Five Black British figures history forgets

We explore the lives of five Black Britons whose stories are rarely told.

Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797), a writer and abolitionist from Nigeria [Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

London, United Kingdom – Amid a global uprising against racism, there has been increased interest in learning about figures in history that are often ignored in school curricula across the world.  Many of these characters relate to the US, the epicentre of the rallies calling for racial justice after the police killing of George Floyd, but there is interest from other quarters.

In the UK, there is a renewed interest in the Windrush generation, following a government scandal that resulted in Caribbeans who came to England as children being deported.

But there is much more to Black British history.

Elizabeth Williams, historian and author of The Politics of Race in Britain and South Africa, told Al Jazeera: “The significance of Black British history cannot be overstated. In reality, this history is the history of those in contact with Africa and its peoples whether remaining on the Continent or yanked away to eventually form a Western-based diaspora.”

Here, we explore the lives of five Black Britons whose stories are rarely told.

Fanny Eaton – The first Black British supermodel

Born in 1835, Fanny Eaton changed the ideals of beauty in the Victorian era. Born in Jamaica, she came to London as a child, shortly after slavery was abolished in the British colonies.

Her mother was Jamaican and her father was white, but there is little confirmed information about him – he may have been a soldier.

She began modelling in her twenties and had a career that lasted for 10 years, sitting for artists including John Millais, Rebecca Solomon and Frederick Sandys.

During the Victorian era, people of colour were usually painted as objects and not subjects.

Wealthy British households often hired Black people as nurses, cooks, and coachmen, some of whom would appear in paintings as status symbols.

Some have argued Eaton was fetishised as the “other”, while others say her presence was empowering.

There is agreement, however, that she impacted Pre-Raphaelite art by challenging the perceptions of beauty. Drawings and paintings of Eaton feature in collections in the UK and the world.

Mary Prince –  A visionary abolitionist and writer, who was formerly enslaved

Born in 1788 in Bermuda, abolitionist Mary Prince was the first Black woman to publish and write an autobiography in the UK.

“We have so few stories of Black women in British captivity during the era of slavery.

“The interjection of her narrative, The History of Mary Prince (1831), into the anti-slavery debate personalised for the reader what it was like to live under slavery from an insiders perspective,” said Williams.

Prince was born to enslaved parents and had five different people claim her as property throughout her lifetime.

During her time as a slave, she was treated cruelly by her owners.

One forced her to work all day in salt ponds that came up to her waist, leaving her blistered and sore.

In 1828, she was bought from Antigua to England.

Prince left her then-owners, Mr and Mrs John Wood, to join the Anti-Slavery Society.

She became the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition, the case heard in Parliament was for her to return to Antigua as a free woman to be with her husband there.

The petition was unsuccessful.

“Though Prince’s eventual fate is unknown and she disappeared into anonymity, her narrative, which caused a sensation at the time of publication, lives on,” said Williams, describing the account as a “testament to man’s inhumanity”.

Olaudah Equiano – One of the earliest Black African writers in Europe

Olaudah Equiano is also known for writing about his experiences as a former slave – he was one of the first Black African writers in Europe.

Equiano was born in what is now known as Nigeria in 1745. Sold into slavery at the age of 11, he ended up in the US state of Virginia where he was purchased by a sea captain, Micheal Henry Pascal.

Equiano lived a life that was not common for most slaves. He was educated and didn’t work in the fields.

His last master was an English merchant in Montserrat who allowed him to buy his freedom for 40 pounds, almost a year’s worth of his salary.

Equiano then spent 20 years working as an explorer and merchant, eventually settling in England, where he became involved with the abolitionist movement.

With the help of the abolitionists, he published his book in 1789.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano allowed white people to learn how distressing slavery was.

In one chapter, he wrote: “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”

Its popularity led to Dutch, German and Russian translations, and the book ran through nine English editions. He enjoyed his wealth, which came primarily from royalties, and travelled across the world to promote it.

Harold Moody – A physician and anti-racism activist

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1882, Harold Moody came to London by boat in 1904 to study medicine at King’s College.

He graduated at 28, finishing as the top student of his class. But he struggled to find employment for three years and faced racial discrimination as a student and a qualified doctor.

This led him to start his own general practice in Peckham in 1913.

In 1931, Moody founded the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), a British civil rights organisation.

“The LCP was the first Black-founded civil rights organisation in the UK prepared to challenge the perception of people of African descent and fight for their rights within civil society. Moody was a force of nature who followed in the tradition of medical practitioners who came to Britain to pursue their education and successfully qualified as a medical doctor,” said Williams.

William Cuffay – A tailor and left-wing activist

William Cuffay was born in 1788 in Chatham, Kent; his father was a freed slave from Saint Kitts.

He began working as a travelling tailor in his late teens and in 1839, he went on strike with fellow tailors – a move which cost him his job but launched his activist career.

He joined the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association and he became an important figure in the Chartist movement in London, which called for electoral reform, universal male suffrage, and the representation of working-class people in Parliament. Its protests were largely peaceful.

In 1842, Cuffay was elected to the national executive of the National Charter Association and later that year was voted president of the London Chartists.

A few years later, after large, significant and peaceful Chartist protests, he was accused of planning more militant demonstrations and transported to Tasmania as punishment. He remained there until he died, in poverty.

Source: Al Jazeera