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Tuesday, March 08, 2022

The Long Quiet Immigration

As a local historian, I’ve always been intrigued about stories I’d been told when I was young of the ‘black villages’ of East Anglia.  It need not have spiked my curiosity much, because the people of East Anglia used to tan well in the summer months through toiling to bring in the harvest, and the travelling folk particularly so. However, it was temporary so it didn’t fully explain the term 'black'.

Of course, in mediaeval times, it was hair colour that people noticed rather than skin, and ‘black’ could have described people with intensely dark hair. Perhaps it referred to areas that had a political allegiance to Charles Stuart, later King Charles II. However, someone once told me that  many black people had settled here from mediaeval times onwards, married local girls, and contributed to the area’s diverse gene pool. East Anglia is the least rainy and sunniest part of Britain and that suited them.

That would explain East Anglia’s traditional revulsion to slavery, and the tendency for slaves who escaped from their ‘owners’ in Bristol or Liverpool, to head for East Anglia (see Am I not a Man and a Brother). It would also explain Thomas Clarkson's accounts of how, to his surprise, his intense and eloquent speeches in and around his Cambridge base against slavery attracted audiences who had obvious African descent. 

Certainly, in looking through old photos of a hundred years ago, you sometimes see people who nowadays would be inaccurately described as 'black'. Then they took little notice, because it was part of East Anglian life. If you look at one of the few accurate representation of East Anglians two centuries ago, the death masks of executed criminals at Norwich Castle, there are some faces with a distinct trace of mixed parentage with sub-saharan Africans, which could be from the several dock-side communities of the east-anglian ports, or maybe from somewhere else. It set me thinking.

There has been a long-term tradition of welcoming foreign settlement in East Anglia, but the majority have been from Europe.  How would sub-Saharan Africans come to be in East Anglia? There would seem to have been a long tradition of black African settlers in East Anglia, coming either from London, Colchester or Ipswich ports: For example, the medieval skeleton of a lady of black, sub-Saharan, African origin was discovered in the archaeological dig at a medieval cemetery in Ipswich recently. Her bones were dated to the thirteenth century. The ports have always had cosmopolitan populations. Camden reported that there was once even a 'Blackmore Street' in Ipswich.

As well as the retired sailors, they could also have been army veterans, and this was the explanation given me. Black people had served in British Regiments since Tudor times. They generally served as military bandsmen in the British army, especially towards the end of the eighteenth century. The tradition started with English regiments serving in the West Indies. There were even six black trumpeters were attached to the Scottish Life Guards in 1679. Sir Walter Scott related that they wore ‘white dresses richly laced’ and ‘massive silver colours and armlets.’  In some regiments, the drummers and many musicians, were all black. (Staying Power  - Pluto, 1984).  'John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter' is the most famous of these, but most of them were granted a pension after Army  service and a proportion of them chose to stay and settle in England. East Anglia had a long tradition of being accepting to foreigners, as long as they weren't Catholics.

Why do we know so little about them? Black rural settlers have, before now, been invisible to history because, despite  the differences in appearance, they had names and beliefs in common with the locals and intermarried with them rather than forming separate 'communities'. They had little choice, because the black immigrants were predominately male: there was no option for marriage but local girls, which suited everyone. Most of them adopted Christianity, although one Elizabethan text states that most of the London Black population at the time 'are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel'. However, it was rare for  them to form a separate 'caste' or insist on special treatment, so it is often difficult to to identify them in the historical record, but they were there. They disappear from historical sight because the censuses and registrars (Births, marriages and Deaths) had no column to register ethnic origin. We just see very rare notes in the margin.  The only way that we can be confident that they were there is when there are references to 'Blackamoors' in the historical records, as happens  from the sixteenth century onward. Even this can be misleading because the term can be  applied to Mediterranean Africans as well as sub-Saharan Africans. They generally adopted British names too.  Occasionally you see references in parish documents and state papers, but it is rare. We only know about Black people in Britain when things go wrong as in the notorious case of Tobias Gill, the so-called 'Black Tob'. 

Only when it came to west Indian and North American slavery do the records in the National Register of Archives inform us about individuals. The wills of the more affluent in the eighteenth century confirm the custom of  confirming the free status of their Black servants and providing them a legacy. We also see newspaper stories where they escape their 'masters' and disappear from places such as Bristol and Liverpool to travel to East Anglia which was particularly known for an abhorrence towards slavery and slave owners.

London is a well-documented example of a seaport with a large populations of Africans, evidenced by an act of the Privy council in 1596 mentioning 'a great number of (Negroes) and Blackamoors that have crept into the realm'. London, like Ipswich,  even had a Blackamoor Street and a Blackamoor Alley and, in Elizabeth 1st's reign, the black population in London grew to the extent that at the time of a nation-wide food shortage, a proclamation was made ordering that black people should 'with all speed avoided and discharged out of this her majesties dominions.(1601). It didn't happen. Instead, the children generally intermarried with white Londoners and it was just small groups that lingered on at Mile End, Seven Dials, Marylebone and, later on, Paddington.  There is no evidence of any long-term black 'communities'. As well as London, there were always many first-generation black Africans in York, Liverpool, Ipswich, Yarmouth and other ports from medieval times onward, generally mixed with those of Indian and Arab descent. Whatever their origins, they generally prospered, intermarried with the local population and their descendants are spread over the country entirely unaware of their ancestry.

They appear in the historical record almost by chance. We know that some black Africans owned businesses in London in the late 1500s, but only because there was a silk weaver called Reasonable Blackman.  Most chose less conspicuous names and merged into the general population. One of the most famous Black Eat Anglians was  Ukawasaw  Gronniosaw of Norwich. He published an autobiography in 1772  entitled “A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw an African Prince as Related by Himself”. Sadly, he had a difficult time establishing himself in business there until he was rescued by the quaker Henry Gurney.We know of Black people who became famous as campaigners for Black equality and abolition later on in the eighteenth century such as the tradesman, writer and composer  Ignatius Sancho,  The poet Francis Williams, and writer Ouladiah Equiano, but not so much about of ordinary workers and tradesmen.  Black Harriot (Harriot Lewis)  of Covent Garden in the 1770s, a mistress of Lord Sandwich whose clients were said to include 20 members of the House of Lords and 50 members of the House of Commons, is obvious from her nickname. Charlotte Gardiner, who was executed for her part in the Gordon Riots had her appearance described in court. Dido Elizabeth Belle who was captured in the portrait by Johann Zoffany;  However, others are there in the historical record. Mary Prince, the first woman to present a petition to the House of Commons, or Ann Duck, executed in 1744 (her father was described as 'one Duck, a black well known to many gentlemen in our inns of court by teaching them the use of the small sword').  There was Catherine Despard too,  the daughter of Sarah Gordon a free black lady of Kingston Jamaica, and wife of the radical Colonel Despard who promoted the  “wild and Levelling principle of Universal Equality”. In most cases, these people were from mixed marriages with the many free people of Africa. It was not that unusual for Englishmen to marry West Indian girls: Over twenty ladies have been found in British Church records to have  from the West Indies married well and lived lives of gentility. Probably, many were the wives of British troops who married local girls from the 'Spanish Maroons'  or the Jamaican Free People when stationed in the West Indies.

Francis Barber's story isn't that unusual. The son of a slave, he was brought to England by Richard Bathurst, who had him baptized and named Francis Barber, and sent him to a school in Barton Yorkshire.  Samuel Johnson adopted him as an unofficial son and companion when his wife died in 1752, and Francis remained with him, as friend and servant except for a brief spell as a seaman, until Johnson's death.  He married Elizabeth Ball (c.1755–1816) and had five children. Eventually, the whole family came to live with Johnson at his house in Bolt Court, London. There are many of Francis and Elizabeth's descendants living today.

The Committee for the relief of the black poor was originally set up in 1786 in response to the numbers of destitute Lascar Indians walking the streets of London. Lascars were the Indian sailors who worked on East India Company and other ships. They were promised their passage home but many of them ended up adrift in England. However, there were also about 250 "Blacks in Distress," of whom only 35 came from the East Indies, the others being from Africa or the West Indies. One hundred men said they had been in the Royal Navy. Soon, they were faced by a different problem: the large numbers of the destitute Black Loyalists who had fought on the British side in the American War of Independence, and for whom the settlement in Nova Scotia had been inappropriate due to its climate. Large numbers arrived after the British defeat in 1782, and in the confusion of the conflict, very few of them received help from the Compensation Board. The Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor were kept fully-occupied distributing food for a thousand of them. Although many private benefactors, including former slave-owners, contributed funds, half the cost was contributed directly by the government. There would seem to have been up to seven thousand of them in all according to some accounts.

Around three hundred of these black loyalists took part in an ill-fated and poorly-planned exhibition to settle a colony in Sierra Leone in Africa, in 1787. Surprisingly, fifty-eight had local British wives. It was a sad disaster due to disease and the hostility from the local inhabitants in Sierra Leone. A few returned to the cold of Nova Scotia but the rest stayed in London. They then seem to disappear from the record, but the government and the Committee seem to have resettled many of them in rural parts on smallholdings in East Anglia, and probably elsewhere. East Anglia, with a long tradition of Nonconformism, had a long history of antipathy to the slave trade and a longstanding radicalism. We get intriguing hints about these new settlers in local history, but the settlers all seem to have married local girls, and settled into a diverse community where the indigenous East Anglians had already welcomed Huguenots, Scottish, Poles, Jewish, Scandinavians, Dutch and Germans. They generally worried only about Catholicism, not race.   

Although we can be sure that there was some black people in Tudor Britain onwards, and probably many with some black ancestry, one can be confident that this was happening before then? The idea that prehistoric populations in Northern Europe were static is no longer tenable. Genetic studies are confirming what pioneering writers such as Hubert Butler in '10,000 Saints' suggested about European migration. Bronze-age and Iron-age tribes moved remarkable distances across Europe and North Africa. A 2015 paper by the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics and published in the journal Nature found “significant pre-Roman movement into south-eastern England from continental Europe”. The 'Atlantic Celt' (actually Iberian) contribution to Britain's genetic make-up seems to have had a fairly strong Moorish component, but it is still unclear whether this includes sub-Saharan Africans. Historians on the whole think not.

British history before the Roman invasion has to be reconstructed tentatively through other means than the historical record. The historical record is very meagre, but includes intrepid greek travellers whose accounts only survive second-hand. However, archaeology, linguistics and other disciplines give a convincing story of a stable culture well-geared to climate with some surprisingly advanced technologies for the time. The surprising conclusion that has emerged from recent studies is that travel across Europe was no more difficult than it was in mediaeval times. There seems to have been a regular trade between Britain and all parts of the Mediterranean due to Britain's plentiful supply of tin and copper. There would also seem to have been export of salted herring too. This trade increased in Roman times. There was a great deal of sea-based traffic, and therefore immigration

Although some sub-Saharan Africans came to Britain from gradual migration during Roman times, most came through their employment. There would seem to have been a genetic and linguistic trace of North African traders well before the Roman Invasion, when the North Sea coasts were an important source of trade.

The Roman Army has been suggested as a good route by some writers. We'd certainly expect the civilian population to reflect some of the ethnic diversity of the legions. In Roman times, we possibly had Roman legions with some black African auxiliaries in them, but not in any large numbers. Most recruitment of the “Ethiope”, came from the Numidians, Libyans, Moor and Berber, all of whose racial origins were much closer to the European. They were valued for their skill as light cavalry.  A unit of “Aurelian Moors”, from what is now Morocco as garrisoned a fort on Hadrian's well in the 3rd century. In Roman times there were also Nubians, from a region between Egypt and the Sudan, who were skilled archers and were recruited into the legions as auxiliaries.

Until the late third century, the sub-Saharan Africans were considered to make poor legionaries due to their abhorrence of the North European climate, and their dislike of the extreme demands of discipline in the legions. They were mostly used as auxilliaries and  were therefore denied the gift of citizenship after military service. The rules about the citizenship of legionaries was relaxed by Septimius Severus (193 to 211 AD)  who responded to the shortage of Roman volunteers, by  recruiting  foreign soldiers, provincials, mercenaries from the east, barbarians and even prisoners of war into the legions. Constantine declared in 336 that all subjects of the King of Axum (Eritrea and northern Ethiopia) within his kingdom be treated as equals to Roman citizens, presumably because so many had settled in the empire after military service. The legions II Traiana and III Augusta, based in Egypt and Numidia respectively, would have contributed to a wide ethnic diffusion through the Roman army more generally. By the time of Gildo, auxilliary troops were recruited from  'all the Moorish tribes living beneath Mount Atlas and those whom the excessive heat of the sun cuts off from us in the interior of Africa, '(Claudian AD400). 

Undoubtedly, many Africans rose to high positions in the Roman army, though the great majority of these were southern Mediterranean people from north of the Sahara. Retired soldiers had the option of retiring to smallholdings around the major military bases such as Colchester (Colonia), or taken up businesses associated with the military, and would  have inevitably married local girls. 

Some writers have suggested that slavery was then a route by which Black Africans came to Britain in Roman times. It is doubtful, because there is no evidence for it yet. Roman society was based on slavery, but Roman slavery was not based on race. It is true that the unfortunate slaves were mostly gathered from the edges of the empire. Slaves in Rome might include prisoners of war, sailors captured and sold by pirates, or slaves bought outside Roman territory. Sometimes desperate Roman citizens even sold their own children into slavery. However, the slaves were Europeans or Semitic predominately. Slaves looked so similar to Roman citizens that the Senate once considered a plan to make them wear special clothing so that they could be identified at a glance. The idea was rejected because the Senate feared that, if slaves saw how many of them were working in Rome, they might be tempted to join forces and rebel. This suggests that slaves were white.

Slaves in Britain would therefore have been European. In fact, the lucrative slave trade, particularly  after the Romans left Britain was from Ireland and parts of Scotland  to the Muslim world. The pale skinned girls were particularly prized, with a premium on green eyes. The black slaves didn't come via the trans-Saharan trade. They mainly came from Ethiopia and Zanzibar and the slave-owners were concentrated mainly in Egypt, Iraq and India. 

There was a continued use of mercenary African troops from North Africa. The Fatimid military was mostly comprised of black soldiers (including Masmuda Berbers), but these soldiers were not derived from sub-Sahara Africa. The all black Abid' Army of Morocco, again, were Moroccan born freedmen. 

A more likely route by which sub-Saharan Africans got to Britain in a small but continuous stream on immigrants was as crew-members on ships. The Africans from many parts of the African coast were considered to be skilled sailors, and were widely recruited to man the vast shipping traffic around the empire and its trading partners. Even when they didn't retire to raise British families, they left a genetic trace in every port. Later on, in the 17th century, Many of the new arrivals were freed by the British Navy from being captives from enslavement on Spanish ships. Some were of mixed-race African and Spanish. There was far more antipathy toward the Spanish at the time. There is still some confusion in the records as to the final destination of many of the Black Americans who fought alongside the British Army in the American war of Independence. Many moved on to Liberia, but there is heresay in East Anglia that many chose the option of being settled with plots of land in East Anglia. Within living memory, villages in parts of East Anglia were referred to as 'Black' villages, for no obvious reason.

Analysis of autosomal DNA from four individuals from Roman London found that one had Black ancestry, with brown eyes and dark brown or black hair. Bone isotopes suggested that this individual, a male aged over 45 years, had spent his childhood in the London region. However, isotope analysis, radiocarbon dating and facial reconstruction are showing more definite results.  For example, in 1953, a roman-era skeleton of a woman was discovered on Beachy Head, and  we now know that she had lived around 200-250 AD and  had sub-Saharan African ancestry. a craniometric study of 22 individuals from Southwark, Roman London, found that four of them appeared to be of African ancestry, and the isotopic analysis of their bones suggested childhoods spent in a climate warmer than Roman Britain. Six out of eighty-three  skeletons in a 2nd century Roman graveyard were found to have African cranial features, with two of them had been born in England.

Sometimes, one can gauge foreign influence from artefacts. The Roman north of Britain was certainly a cosmopolitan place with a great mixing of people from all over the empire’ (Cool 2002: 42). This is suggested by the discovery in York of braziers and other vessels typical of North African food-ways but made in local fabrics.  The 'Lady of York', a young woman 18 to 23 years old who had been buried between 350 and 400 AD. was buried in a sarcophagus with rich array of high-status grave goods including elephant ivory, Her skull showed little or no affinity to any European population, but  closely resembled a sample of African-American women, suggesting  mixed parentage, and an affluent life. 
The increasing sophistication of isotope analysis, radiocarbon dating and facial reconstruction is helping us to confirm that there was a small but continuous black population in Britain throughout the dark ages. For example, In 2013, a skeleton was discovered in Fairford, Gloucestershire of a sub-Saharan African woman. Her remains were  dated between the years 896 and 1025. She may have been a slave or a bonded servant.


The British isles, and East Anglia in particular, has a surprisingly homogeneous genetic makeup, in that it varies little from area to area, but it comes  from a wide variety of sources. It has never been isolated in any way from the continent. As far back as one can tell, it  has a long tradition of travel and intermarriage, combining cultural and genetic components from the 'Atlantic Celts' and  its Eastern and central European neighbours. Two aspects have been in its favour. Firstly, few parts of the island are far from the sea, and the British needed to be expert sailors and boatbuilders. It was easy to travel.  Secondly, it had raw materials that were in short supply in Europe: in particular Salt, preserved fish, Tin and Copper. Later on, one must add wool.

Throughout history, immigrants who accepted the existing laws, culture and religion had offspring that were, within two generations, indistinguishable from the indigenous British. There was nothing in British custom or British laws that prevented inter-marriage between indigenous and foreigner unless religious differences complicated things. In East Anglia, the population was proud, independent, suspicious and egalitarian in instinct. They took immigrants to their hearts wherever they'd travelled from, but loathed settlers who ignored local customs and traditions, or who demanded separate communities or special treatment. It was never hard to become an indigenous East Anglian.

Beier, A. L., The Problem of the Poor in Tudor and Early Stuart England, London, 1983

Norton, M. B., 'The Fate of Some Black Loyalists of the American Revolution', Journal of Negro History, 58 (4), 402-26, 1973

Fryer, P., Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London, 1984


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