Black people have lived in Britain long before the Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury Docks. During the 18th century, Black people were present and active within British society, although they faced various challenges due to the era’s racial attitudes and practices.
Historians estimate that the black demographics in England during the 18th century ranged between 10,000 and 20,000 people, with black women being outnumbered by men at a ratio of 2:1.
Here, we list five Black Britons who played a significant role in British society. Watch the video or read on.
Ignatius Sancho was born circa 1729 on a transatlantic slave ship, yet destiny had chosen a different path. Sancho is a noteworthy figure in British history, known for his numerous accomplishments as a composer, writer, and passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery.
In addition to running a successful business, he composed music, two plays, and a treatise on musical theory. Though his plays and treatise do not survive, his music does.
Being financially self-sufficient, Sancho was eligible to participate in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780. This marked him as the first individual of African heritage to cast a vote in Britain, representing a significant landmark in British history.
Sancho’s journey from being born on a slave ship to becoming a prominent British citizen who fought against the inhumane institution of slavery is a testament to his resilience, intellect, and determination.
Olaudah Equiano is best known for his abolitionist stance and literary contributions. Equiano was born around 1745. His life story unfolds from Igboland in Nigeria, where he was enslaved as a young child, transported to the Caribbean, and later sold to a Royal Navy officer. His experiences as an enslaved person significantly informed his later activism and literary works.
In 1789, Equiano published his autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself” (AD), which garnered considerable attention and was instrumental in shedding light on the horrors of slavery.
This autobiography is not only a reflection of his life but also a vehement argument against slavery, making a significant impact on the abolitionist movement during that period. It’s often considered a pioneering work in the slave narrative genre, documenting the personal experiences and adversities faced by enslaved individuals.
His pen was mightier than shackles, breaking the chains of ignorance, one word at a time.
William Cuffay, born in 1788, was a significant figure in early Victorian London as a leader of the Chartist movement, which was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain during the mid-19th century.
Cuffay’s early life saw him working as a tailor in London. However, his political activism ignited when he was terminated from his job following his participation in the Tailors’ Strike of 1834. This event convinced Cuffay of the necessity for workers’ rights and political reform.
By 1842, William Cuffay had ascended to a leadership position within the London Chartists and was elected to the National Executive. He was known for chairing large public meetings and was recognized as a clever and witty orator.
Through his activism and leadership within the Chartist movement, William Cuffay played a notable role in advocating for political reform and workers’ rights during a pivotal period in British history, making a lasting impact on the struggle for democratic representation and social justice.
John Edmonstone was a remarkable individual known for his skills as a taxidermist and his significant influence on one of the most renowned naturalists, Charles Darwin. Born into slavery on a plantation in Demerara, in what is now known as Guyana, South America, Edmonstone eventually found freedom and carved a niche for himself in Edinburgh, Scotland, as a skilled taxidermist and teacher of taxidermy.
He significantly contributed to the world of science by imparting essential taxidermy skills to Charles Darwin. These skills were crucial for Darwin as they enabled him to preserve bird specimens, which further fermented his ideas about evolution.
Edmonstone’s relationship with Charles Darwin was not merely transactional but was one of mentorship. He taught Darwin all he knew about skinning and stuffing birds, which played a pivotal role in Darwin’s scientific endeavours. Edmonstone’s teachings provided Darwin with the necessary skills to preserve specimens during his voyages, notably the voyage on the HMS Beagle, which significantly contributed to the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The life of John Edmonstone underscores the often overlooked contributions of Black individuals to the scientific community and broader societal advancements.
Mary Prince was born on 1 October 1788 and holds a distinct place in history as the first black woman to publish an autobiography recounting her experiences as a slave. Born into an enslaved family of African descent in the colony of Bermuda, her narrative significantly contributed to the abolitionist movement of her time.
Her autobiography, “The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Written by Herself,” (AD), was published by the Anti-Slavery Society in 1831 in London and Edinburgh. This narrative provided a first-hand account of the brutal treatment she and others endured as enslaved individuals, being bought and sold by slave owners.
Her life narrative helped to change attitudes toward slavery and contributed to the broader struggle for the abolition of slavery. The impact of her autobiography was such that it sparked much public controversy, highlighting the inhumane conditions enslaved individuals faced and challenging the prevailing societal norms of her time.
The publication of her autobiography came three years before the enactment of the Abolition of Slavery Act, making it a crucial piece of literature that helped to fuel the abolitionist movement.
As an abolitionist and author, Mary Prince’s story transcended her lifetime, earning her the status of a national hero in Bermuda.
As the chapters of history unfold, the stories of these Black pioneers remind us that the narrative of a nation is diverse and layered. Their voices continue to resonate and inspire. They are the threads that weave the tapestry of our shared history, reminding us of the struggles, triumphs, and the indomitable spirit of the human soul.