentiments, Cugoano published a shortened version.

Sadly this is where our knowledge of Cugoano ends. There is no historical record past the publication of his book. His seminal text was unavailable until the 1960s and we do not know where, when or how he died.

To learn more about Black History Month and other inspirational, historical black figures in British history click here.