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Blacks in Britain before Windrush - part 1

PICTURED: John Blanke (centre), trumpeter in the court of King Henry VII (Westminster Tournament scroll, 1511) (Photo credit: National Archives, United Kingdom)

WHO IS English? Can a black man be an Englishman? How many years/generations must immigrants live in England before they can be identified/accepted as English?

Today, these are the kind of questions that are sparked by the arrival of West Indians, in 1948, on the ship- “The Empire Windrush”. These questions presuppose that this former troop-carrying steamship, brought the first wave of black people to England’s shores. But is this the case?

Many people believe that West Indians, invited to Britain to help solve the post war employment problems in running state services, mark the beginning of large numbers of black people living in this country.

However, a careful study of the historical record proves this belief not to be true. The earliest evidence of large numbers of African people, in England, date back to the 3rd Century AD. The records show that there was a black, Roman, African army troop guarding a Fort near the western end of Hadrian’s Wall at Aballava ( now Burgh by Sands, in Cumbria.)

Peter Fryer in his acclaimed book, Staying Power, commenting on the African soldiers at this fort, stating: "There were Africans in Britain before the English came here.” And when one considers that Romans occupied Britain it means that Britain was colonised centuries before it became a coloniser.

Richard Benjamin wrote in British Archaeology of “a unit of north African Moors, Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum, stationed at the Roman military garrison at Burgh-by-Sands (ancient Aballava/Aballaba) at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria. We can say with some confidence that the unit occupied the site of Burgh-by-Sands around the 2nd to 4th centuries AD.”

This is supported by additional information found in a Roman document called the “Notitia Dignitatum” that identified the troops as “Aurelian Moors,” a unit of North African troops named after the Emperor Aurelius.

In 2016, The BBC’s History unit placed a plaque at St Michael’s Church in Burgh by Sands, the site where the Roman Fort once stood. It reads: “The first recorded African community in Britain guarded a Roman fort on this site. 3rd century AD.”

The discovery of human skeletal remains in two separate locations in England is further proof of Africans living there during the Roman period. In 1953, among some 300 sets of human remains removed from Saxon graves in the Eastbourne Ancestors projects, one proved to be especially interesting. It was a skeleton of a woman who was around 30 years old when she died in 245AD.

Upon examination, the Experts concluded she grew up in Sussex even though she was from Sub-Saharan Africa- an area beyond the extent of the Roman Empire. A forensic facial reconstruction was performed on the skull by Caroline Wilkinson, Dundee University, the nation’s foremost authority in this field. Her completed work was put on exhibition in the Eastbourne Museum.

The other was the find of a stone sarcophagus, which contained a woman of black African ancestry, bejeweled with luxury items- often referred to as the “ivory bangle lady.” This discovery was a surprising indication of the amount of diversity in Roman York society, with its mixed populations, of Phoenician, Berber and Mediterranean peoples.

Hella Eckhardt, senior lecturer at the Department of Archaeology at reading University, said: “We’re looking at a population mix which is much closer to contemporary Britain than previous historians had suspected. In the case of York, the Roman population may have had more diverse origins than the city has now.”

During the Tudor period there were two African men who stand out in the history records. The first was John Blanke, a black musician who it is believed came to England as a part of the African entourage of Catherine of Aragon in 1501. Court records of the Treasurer of the Chamber show payments to a “John Blanke, the black trumpeter” at a rate 8d a day first by Henry V11 and later by Henry V111 in 1509.

The historian, Dr Sydney Anglo, in an article about The Court Festivals of Henry V11 identified John Blanke, the “black trumpet,” as one of the six trumpeters portrayed in the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll - the illuminated 60 feet manuscript created to commemorate the birth of a son to Henry V111. This opulent manuscript of Henry’s Royal procession is now held at the College of Arms.

The records reveal that Blanke married in 1512 but there is no information about his wife. However, a document exists that shows he received a gift from King Henry. It reads- “John Blanke (sic), our trumpter’, a gown of violet cloth, and also a bonnet and a hat to be taken of our gift against his marriage.”

Read part two of Blacks in Britain before Windrush, on May 2 at 4pm

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