A short history of black people in Britain

The history of black and Asian people in Britain is a history of racism and of resistance to racism.

The victims of racism often received white working class solidarity and had the backing of radicals and socialists. Workers’ Liberty surveys the history.

Individuals and small groups of black people have been living in Britain for at least 500 years. But only after the 1650s did their numbers begin to rise significantly.

When the “triangular trade” began, manufactured goods went from Bristol, Liverpool and London to the African coast, where textiles and guns were bartered for black slaves. The slaves were taken across the Atlantic to the Leeward Islands, Surinam and Jamaica, and there exchanged for sugar, spices and rum. These goods were then brought back - on the third leg of the “triangle” — to Britain, and sold.

It was an enormously profitable trade — one product of which was the creation of black communities in the slave port towns, as slaves and black sailors found their way to Britain.

By 1800 the black population of Britain was probably around 10,000, from a general population of 9 million.

The first black political leader in Britain was Olaudah Equiano who was kidnapped by slave traders as a child. By saving from petty trading he bought his own freedom for £40. Equiano travelled widely; in Britain he participated in the — largely white — abolitionist movement, wrote a key, popular expose of the slave trade, Interesting Narrative, and joined the radical London Corresponding Society.

One of the five poor and determined radicals hung after the “Cato Street” conspiracy, in 1820, was a black man, William Davidson. A black tailor, William Cuffay, was a hero and martyr of the Chartist movement — transported with two white comrades to Tasmania in 1849 he died there, in a workhouse, in 1870.

The British slave trade was only abolished in 1807; slavery itself in 1833. Racism, which had developed as a justification for slavery, continued, expanded and mutated to justify Empire. Peter Fryer writes, “From the 1840s to the 1940s Britain's ‘native policy' was dominated by racism. The golden age of British Empire was the golden age of British racism too… the flood-tide of racism never completely submerges the image of black as ‘man and brother'... kept alive by three distinct traditions: humanitarian abolitionism; radicalism; and working class solidarity."

Indeed, there has been a strong tradition of white racism in Britain, but there is also a strong current of anti-racism and solidarity, too. For example, during the US civil war (1861-5), the British government was sympathetic to the slave-owning Southern states. The British workers were generally for the North and abolition (Karl Marx, for example, reports on attending large workers' meetings called to back the Northern states), and even at great cost to themselves: the workers of old Chartist centres of north-west England suffered tremendous hardships because the North was blockading the slave ports and stopping the flow of cotton to the British textile industry. But they stood solid “for Lincoln and liberty”!

The first Asian elected to parliament was an Indian man, Dadabhai Naoroji — a campaigner against British policy in India — and, although elected as a Liberal (in Finsbury in 1892), he was a good friend of HM Hyndman, the British Marxist pioneer and campaigner for colonial independence. The Indian intellectuals in Britain were mostly radicals — Hyndman was invited to open the Indian Home Rule headquarters, in Highgate, in 1905. Indian revolutionaries found support on the left.

Pan Africanism began as a political current following a conference held at Westminster Town Hall in July 1900. One of the conference papers used a phrase the black American writer and campaigner WEB DuBois was later to make famous: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line."

The outbreak of war, in 1914, meant work for black workers in munitions factories. By 1918 there were about 20,000 black people in Britain.

After the war, and against a background of unemployment, there were race riots in Tyneside, Cardiff and Liverpool. At the start of 1919, 120 black workers were sacked in Liverpool after whites refused to work with them. Racist campaigns which were reflected even in the militant mainstream left paper, Labour Herald, were replied to by the US socialist Claude McKay in Sylvia Pankhurst's revolutionary socialist paper Workers' Dreadnought.

In 1922 the Indian revolutionary Shapurji Saklatvala became MP for North Battersea. He left the Independent Labour Party to join the Communist Party in March 1921 and was elected on a Labour Party ticket. He lost the seat in 1923, but won it back with local Labour Party support and against the wishes of the national party, keeping the seat until 1929.

George Padmore, the Trotskyist CLR James and Jomo Kenyatta were all active while living in Britain in the 1930s. Anti-colonial movements in Africa and the West Indies were linked via a pan-African centre in Britain.

On 22 June 1948 the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury with 492 Jamaican workers on board. The workers quickly found jobs — there was a shortage of workers: the London Evening Standard's report was headlined “Welcome Home".

Over the next few years others followed. By 1958, 125,000 West Indians had arrived. There were about 55,000 Indians and Pakistanis living in Britain. All these workers were British citizens — the 1948 Nationality Act had granted citizenship to all those from Britain's colonies and former colonies.

These workers faced discrimination and “colour bars” which prevented them entering some pubs, clubs and other facilities. They often had to take the dirty jobs, and the night shifts.

Half the white population had never met a black person and over two thirds held a “low opinion” of black people.

In 1958 there were race riots in Nottingham and London. Black militants attacked a fascist HQ in London in retaliation. The British Trotskyists proposed that the trade unions create workers’ defence squads to stop the racists in such places as Notting Hill.

Over the next 10 years racist agitation grew, demanding an end to black immigration. Peter Griffiths, Tory candidate in Smethwick in the 1964 General Election, beat a Labour minister on the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour".

Labour both tightened the immigration rules and passed a weak Race Relations Act. In 1968 Labour panicked and passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in three days of emergency debate, restricting the entry into Britain of Kenyan Asians — British passport holders who were being expelled from Kenya, the victims of “Africanisation".

Tory MP Enoch Powell made a bid for the leadership of Britain's racists. His “Rivers of Blood" speech predicted blood, violence, packed maternity wards and national disaster if black immigration was not halted. Dockers and Smithfield meat porters marched in support of Powell. Racist violence spiralled and, in 1971, the Immigration Act (which came into force in 1973) ended primary immigration.

In the 1970s the fascist National Front grew. The anti-Nazi Kevin Gately, a student from Warwick, was the first person killed on a British demonstration since 1919 as anti-Nazis fought fascists in Red Lion Square, London.

Rock Against Racism was founded by anti-racists who were outraged by racist remarks made by David Bowie and Eric Clapton. In 1977 the Anti-Nazi League was formed as an umbrella group of over hundreds of local anti-fascist initiatives.

Between 1976 and 1981 there were 31 racist murders in Britain.

In the 1960s and early 70s there were many instances of racism in the unions — discrimination against black workers and even racist strikes.

The turning point was the Grunwick strike where a largely Asian women workforce struck — against an Anglo-Asian employer — to demand union recognition in 1976-7. The women were backed by mass mobilisations of building workers, miners and electricians who fought the police on mass pickets alongside the Grunwick workers.

By the mid-70s there were two million black and Asian people in Britain, in a general population of 57 million.

Police violence and malpractice against black people escalated. The political police, the Special Branch, kept a watch on black activists, leading to the Mangrove Nine trail in 1971. A black radical meeting place, the Mangrove in west London, was repeatedly raided, and following a demonstration nine leaders were arrested. The defendants were acquitted by a white jury, some of whose members later went out drinking with the defendants.

The 1976 Notting Hill Carnival was attacked by police.

The notorious “Sus” laws were used to systematically stop and search black youth. A major explosion of anger — rooted in racism and poverty — took place in the summer of 1981. Handsworth, Toxteth and Brixton erupted in rioting.

At a set-piece confrontation in Southall 3,000 riot police and mounted police attempted to protect a fascist meeting booked for Ealing Town Hall from 5,000 anti-Nazis. Three hundred and forty-two, mostly Asian, people were arrested and white anti-fascist Blair Peach was killed by the police.

Asian youth organisations were formed. In areas such as Southall, west London, these youth groups were capable of fighting and beating the fascists. On 3 July 1981 Asian youth fought the police and burned down a west London pub which was being used to hold a Nazi skinhead gig, and ran 300 fascists out of the area.

Police in Newham, east London, and in Bradford attempted to criminalise Asian youth in the 1980s for the “crime” of self-defence against racist attacks.

Since Grunwick, the attitude of the British trade unions has shifted. Bill Morris was elected to lead the TGWU in 1991. Now the TUC organises anti-racist festivals and marches.

Some of the more offensive manifestations of popular racism — for example, in 1970s TV sit-coms — and some common racist language have gone from “respectable” conversation.

Many of these changes — in attitudes as well as government laws and formal union policies — have been won by “from the ground up” campaigning in which white and black workers have stood side by side.

On the other hand, both Tory and Labour governments have run racist campaigns on asylum; immigration rules are strict. The police, having made nods in the direction of equality following the Lawrence case, and the Macpherson Report, continue to arrest, brutalise and even kill black people.

United against racism, we can win!


William Cuffay

William Cuffay (1788-1870) was an important figure in the mass workers’ organisation the Chartists, which fought for the vote for working class people.

Cuffay was the son of a slave. He served an apprenticeship as a tailor and became an active trade unionist. After being sacked for involvement in a strike, Cuffay became convinced of the need for universal suffrage and the need for working class representation in parliament.

Cuffay joined the Metropolitan Tailors Charter Association in 1839. In 1842 he was elected to the five man Chartist national executive. Later that year he became president of the London Chartists.

Cuffay was on the “physical force” wing of the Chartists and was arrested in 1848 and accused of plotting an armed rising. He defended himself bravely in court but was convicted and “transported” for life to Tasmania. Even after he was pardoned he stayed in Tasmainia and continued his political activity.

William Cuffay died in poverty in a workhouse in 1870.

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