Historian David Olusoga explores the enduring relationship between Britain and people whose origins lie in Africa. From the African trumpeter in the Tudor Courts to Queen Victoria’s African God daughter, it’s a history that has almost been forgotten. In this series, David puts the record straight, while at the same time erecting 20 plaques across Britain, Africa and the Caribbean, commemorating significant people and events.
The story begins in the Cumbrian village of Burgh-by-Sands near the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. During the 3rd century AD, a unit of North African Roman soldiers was garrisoned in a fort here, making this the first known African community in Britain. Alongside the local community, David marks the village’s unique place in black British history with the first of the series’ plaques.
Emerging evidence shows that the African Romans raised families here too. In Eastbourne, David comes face to face with ‘Beachy Head Woman’. The remains of an ancient, mysterious skeleton, nicknamed Beachy Head Woman, are put under forensic and isotopic analysis in order to reconstruct her identity. This analysis reveals that she was of African descent yet raised in East Sussex. David also examines how diverse the Roman town of York could have been.
David considers why there’s no visible trace of these populations today. He finds the answer in an encounter with Cedric Barber, an ostensibly white man whose great, great, great grandfather was a black Georgian. Through intermarriage, Cedric’s black heritage has all but vanished. David looks at evidence that suggests many white Britons may have hidden black ancestry.
With a visit to Hereford Cathedral’s early 14th century Mappa Mundi, David explores how, during the Middle Ages, Africa was perceived as a land of splendour and riches. Centuries later, these rumours inspired the first Tudor merchants to reach West Africa. David follows in their footsteps; at the procession of the Ashanti king in Ghana, he witnesses a lavish display of gold.
Just as the first seeds of an equal trading relationship between Britain and Africa were taking root, a devastating new chapter in the black history of Britain was about to open. Within a decade of the English arriving in Africa, the first English slave-trading voyage had taken place. In centuries to come, this trade would consume the lives of millions of Africans.