Slavery, race and migration
British history is bound up with the global history of slavery. Although people of black African origin had first settled here as part of the Roman occupation, a far larger number came to be associated with Britain through the transatlantic slave trade.
Trade in slaves
The first Africans were forcibly taken to the Americas from the coast of West Africa at the beginning of the 16th century. More than 12.5 million people were transported by European slave traders by the time Atlantic slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century. This trafficking in humans impoverished the African continent and brought wealth to aggressor countries in Europe. The use of slaves in the production of sugar, tobacco and cotton in the Americas, and the development of industry and commercial institutions in Britain benefitted port cities such as London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol. They became home to those Africans bought as personal servants by rich merchants and members of the aristocracy. It is estimated that by the end of the 18th century there were 5,000 black people in London, with a significant presence in the North-West and in the big seaports. Some of these were very active in campaigning for the abolition of slavery, including the writers Olaudah Equiano and Quobna Ottobah.
Approximately 1.5 million Africans were sent to the Caribbean where they became the property of British slave owners. Once freed after the abolition of the slave trade in the mid-1830s, they gradually acquired rights and land, and began to work towards independence for their countries.
From the Caribbean to Britain
It was from these former colonies that more than a hundred years later the first Caribbean migrants came to Britain. Many of them were ex-servicemen who had fought in the Second World War, who arrived on the ship Empire Windrush in June 1948. They were followed by men and women from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and other West Indian islands who responded to the call for workers to help rebuild post-war Britain.
In the period since Windrush, the UK has struggled to come to terms with the consequences of its colonial past. At home this has meant dealing with the challenges of racism, multiculturalism, inequality and citizenship issues, at the same time as benefitting from the economic and cultural contribution of immigrants like those from the Caribbean. Since the Roman period, Britain has been multi-racial, but that doesn’t mean that racism and discrimination have been eliminated. Legislation exists to tackle them at work and in public life, but they continue to operate informally beneath the surface, in the media and everyday language and culture, on the streets and in playgrounds.
Claudia Jones, African-Caribbean campaigner, leading a demonstration in London against the 1962 Immigration Act