Arrival of black immigrants in London
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The history of African immigrants in London.
Early in the 16th century Africans arrived in London when Catherine of Aragon travelled to London and brought a group of her African attendants with her. Around the same time African named trumpeters, who served Henry VII and Henry VIII, came to London. When trade lines began to open between London and West Africa, Africans slowly began to become part of the London population. The first record of an African in London was in 1593. His name was Cornelius. London’s residents started to become fearful of the increased black population. At this time Elizabeth I declared that black "Negroes and black Moors" were to be arrested and expelled from her kingdom, although this did not lead to actual legislation.
During this era there was a rise of black settlements in London. Britain was involved with the tri-continental slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Black slaves were attendants to sea captains and ex-colonial officials as well as traders, plantation owners and military personnel. This marked growing evidence of the black presence in the northern, eastern and southern areas of London. There were also small numbers of free slaves and seaman from West Africa and South Asia. Many of these people were forced into beggary due to the lack of jobs and racial discrimination.
Around the 1750s London became the home of many of Blacks, Jews, Irish, Germans, and Huguenots. The number of Blacks in London reached between 10,000 to 15,000 during the 1760s.. Evidence of the number of Black residents in London has been found through registered burials. The whites of London had widespread views that Black people in London were less than human; these views were expressed in slave sale advertisements. Some Black people in London resisted through escape. Leading Black activists of this era included Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Quobna Ottobah Cugoano.
With the support of other Britons these activists demanded that Blacks be freed from slavery. Supporters involved in this movements included workers and other nationalities of the urban poor. London Blacks vocally contested slavery and the slave trade. At this time the slavery of whites was forbidden, but the legal statuses of these practices were not clearly defined. Free black slaves could not be enslaved, but blacks who were bought as slaves to Britain were considered the property of their owners. During this era Lord Mansfield declared that a slave who fled from his master could not be taken by force or sold abroad. This verdict fueled the numbers of Blacks that escaped slavery, and helped send slavery into decline. During this same period many slave soldiers who fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War arrived in London. These soldiers were deprived of pensions and many of them became poverty-stricken and were reduced to begging on the streets. The Blacks in London lived among the whites in areas of Mile End, Stepney, Paddington and St Giles. The majority of these people did not live as slaves, but as servants to wealthy whites. Many became labeled as the "Black Poor" defined as former low wage soldiers, seafarers and plantation workers.
During the late 18th century there were many publications and memoirs written about the "black poor". One example is the writings of Equiano, who became an unofficial spokesman for Britain’s Black community. A memoir about his life is entitled, The Interesting Narratives of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Equiano became a landowner in Cambridgeshire and married Susannah Cullen, from Soham. Both his daughters were born and baptised there.
Coming into the early 19th century, more groups of black soldiers and seaman were displaced after the Napoleonic wars and settled in London. These settlers suffered and faced many challenges as did many Black Londoners. In 1807 the British slave trade was abolished and the slave trade was abolished completely in the British empire by 1834. The number of blacks in London was steadily declining with these new laws. Fewer blacks were brought into London from the West Indies and parts of Africa.
The 19th century was also a time when "scientific racism" flourished. Many white Londoners claimed that they were the superior race and that blacks were not as intelligent as whites. They tried to hold up their accounts with scientific evidence, for example the size of the brain. Such claims were later proven false, but this was just one more obstacle for the blacks in London to hurdle over. The late 19th century effectively ended the first period of large scale black immigration to London and Britain. This decline in immigration gave way to the gradual incorporation of blacks and their descendents into this predominantly white society.
During the mid-19th century there were restrictions on African immigration. In the later part of the 19th century there was a build up of small groups of black dockside communities in towns such as Canning Town, Liverpool, and Cardiff. This was a direct effect of new shipping links that were established with the Caribbean and West Africa. As these small groups of black communities made their lives as a part of London many of the London-born blacks began to make a significant mark on London life. There was a continuous influx of African students, sportsmen, and businessmen mixed with this dominant white society. These black-born Londoners were gaining professional positions as doctors, politicians and activists. Slowly they were being accepted into London and British society.
World War I
World War I was another growth period for blacks in London. Their communities grew with the arrival of merchant seaman and soldiers. At the same time there is also a continuous presence of small groups of students from Africa and the Caribbean slowly immigrating into London. These first communities which housed London’s first black immigrants survive and now are among the oldest black communities of London.
World War II
World War II marked another growth period for black immigrants into London and British societies. Many blacks from the Caribbean and West Africa arrived in small groups as wartime workers, merchant seaman, and servicemen from the army, navy, and air forces. It is estimated that approximately twenty thousand black Londoners lived in communities concentrated in the dock side areas of London, Liverpool and Cardiff. One of these black Londoners, Learie Constantine, who was a welfare officer in the RAF, was refused service at a London hotel. He stood up for his rights and later was awarded . This particular example is used by some to illustrate the slow change from racism towards acceptance and equality of all citizens in London.
Just after World War II ended in 1945, the first groups of Britain’s post-war Caribbean immigrants settled in London. There were an estimated 492 that were passengers on the SS Empire Windrush. These passengers settled in the area of Brixton which is now a prominently black district in Britain. From the 1950s into the 1960s there was a mass migration of workers from all over the English-speaking Caribbean, particularly Jamaica, who settled in Britain. These immigrants were invited to fill labour requirements in London’s hospitals, transportation venues and railway development. They are widely viewed as having been a major contributing factor to the rebuilding of the post-war urban London economy.
In 1962 the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in Britain along with a succession of other laws in 1968, 1971, and 1981 that severely restricted the entry of Black immigrants into Britain. During this period it is widely argued that emergent blacks and Asians struggled in Britain against racism and prejudice. In 1975 a new voice emerged for the black London population; his name was David Pitt and he brought a new voice to the House of Lords. He spoke against racism and for equality in regards to all residents of Britain. With this new tone also came the opportunity for the black population to elect four Black members into Parliament.
By the end of the 20th century the number of black Londoners numbered half a million, according to the 1991 census. An increasing number of these black Londoners were London- or British-born. Even with this growing population and the first blacks elected to Parliament, many argue that there was still discrimination and a socio-economic imbalance in London among the Blacks. In 1992 the number of blacks in Parliament increased to six and in 1997 they increased their numbers to nine. There are still many problems that Black Londoners face; the new global and high tech information revolution is changing the urban economy and some argue that it is driving unemployment rates among blacks up relative to non-blacks, something which, it is argued, threatens to erode the progress made thus far.
As of June 2007, the black population of London is 802,300 or 10.6% of the population of London. 4.3% of Londoners are Caribbean, 5.5% of Londoners are African and a further 0.8% are from other black backgrounds including American and Latin American. There are also 117,400 people who are mixed black and white.
- The African Community in London, Museum of London website accessed 7 August 2010
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- Davies, Carole Boyce (2008). Encyclopedia of the African diaspora: origins, experiences, and culture. ABC-CLIO Ltd. ISBN 1-85109-700-7.
- Banton, Michael (1955), The Coloured Quarter. Jonathan Cape. London.
- Shyllon, Folarin, "The Black Presence and Experience in Britain: An Analytical Overview", in Gundara and Duffield eds. (1992), Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain. Avebury, Aldershot.http://www.chronicleworld.org
- File, Nigel and Chris Power (1981), Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958. Heinnemann Educational. http://www.chronicleworld.org
- Geoffrey Bell, The other Eastenders : Kamal Chunchie and West Ham's early black community (Stratford: Eastside Community Heritage, 2002)
- Rose, Sonya (May 2001). "Race, empire and British wartime national identity, 1939–45". Historical Research 74 (184): 224. doi:10.1111/1468-2281.00125.
- Resident Population Estimates by Ethnic Group, All Persons