Black History Month (BHM) is a month of events in October which takes place annually and celebrates the culture, history and achievements of Britain’s African and Caribbean communities in the country. In recent years, for example, Kingston University’s History department has used BHM to help celebrate the life of Cesar Picton.
Cesar Picton (1755-1836) was brought to England from Senegal as a gift for a local family in 1761. He went on to become a coal merchant and a wealthy and respected gentleman. He remains Kingston-on-Thames’ most famous eighteenth-century Black businessman, and his previous homes in Kingston and Thames Ditton are marked by commemorative plaques.
He has also been commemorated at Kingston University’s main campus through the Picton Room, which was named after him. But Picton was just one of a growing community of Black Africans in Georgian London. Other well known Black contemporaries included people such as Dido Belle, Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, and – via new avenues of important research on Black British history – it has been estimated that some 10-15,000 Africans lived in Georgian London alone. BHM has been instrumental in raising more awareness of this fascinating and relatively neglected dimension to our national history.
Indeed, BHM, which has been marked in the UK now for more than 30 years, has helped contribute to much more research on general Black British history, an approach to the past which explores how Black history is part of national, local and community histories, as well as identifying and celebrating the many ways in which Black individuals have impacted on economic, social, political and cultural histories.
Unsurprisingly, with numerous events in 2018 commemorating the end of the First World War, various exciting pieces of research have appeared this year on the contribution of the African and Caribbean communities to Britain’s war effort in 1914-1918. And BHM has been instrumental in raising public awareness of this scholarship. A good example I came across recently is a nicely thoughtful piece in BHM 2018 magazine, the official guide to Black History Month, a publication which is available in many public libraries and archives in the UK this month.
Entitled ‘Africans fight for Britain’, this short but important article concentrates on how the enduring images of the Great War arguably excluded Africans from the ‘official’ British story of the war. Great War propaganda posters are a case in point. Posters of British General Lord Kitchener and John Bull pointing their finger and saying ‘Your Country Needs You’ exuded Anglo-superiority and, according to the magazine, ‘excluded any idea of an African inclusion in the war’.
Yet, as recent research is now beginning to show, there were many people of African descent who fought for ‘their’ country and empire during the war. As BHM 2018 magazine notes, one of these people, for example, was Walter Tull: ‘Both he and his brother served in the military. Tull fought in the first Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was killed in the second Battle of the Somme on 25 March, 1918, near Favreuil, France. By then, Tull had become an officer in command’.
Another example was David Clemetson, who was born in Jamaica and became a student at Cambridge University. In the war, he became an officer in the British Yeomanry Regiment on 27 October, 1915, a full year before Tull. Moreover, there were many other individuals of African descent from Britain and from across the Dominions and Colonies who fought in integrated British units on the Western Front and in other arenas of the conflict elsewhere across the globe.
In fact, as the BHM 2018 magazine points out, the African contribution to the war effort ‘provided Africans with a legitimacy through past actions for a political voice in the future’. Following the Great War, various organisations were established in Britain to petition against inequality and to campaign for the improvement of the lives of people of African descent.
Significantly, as BHM 2018 magazine also reminds us, it was the contribution and sacrifice of soldiers of African descent during World War I ‘that helped shape the experience, identity and purpose of African people in Britain in the 20th century’.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History in the History dept. at Kingston University
(Images: Hayward and WikiMedia Commons)