Black British people

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Black British people
Counties of the UK Black.svg
Distribution by local authorities in the 2011 census.
Regions with significant populations
United Kingdom United Kingdom
England England2,381,724 (4.2%) (2021 census)[1]
Scotland Scotland36,178 (0.7%) (2011 census)[note 1]
Wales Wales27,554 (0.8%) (2021 census)[1]
Northern Ireland11,032 (0.58%) (2021 census)[4]
English (British English, Black British English, Caribbean English, African English), Creole languages, French, Jamaican Patois, Nigerian Pidgin, and other languages
Predominantly Christianity (69%);
minority follows Islam (15%), other faiths or are irreligious (6%)
2011 census, Great Britain only[5]
  1. ^ For the purpose of harmonising results to make them comparable across the United Kingdom, the ONS includes individuals in Scotland who classified themselves in the "African" category (29,638 people), which in the Scottish version of the census is separate from "Caribbean or Black" (6,540 people),[2] in this "Black or Black British" category. The ONS note that "the African categories used in Scotland could potentially capture White/Asian/Other African in addition to Black identities".[3]

Black British people are a multi-ethnic group of British citizens of either African or Afro-Caribbean descent.[6] The term Black British developed in the 1950s, referring to the Black British West Indian people from the former Caribbean British colonies in the West Indies (i.e., the New Commonwealth) now referred to as the Windrush Generation and people from Africa, who are residents of the United Kingdom and are British.

The term black has historically had a number of applications as a racial and political label and may be used in a wider sociopolitical context to encompass a broader range of non-European ethnic minority populations in Britain. This has become a controversial definition.[7] Black British is one of various self-designation entries used in official UK ethnicity classifications.

Black residents constituted around 3 per cent of the United Kingdom's population in 2011. The figures have increased from the 1991 census when 1.63 per cent of the population were recorded as Black or Black British to 1.15 million residents in 2001, or 2 per cent of the population, this further increased to just over 1.9 million in 2011. Almost 97 per cent of Black Britons live in England, particularly in England's larger urban areas, with most (over a million) Black British living in Greater London.


The term Black British has most commonly been used to refer to Black people of New Commonwealth origin, of both West African and South Asian descent. For example, Southall Black Sisters was established in 1979 "to meet the needs of black (Asian and Afro-Caribbean) women".[8] Note that "Asian" in the British context usually refers to people of South Asian ancestry.[9][10] Black was used in this inclusive political sense to mean "non-white British".[11]

In the 1970s, a time of rising activism against racial discrimination, the main communities so described were from the British West Indies and the Indian subcontinent. Solidarity against racism and discrimination sometimes extended the term at that time to the Irish population of Britain as well.[12][13]

Several organisations continue to use the term inclusively, such as the Black Arts Alliance,[14][15] who extend their use of the term to Latin Americans and all refugees,[16] and the National Black Police Association.[17] The official UK Census has separate self-designation entries for respondents to identify as "Asian British", "Black British" and "Other ethnic group".[3] Due to the Indian diaspora and in particular Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972, many British Asians are from families that had previously lived for several generations in the British West Indies or the Comoros.[18] A number of British Asians, including celebrities such as Riz Ahmed and Zayn Malik still use the term "Black" and "Asian" interchangeably.[19]

Census classification

The 1991 UK census was the first to include a question on ethnicity. As of the 2011 UK Census, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) allow people in England and Wales and Northern Ireland who self-identify as "Black" to select "Black African", "Black Caribbean" or "Any other Black/African/Caribbean background" tick boxes.[3] For the 2011 Scottish census, the General Register Office for Scotland (GOS) also established new, separate "African, African Scottish or African British" and "Caribbean, Caribbean Scottish or Caribbean British" tick boxes for individuals in Scotland from Africa and the Caribbean, respectively, who do not identify as "Black, Black Scottish or Black British".[20] The 2021 census in England and Wales maintained the Caribbean, African, and any other Black, Black British, or Caribbean background options, adding a write-in response for the 'Black African' group. In Northern Ireland, the 2021 census had Black African and Black Other tick-boxes. In Scotland, the options were African, Scottish African or British African, and Caribbean or Black, each accompanied by a write-in response box.[21]

In all of the UK censuses, persons with multiple familial ancestries can write in their respective ethnicities under a "Mixed or multiple ethnic groups" option, which includes additional "White and Black Caribbean" or "White and Black African" tick boxes in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.[3]

Historical usage

Black British was also a term for those Black and mixed-race people in Sierra Leone (known as the Krio) who were descendants of migrants from England and Canada and identified as British.[22] They are generally the descendants of black people who lived in England in the 18th century and freed Black American slaves who fought for the Crown in the American Revolutionary War (see also Black Loyalists). In 1787, hundreds of London's black poor (a category that included the East Indian seamen known as lascars) agreed to go to this West African colony on the condition that they would retain the status of British subjects, live in freedom under the protection of the British Crown, and be defended by the Royal Navy. Making this fresh start with them were some white people (see also Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor), including lovers, wives, and widows of the black men.[23] In addition, nearly 1200 Black Loyalists, former American slaves who had been freed and resettled in Nova Scotia, and 550 Jamaican Maroons also chose to join the new colony.[24][25]



There is evidence of people with African (largely North African) ancestry in Roman Britain. A craniometric study of 22 individuals from Southwark, Roman London, found that four of them appeared to be of likely African ancestry, and isotopic analysis of their bones suggested childhoods spent in a climate warmer than Roman Britain.[26] Analysis of autosomal DNA from four individuals from Roman London found that one had North African 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.[27] The Ivory Bangle Lady whose rich burial was found in York also had cranial features that hinted at an admixed white/black ancestry.[28][29][30] Her sarcophagus was made of stone and also contained a jet bracelet and an ivory bangle, indicating great wealth for the time.[31][32] There is written evidence of the presence in Roman Britain of residents from Romanised North Africa, a region on the coast of modern Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The inscriptions suggest that most of these inhabitants were involved with the military. Some were in the upper echelons of society, however the population of these regions were largely Berber people, rather than black Sub-Saharan Africans.[citation needed]

According to the Augustan History, North African Roman emperor Septimus Severus supposedly visited Hadrian's Wall in 210 AD. While returning from an inspection of the wall, he was said to have been mocked by an "Ethiope" soldier holding a garland of cypress-boughs. Severus ordered him away, reportedly being "frightened"[33] by his dark skin colour[33][34][35] and seeing his act and appearance as an omen. The "Ethiope" is written to have said: "You have been all things, you have conquered all things, now, O conqueror, be a god."[36][37]

Anglo-Saxon England

A girl buried at Updown, near Eastry in Kent in the early 7th century was found to have 33% of her DNA of West African type, most closely resembling Esan or Yoruba groups.[38]

In 2013,[39][40] a skeleton was discovered in Fairford, Gloucestershire, which forensic anthropology revealed to be that of a Sub-Saharan African woman. Her remains have been dated between the years 896 and 1025.[40] Local historians believe she was likely either a slave or a bonded servant.[41]

16th century

Early in the 16th century, Catherine of Aragon likely brought servants from Africa among her retinue when she travelled to England to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales; she would go on to marry his younger brother Henry VIII. A black musician is among the six trumpeters depicted in the royal retinue of Henry VIII in the Westminster Tournament Roll, an illuminated manuscript dating from 1511. He wears the royal livery and is mounted on horseback. The man is generally identified as the "John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter," who is listed in the payment accounts of both Henry VIII and his father, Henry VII.[42] A group of Africans at the court of James IV of Scotland, included Ellen More and a drummer referred to as the "More taubronar". Both he and John Blanke were paid wages for their services.[43] A small number of black Africans worked as independent business owners in London in the late 1500s, including the silk weaver Reasonable Blackman.[44][45][46]

When trade lines began to open between London and West Africa, persons from this area began coming to Britain on board merchant and slaving ships. For example, merchant John Lok brought several captives to London in 1555 from Guinea. The voyage account in Hakluyt reports that they: "were tall and strong men, and could wel agree with our meates and drinkes. The colde and moyst aire doth somewhat offend them."[47]

During the later 16th century as well as into the first two decades of the 17th century, 25 people named in the records of the small parish of St. Botolph's in Aldgate are identified as "blackamoors."[48] In the period of the war with Spain, between 1588 and 1604, there was an increase in the number of people reaching England from Spanish colonial expeditions in parts of Africa. The English freed many of these captives from enslavement on Spanish ships. They arrived in England largely as a by-product of the slave trade; some were of mixed-race African and Spanish, and became interpreters or sailors.[49] American historian Ira Berlin classified such persons as Atlantic Creoles or the Charter Generation of slaves and multi-racial workers in North America.[50] Slaver John Hawkins arrived in London with 300 captives from West Africa.[49] However, the slave trade did not become entrenched until the 17th century and Hawkins only embarked on three expeditions.

Jacques Francis, who has been described as a slave by some historians,[51][52][53] but described himself in Latin as a "famulus", meaning servant, slave or attendant.[54][55] Francis was born on an island off the coast of Guinea, likely Arguin Island, off the coast of Mauritania.[56][57][58] He worked as a diver for Pietro Paulo Corsi in his salvage operations on the sunken St Mary and St Edward of Southampton and other ships, such as the Mary Rose, which had sunk in Portsmouth Harbour. When Corsi was accused of theft, Francis stood by him in an English court. With help from an interpreter, he supported his master's claims of innocence. Some of the depositions in the case displayed negative attitudes towards slaves or black people as witnesses.[59] In March 2019 two of the skeletons found on the Mary Rose were found to have Southern European or North African ancestry; one found to be wearing a leather wrist-guard bearing the arms of Catherine of Aragon and royal arms of England is thought to possibly be Spanish or North African, the other, known as "Henry" was thought to also have similar genetic makeup. Henry’s mitochondrial DNA showed that his ancestry may have came from Southern Europe, the Near East, or North Africa, although Dr Sam Robson from the University of Portsmouth "ruled out" that Henry was black or that he was sub-Saharan African in origin. Dr Onyeka Nubia cautioned that the number of those on board the Mary Rose that had heritage beyond Britain was not necessarily representative of the whole of England at the time, although it definitely was not a "one-off".[60] It is thought they are likely to have travelled through Spain or Portugal before arriving in Britain.[60]

Blackamoor servants were perceived as a fashionable novelty and worked in the households of several prominent Elizabethans, including that of Queen Elizabeth I, William Pole, Francis Drake,[61][62][49] and Anne of Denmark in Scotland.[63] Among these servants was "John Come-quick, a blackemore", servant to Capt Thomas Love.[49] Others included in parish registers include Domingo "a black neigro servaunt unto Sir William Winter", buried the xxviith daye of August [1587] and "Frauncis a Blackamoor servant to Thomas Parker", buried in January 1591.[64] Some were free workers, although most were employed as domestic servants and entertainers. Some worked in ports, but were invariably described as chattel labour.[65]

The African population may have been several hundred during the Elizabethan period, and historian Michael Wood noted that Africans in England were "mostly free... [and] both men and women, married native English people."[66] Archival evidence shows records of more than 360 African people between 1500 and 1640 in England and Scotland.[67][68][69] Reacting to the darker complexion of people with biracial parentage, George Best argued in 1578 that black skin was not related to the heat of the sun (in Africa) but was instead caused by biblical damnation. Reginald Scot noted that superstitious people associated black skin with demons and ghosts, writing (in his sceptical book Discoverie of Witchcraft) "But in our childhood our mothers maids have so terrified us with an ouglie divell having hornes on his head, and a taile in his breech, eies like a bason, fanges like a dog, clawes like a beare, a skin like a Niger and a voice roring like a lion"; historian Ian Mortimer stated that such views "are to be noted at all levels of society".[70][71] Views on Black people were "affected by preconceived notions of the Garden of Eden and the Fall from Grace."[69] In addition, in this period, England had no concept of naturalization as a means of incorporating immigrants into the society. It conceived of English subjects as those people born on the island. Those who were not were considered by some to be incapable of becoming subjects or citizens.[72]

In 1596, Queen Elizabeth I issued letters to the lord mayors of major cities asserting that "of late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here to manie...". While visiting the English court, Casper Van Senden, a German merchant from Lübeck, requested the permission to transport "Blackamoores" living in England to Portugal or Spain, presumably to sell them there. Elizabeth subsequently issued a royal warrant to Van Senden, granting him the right to do so.[73] However, Van Senden and Sherley did not succeed in this effort, as they acknowledged in correspondence with Sir Robert Cecil.[74] In 1601, Elizabeth issued another proclamation expressing that she was "highly discontented to understand the great number of Negroes and blackamoors which (as she is informed) are carried into this realm",[75] and again licensing van Senden to deport them. Her proclamation of 1601 stated that the blackamoors were "fostered and powered here, to the great annoyance of [the queen's] own liege people, that covet the relief, which those people consume". It further stated that "most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel".[76][77]

Studies of African people in early modern Britain indicate a minor continuing presence. Such studies include Imtiaz Habib's Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500–1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Ashgate, 2008),[78] Onyeka's Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins (Narrative Eye, 2013),[79] Miranda Kaufmann's Oxford DPhil thesis Africans in Britain, 1500–1640,[80] and Black Tudors: The Untold Story (Oneworld, 2017).[81]

17th and 18th centuries

painting described in caption; the back woman is on the left
Dual portrait of a black woman and a white woman, identities unknown, circa 1650, by an anonymous hand. The two women, who appear to be of equal standing, are wearing face patches, which were a fashion of the time. The painting is captioned "I black with white bespott y white with blacke this evil proceeds from thy proud hart then take her: Devill."[82]

Slavery and the slave trade

Britain was involved in the tri-continental slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Many of those involved in British colonial activities, such as ship's captains, colonial officials, merchants, slave traders and plantation owners brought black slaves as servants back to Britain with them. This caused an increasing black presence in the northern, eastern, and southern areas of London. One of the most famous slaves to attend a sea captain was known as Sambo. He fell ill shortly after arriving in England and was consequently buried in Lancashire. His plaque and gravestone still stand to this day. There were also small numbers of free slaves and seamen from West Africa and South Asia. Many of these people were forced into beggary due to the lack of jobs and racial discrimination.[83][84] In 1687, a "Moor" was given the freedom of the city of York. He is listed in the freemen's rolls as "John Moore – blacke". He is the only black person to have been found to date in the York rolls.[85]

The involvement of merchants from Great Britain[86] in the transatlantic slave trade was the most important factor in the development of the Black British community. These communities flourished in port cities strongly involved in the slave trade, such as Liverpool[86] and Bristol. Some Liverpudlians are able to trace their black heritage in the city back ten generations.[86] Early black settlers in the city included seamen, the mixed-race children of traders sent to be educated in England, servants, and freed slaves. Mistaken references to slaves entering the country after 1722 being deemed to be free men are derived from a source in which 1722 is a misprint for 1772, in turn based on a misunderstanding of the results of the Somerset case referred to below.[87][88] As a result, Liverpool is home to Britain's oldest black community, dating at least to the 1730s. By 1795, Liverpool had 62.5 per cent of the European Slave Trade.[86]

During this era, Lord Mansfield declared that a slave who fled from his master could not be taken by force in England, nor sold abroad. However, Mansfield was at pains to point out that his ruling did not comment on the legality of slavery itself.[89] This verdict fueled the numbers of Blacks who escaped slavery, and helped send slavery into decline. During this same period, many former American slave soldiers, who had fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War, were resettled as free men in London. They were never awarded pensions, and many of them became poverty-stricken and were reduced to begging on the streets. Reports at the time stated that they "had no prospect of subsisting in this country but by depredations on the public, or by common charity". A sympathetic observer wrote that "great numbers of Blacks and People of Colour, many of them refugees from America and others who have by land or sea been in his Majesty's service were... in great distress." Even towards white loyalists there was little good will to new arrivals from America.[90]

Officially, slavery was not legal in England.[91] The Cartwright decision of 1569 resolved that England was "too pure an air for a slave to breathe in". However, black African slaves continued to be bought and sold in England during the eighteenth century.[92] The slavery issue was not legally contested until the Somerset case of 1772, which concerned James Somersett, a fugitive black slave from Virginia. Lord Chief Justice William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield concluded that Somerset could not be forced to leave England against his will. He later reiterated: "The determinations go no further than that the master cannot by force compel him to go out of the kingdom."[93] Despite the previous rulings, such as the 1706 declaration (which was clarified a year later) by Lord Chief Justice Holt[94] on slavery not being legal in Britain, it was often ignored, with slaveowners arguing that the slaves were property and therefore could not be considered people.[95] Slave owner Thomas Papillon was one of many who took his black servant "to be in the nature and quality of my goods and chattel".[96][97]

Rise in population

Black people lived among whites in London in areas of Mile End, Stepney, Paddington, and St Giles. After Mansfield's ruling many former slaves continued to work for their old masters as paid employees. Between 14,000 and 15,000 (then contemporary estimates) slaves were immediately freed in England.[98] Many of these emancipated individuals became labelled as the "black poor", the black poor were defined as former slave soldiers since emancipated, seafarers, such as South Asian lascars,[99] former indentured servants and former indentured plantation workers.[100] Around the 1750s, London became the home to many Blacks, as well as Jews, Irish, Germans and Huguenots. According to Gretchen Gerzina in her Black London, by the mid-18th century, Blacks accounted for somewhere between 1% and 3% of the London populace.[101][102] Evidence of the number of Black residents in the city has been found through registered burials. Some black people in London resisted slavery through escape.[101] Leading Black activists of this era included Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Quobna Ottobah Cugoano. Mixed race Dido Elizabeth Belle who was born a slave in the Caribbean moved to Britain with her white father in the 1760s. In 1764, The Gentleman's Magazine reported that there was "supposed to be near 20,000 Negroe servants."[103]

John Ystumllyn (c. 1738 - 1786) was the first well-recorded black person of North Wales. He may have been a victim of the Atlantic slave trade, and was from either West Africa or the West Indies. He was taken by the Wynn family to their Ystumllyn estate in Criccieth, and christened with the Welsh name John Ystumllyn. He was taught English and Welsh by the locals, became a gardener at the estate and "grew into a handsome and vigorous young man". His portrait was painted in 1750s. He married local woman Margaret Gruffydd in 1768 and their descendants still live in the area.[104]

It was reported in the Morning Gazette that there was 30,000 in the country as a whole, though the numbers were thought to be "alarmist" exaggerations. In the same year, a party for black men and women in a Fleet Street pub was sufficiently unusual to be written about in the newspapers. Their presence in the country was striking enough to start heated outbreaks of distaste for colonies of Hottentots.[105] Modern historians estimate, based on parish lists, baptismal and marriage registers as well as criminal and sales contracts, that about 10,000 black people lived in Britain during the 18th century.[106][107][96][108] Other estimates put the number at 15,000.[109][110][111] In 1772, Lord Mansfield put the number of black people in the country at as many as 15,000, though most modern historians consider 10,000 to be the most likely.[96][112] The black population was estimated at around 10,000 in London, making black people approximately 1% of the overall London population. The black population constituted around 0.1% of the total population of Britain in 1780.[113][114] The black female population is estimated to have barely reached 20% of the overall Afro-Caribbean population in the country.[114] In the 1780s with the end of the American Revolutionary War, hundreds of black loyalists from America were resettled in Britain.[115] Later some emigrated to Sierra Leone, with help from Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor after suffering destitution, to form the Sierra Leone Creole ethnic identity.[116][117][118]


In 1731 the Lord Mayor of London ruled that "no Negroes shall be bound apprentices to any Tradesman or Artificer of this City". Due to this ruling, most were forced into working as domestic servants and other menial professions.[119][96] Those black Londoners who were unpaid servants were in effect slaves in anything but name.[120] In 1787, Thomas Clarkson, an English abolitionist, noted at a speech in Manchester: "I was surprised also to find a great crowd of black people standing round the pulpit. There might be forty or fifty of them."[121] There is evidence that black men and women were occasionally discriminated against when dealing with the law because of their skin colour. In 1737, George Scipio was accused of stealing Anne Godfrey's washing, the case rested entirely on whether or not Scipio was the only black man in Hackney at the time.[122] Ignatius Sancho, black writer, composer, shopkeeper and voter in Westminster wrote, that despite being in Britain since the age of two he felt he was "only a lodger, and hardly that."[123] Sancho complained of "the national antipathy and prejudice" of native white Britons "towards their wooly headed brethren."[124] Sancho was frustrated that many resorted to stereotyping their black neighbours.[125] A financially independent householder, he became the first black person of African origin to vote in parliamentary elections in Britain, in a time when only 3% of the British population were allowed to vote.[126]

Sailors of African descent experienced far less prejudice compared to blacks in the cities such as London. Black sailors would have shared the same quarters, duties and pay as their white shipmates. There are some disputes in the estimation of black sailors, conservative estimates put it between 6% and 8% of navy sailors of the time, this proportion is considerably larger than the population as a whole. Notable examples are Olaudah Equiano and Francis Barber.[127]

An 18th-century painting of the Irish politician Edward Southwell Jr.
and his family pictured with their black child servant


With the support of other Britons, these activists demanded that Blacks be freed from slavery. Supporters involved in these movements included workers and other nationalities of the urban poor. Black people in London who were supporters of the abolitionist movement include Cugoano and Equiano. At this time, slavery in Britain itself had no support from common law, but its definitive legal status was not clearly defined until the 19th century.[

Composer and shopkeeper Ignatius Sancho was the first black person of African origins to vote in parliamentary elections and became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and immorality of the slave trade

Oloudah Equiano

During the late 18th century, numerous publications and memoirs were written about the "black poor". One example is the writings of Equiano, a former slave who became an unofficial spokesman for Britain's Black community. His memoir about his life entitled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

In 1786, Olaudah Equiano became the first black person to be employed by the British government, when he was made Commissary of Provisions and Stores for the 350 black people suffering from poverty who had decided to accept the government's offer of an assisted passage to Sierra Leone.[128] The following year, in 1787, encouraged by the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor, about 400[129] black Londoners were aided in emigrating to Sierra Leone in West Africa, founding the first British colony on the continent.[130] They asked that their status as British subjects be recognized, along with requests that they be given military protection by the Royal Navy.[131] However, even though the committee signed up about 700 members of the Black Poor, only 441 boarded the three ships that set sail from London to Portsmouth.[132] Many black Londoners were no longer interested in the scheme, and the coercion employed by the committee and the government to recruit them only reinforced their opposition. Equiano, who was originally involved in the scheme, became one of its most vocal critics. Another prominent black Londoner, Ottobah Cugoano, also criticised the scheme.[133][134][135]


In 2007, scientists found the rare paternal