Allen Lane (2022)
Review by Onyekachi Wambu
The second half of 2023 will be dominated by commentary and celebrations marking 75 years since the HMT Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury on the Thames. For many, Windrush has become synonymous with the arrival of black British people to the UK. Rather than a complicated moment in the evolving relationship that these islands have sustained with other parts of the world for thousands of years, and, in particular, with people of African origin, the Windrush narrative now overshadows all other narratives about people of African descent in the UK. Hakim Adi’s African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History is a welcome and much needed corrective, improving understanding of the length and depth of the African and Caribbean presence in Britain, ahead of the impending flood of Windrush memorabilia.
In presentations of the book since its Brixton launch in September 2022, Adi adopts a simple approach to helping audiences grasp such a wide overview of history. He selects a limited number of photographs, mainly of individuals, to break down the very complicated narrative covered in just under 700 pages.
The first of these photographs shows a reconstruction of the dark-skinned Cheddar Man, who lived in Britain 10,000 years ago; and the last is a photograph of Ajibola Lewis, a tireless campaigner against police brutality, following the death in 2010 of her son Olaseni at the hands of eleven police officers.
Through these photographs, Adi takes us on a vivid journey in images of key moments of the black presence in the UK, offering background explanatory contexts. Cheddar Man illustrates the controversial arguments about an Aboriginal black presence in the UK before the later arrivals of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans – those waves of migration informing and underpinning British identity. Subsequent images address the black presence during the Roman period, from an African Emperor to foot-soldiers and camp-followers in the Roman armies, and then in the Middle Ages, when the Crusades and other geopolitical entanglements in the Middle East produced black visitors to Britain. From there, we arrive at the Tudor period when Britain, on the brink of its imperial overseas expansion, introduces increasing numbers of Africans to the UK, claimed by Elizabeth I to have ‘swamped’ the country. These initial images are soon overwhelmed by those reflecting the infamous enslavement and trafficking of Africans. A photograph of a newspaper advert showing a bill of sale for enslaved Africans in Britain, demonstrates the intersection of slavery with the growing taste for sugar and cotton as part of the country’s expanding imperial project. Conjoined struggles for emancipation and freedom – which through personalities such as the black Chartist leader William Cuffey included the expansion of rights for all, including women – take us to the beginning of the 20th century.
Adi addresses key moments as part of the unfolding of the modern world: World War I and its aftermath; the ferment of the interwar years with anticolonial struggles, depicted through photographs and capturing the activism of students and of the pan-African congresses; the post-World War II Windrush period and decolonisation. Mirroring struggles in the US, the key activity is the removal of discriminatory practices, alongside the fight for citizenship and equal rights.
African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History lands at a historic, global inflection point of turbulence, as the Western Atlantic world declines and the East rises. The speed and ferocity with which Black Lives Matter (BLM) uprisings spread through the Western world is one outcome and a symbol of that inflection point. As well as its wider, global impacts, BLM unleashes two parallel responses within black communities. The first is a reckoning with the past and the enduring structural legacies of slavery, empire and colonisation, deploying these as an analytic and political tool in dealing with the continuing impact of economic and social disparities in the present. The second is seen in the demands that African and Caribbean people are making about their Atlantic space, and the vast wealth that was created as a result of their exploitation. There is a newly confident assertion of ownership in their heritage as co-creators of that Atlantic space, of their right to be acknowledged as pivotal actors as opposed to the current approach, which excludes or only acknowledges their presence as a marginal afterthought to be tolerated and excused.
Meanwhile, ‘anti-woke’ forces who support the status quo are engaged in a massive push back, denying the importance of the black presence and, indeed, the price that has been paid by African and Caribbean people in the imperial project. Adi’s book arrives in the middle of this contestation of history, where those who argue for a longer and more complex black presence in the UK are dismissed as fantasists, inventing the past to legitimise a demand for rights. Acutely aware of the dangers of being ambushed by these reactionary critics, Adi provides meticulously sourced references for each of the topics that he covers, in more than 116 pages at the end of the book. Such close attention to evidencing sources ensures this is an authoritative book, which further builds a solid basis for a black British history that cannot be easily dismissed.
As Adi acknowledges in the preface, there have been writers of many colours sketching out aspects of black British history, going as far back as Wilson Armistead’s A Tribute for the Negro (1848). In the 20th century, there have been the legendary J.A. Rogers’s World’s Great Men of Color (1946), Kenneth Little’s Negroes in Britain: A Study of Racial Relations in English Society (1948), followed by Edward Scobie’s Black Britannia: A History of Blacks in Britain (1972) and, a decade later, Peter Fryer’s Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984). Since then, Marika Sherwood, Adi himself and a new generation of historians, such as David Olusoga and S.I. Martin, have further helped to flesh out the contours of black British history.
With so much to praise in the book, a small disappointment is that Adi doesn’t go far enough in offering a critical theory for that presence. What he offers ultimately is a story about slavery, second class citizenship and the fight against the codification of African inferiority, alongside a quest for emancipation and freedom. That is a big story, but it could have been offered as a challenge to the kind of grand narratives about British history that remain familiar, including the ‘top-down’ history of kings and queens or men of action; the Whig interpretation of history from the narrative of the Glorious Revolution of parliamentary primacy and a gradual expansion of political rights; or the ‘bottom-up’, Marxist challenge to capitalist industrialisation, offered by New Left Historians E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. Arguably, the African presence in Britain, whether in the Roman, Tudor or modern periods, has been as a result of the intersection with empire(s). There is a case for making that the central reality of the historiography, which would mean understanding the footprint of those empires in Africa, Asia and the Americas as well as Europe, since empire was a global project. It would also mean providing a better picture of the motivations and calculations of Africa’s own leaders and peoples, and of the missteps and successes at earlier major historical inflection points.
But this is a minor quibble, and perhaps another book entirely. African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History is a magnificent publication. Adi has also published a companion book focusing on the voices of black Britons and their impressions of Britain over the years. Together, both of these books should form a permanent part of everyone’s home library.