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African and Indian People in Rural Britain

Watch this interview with Laurence Westgaph on black presence in North West England.
What have you discovered in your years of research about the history of the Black presence in the northwest of England, in general? Well, I found out a lot. Obviously, I’m very interested in the longevity of that Black presence. I’m from Liverpool. Liverpool being the capital of the slave trade, my family have been in Liverpool for a very long time. So it’s kind of come out of my own personal interest in my own family genealogy. And off the back of that, I’ve realised that the Black presence in this part of Britain is quite diverse. And in many ways it has this longevity. Although Liverpool has not been– Liverpool doesn’t really have a very long, important history.
Certainly from the beginning of the 18th century, Liverpool begins to come into its own and grow very rapidly. And from that very early period, there’s already a Black presence here. So when Liverpool’s population was less than 10,000 people, there was already a Black presence in the town, and that only grew over time. So, in many ways, it allows me to ask the question, what is the quintessential scouser? If Liverpool has been a very multicultural place from a very early period in terms of its own history, then what does that mean about the racial makeup of the community here in Liverpool? So, that’s kind of where my research has led me. These are some of the conclusions.
Based on that, I’ve also looked at how the Black presence in Liverpool was socially stratified. So we have these ideas that Black people in Britain– certainly during the 18th and 19th century– everyone was poor. They were all on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder due to slavery and racism, or slavery and the racism that comes out of that. So you had Black people who were poor, but you also had Black people who were on the higher rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. You had a Black presence in Liverpool that was educated and affluent, from this quite early period. Which again, is something that is not really told in the narrative.
It was very interesting that in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn, for example, tweeted out that the first Black MPs elected to parliament in Britain were in 1987. Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng, and the late great Bernie Grant. So I had to tweet him back and say, hold on Jeremy. You’re only out by about 175 years. Because there was already a person of African descent who was representing parliament in Stafford as early as 1812. He was born in Jamaica. And there were other– there were other examples of that throughout the 19th century. In order to give a kind of nuance to this idea that Black people have only ever been poor and downtrodden.
What would you say– or, why was Liverpool so significant in terms of the slave trade and black presence? So once we became dominant, those links remained after the slave trade period had ended. And so, people of African descent continue to come to Liverpool throughout the 19th century. And this can be documented in parish records and other primary evidence. This is why Liverpool becomes such an important place. Then after the slave trade’s abolished, Liverpool becomes the centre of the palm oil trade. So we have lots of those links that were made with West Africa during the slave trade period continue to benefit Liverpool, long after the slave trade itself has ended.
As to the links with the Caribbean through the sugar plantations, et cetera– so we had people coming over from the Caribbean to Liverpool. Again, long before the Windrush. You know, we have this Windrush idea in this country. But Liverpool didn’t really benefit from the Windrush migration. Liverpool’s immigration of Black people comes at a much earlier period. And throughout the 19th century, it would be cotton that would make Britain so fabulously wealthy. And Liverpool was the main point of importation of American grown cotton. Which again was grown by enslaved people, right up until 1865.
Because of that, Liverpool dominated the immigrant trade, so to speak, in terms of ships that were going over to the United States with many of them left from Liverpool. And so, on the other hand, lots of ships that had sailed from Liverpool returned to Liverpool and Black people would be on board those ships. Most famously, people like Frederick Douglass. He sailed into Liverpool in 1846. Henry Box Brown, James Watkins. All these fugitive slaves as they were known came to Liverpool during the 1840s. And many other individuals also. So Liverpool was very much a centre.

This week you will study archival evidence of African and Indian people on country estates in eighteenth and nineteenth-century England. You will also consider how their presence might be researched, explored and represented at historic houses today. This research not only gives a glimpse of the people who have otherwise been left out of the historical account but it also allows British people of colour to connect with this history.

Watch this interview with Laurence Westgaph, political activist and television presenter, on black presence in North West England.

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Country Houses and the British Empire: How Imperialism Transformed Britain’s Colonial Countryside

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