Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History was written as a companion to the BBC television series of the same name, and has been shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize.

I had only seen the first, introductory episode of the series, so I approached the book fresh. At 526 pages (not counting end notes) it’s quite a tome, but I found myself racing through it, eager to find the next twist in the story. Olusoga’s style is highly readable, and he is adept at focusing in on individual stories that capture the imagination while still giving the big picture.

The book shows how the Black presence in Britain can be traced back to Roman times and has been a feature of life, particularly in London and other big cities, since Tudor times. It demonstrates how British economic interest, first in the slave trade itself and then in slave-produced cotton, warred for centuries with a mixture of the exalted belief that British air was ‘too pure for slaves to breathe’ and genuine courageous humanitarianism. It shows how anti-slave trade activity post-1807 led Britain into a century of African colonisation. And it shows how the ugliness of scientific racism and ‘social Darwinism’ overturned the comparative tolerance of the Georgian and early Victorian periods – when mixed-race marriages were relatively unremarkable and former slaves like Frederick Douglass could command audiences of thousands across the country – and blighted attitudes for a hundred years or more.

Britain may have been one of the first countries to outlaw the slave trade, but in the years before abolition, it was also its biggest player. As Olusoga shows, British involvement in the slave trade began in the early 17th C and gained the Royal seal of approval in 1672. In just the 20 years before the slave trade was outlawed by Act of Parliament in 1807, three quarters of a million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas aboard British ships.

Britain has things to be proud of in the history of relations with its Black citizens, but much to be ashamed of too. In 1948, when my father was writing his MA thesis on West Indian workers in Liverpool (and he and my mother were courting in the city’s West Indian dance halls), a series of organised attacks were carried out on West Indian homes and businesses. They echoed attacks in 1919 that led to the murder of Bermudan sailor, Charles Wootton. And they would be echoed again in attacks carried out by the National Front in the 1970s and 80s.

Reading this book has been the latest skirmish in a long round of thinking-I-know-quite-a-lot-then-finding-out-how-ignorant-I-really-am. The process is humbling but also rather exhilarating. Still so much to learn – even at my time of life!

A powerful, emotional and eye-opening read - and timely, given the rise in racially motivated attacks that has sadly accompanied the Brexit vote.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Balti Britain by Ziauddin Sardar, The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise Of Multi-Racial Britain by Mike and Trevor Phillips.

Avoid If You Dislike: Having your eyes opened and your preconceptions overturned

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of tea and an open mind

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

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