White myths, black omissions: the historical origins of racism in Britain

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White myths, black omissions: the historical origins of racism in Britain

Marika Sherwood, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London

Abstract Racism in Britain is rooted in history. This article considers the ways in which Britishness was constructed around white visions of identity, rooted in imperial attitudes and assumptions. Although the dominant view is that the black presence in Britain was not significant before large-scale immigration after the Second World War, this article sheds light on the rich and varied nature of black people’s experiences in Britain in the nineteenth century. The central argument is that racism today can only be fully appreciated if we recognise the racist assumptions that dominated the period between the mid-nineteenth century and World War II.

Keywords: Racism, Empire, Black presence, Britain


In a previous publication (Sherwood, 2001), I argued that until the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes to black peoples were fluid, with racist ideology perhaps mainly confined to those making their fortunes in the trade in enslaved Africans and from the labour of these men, women and children on plantations in the Americas and West Indies. Yet, from the 1840s, racist ideology was deliberately promulgated in Britain. It was spread by all possible means, including popular culture, the media, the churches and missionaries, the education system and spokespeople from all walks of life, as well as by the burgeoning ‘scientific’ and imperialist associations (MacKenzie, 1986). This was an outcome of the wars that brought into existence a new Asiatic and African empire, by the emigration of millions of working-class British (including Scots and Irish) to colonise this new empire, and by the empire serving as a major source of employment for the ever-increasing middle-classes. Thus, the notion of ‘British’ had to be constructed in superior terms in relation to ‘the other’ in order to have the right to expropriate lands from the ‘inferior’ and ‘uncivilised’ and to press imperialist expansion under the umbrella of the ‘civilising mission’. Colonial peoples were either mediated into savages, unable to rule themselves, without religion or law, perhaps even without language, and thus to be ‘civilised’ or seen as a dissolute, fainéant civilisation unfit to rule themselves.

I do not mean to imply that all whites in Britain were or became imbued with racism. There are always exceptions. For example, there was much support for the perceived struggle against slavery in the American Civil War among the very weavers whose livelihoods were threatened by the scarcity of cotton. Some, such as Richard Cobden (Hinde,1987) spoke out against colonialism and, as I will show in a forthcoming book, Henry Sylvester Williams and his colleagues, in calling the very first Pan-African conference in 1900, found some white, English and Irish supporters, including the daughter of Richard Cobden. A general sea change in racist attitudes can perhaps be linked to three mid-nineteenth century developments: the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Darwinianism with its clear racist imperatives and the colonisation of the African sub-continent.

In this article, I firstly want to expand on my previous work in the context of new research by analysing the ways in which black people were omitted from the historical record from the c1840s to the c1940s. Secondly, by illuminating in a more objective manner the nature of the black presence in Britain during this period, the article provides an alternative perspective on British identity. Thirdly, in the process, the article sheds light on the origins of racism in Britain.

The black presence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

When William of Orange arrived in Exeter in 1688 to take over the anything but ‘united’ kingdom, in his entourage were some 20,000 troops, including between two and three hundred black men, attired in ‘Imbroyder’d Caps lin’d with white Fur and Plumes of white Feathers, to attend the Horse’ (Broadsheet, 1688). These blacks beg a number of questions. What was William’s purpose in bringing them? What happened to these men? Did they continue to serve in the royal household? Did they marry and settle here? And are they among our black ancestors?

In subsequent years, the British army also employed blacks, mainly as musicians. Yet while these men served with honour – for example at Waterloo (Ellis, 2001a, 2001b) – by the mid nineteenth century the British used colonial regiments only in colonial wars, in contrast to the French who used them in Europe, for example, in the Crimean War. One possible reason for this is that so many black ex-soldiers had settled in Britain that fears of ‘mongrelisation’, evoked from the mid 19th century, led to the practice being confined to colonial wars.

The dominant historiographical impression, however, is that there were no black soldiers in the army at all, a perception which still has resonance today. Thus, the Black and Asian Studies Association (BASA) has challenged the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum about their displays for omitting information about black troops. Black troops must have been in the military, otherwise why introduce the King’s Regulations imposing a colour bar in 1917, and the confirmation of this in 1941 by the Army Council Instruction 101 2 (c) which excluded all but ‘British subjects of unmixed European descent’?. Research by Ellis (2001c) has shown that that not only were there blacks in the military, but that on discharge they and their often white wives settled in the UK.

This is just one example of historiographical misinterpretation about the black presence in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In particular, two impressions have been created: that all black people in Britain during the era of slavery were enslaved, and that they were all household ‘servants’. However, this is far from the truth. While we do not yet know just how incorrect these assumptions were, recent research on parish, military, gaol and similar records indicates that there were many free people and that they worked in a variety of occupations.

For example, a recent paper by Evans (2002) tells the story of Nathaniel Wells, churchwarden, member of the Chepstow Hunt, Justice of the Peace, sheriff and subsequently Deputy Lieutenant of Monmouthshire in 1818. Wells was a black man, the son of a plantation owner in St. Kitts and an enslaved African woman. The son was ‘recognised’ by his father, sent to England to be educated and married a white woman, owned one of the grandest houses in Monmouthshire and seemingly was accepted by his peers.

These sorts of records also indicate that men and women of African origin and descent, and also from India, were domiciled all over Britain and intermarried with the local white population. While a few whites objected, most of these marriages seemingly passed unnoticed, at least by those who recorded local events. Some of the black men of differing social strata, whose lives have been researched, had white wives: Joseph Emidy the violinist (McGrady, 1991, 1999); Olaudah Equiano the anti-slavery campaigner and writer (Walvin, 1998, Carretta, 1995); George Africanus the Nottingham Freeholder and Keeper of the Register of the Office of Servants (Gray, 1997) and Francis Barber, Dr. Johnson’s manservant to whose marriage the slaver Sir John Hawkins objected (Gerzina, 1995). Two others include William Davidson, carpenter, hung for participating in the Cato Street Conspiracy, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, internationally renowned composer. That the attitudes of some British public figures was that of acceptance is demonstrated by the aid the wife of William Cuffey, the Chartist leader, received from Richard Cobden to enable her to join her husband, transported to Tasmania as a convict for his political activism (Holyoake, 1893).

Elizabeth Dido Belle of Kenwood, the niece of the Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, is the only black Englishwoman currently on whose life some information is available. She married a Mr Davinier, believed to have been a local minister of religion (Adams, 1984). Parish records also give information on such intermarriages.

The implication, of course, is that what today we call ‘ethnic relations’ were relatively free and easy before the mid-nineteenth century. This could not have been ubiquitous. Those involved in the trade in enslaved Africans and the use of slave-labour in the Americas were keen to spread propaganda about Africans’ savagery, and the lack of civilisation of Indians. But there was counter propaganda, not only by black people themselves, and by organisations like the Anti-Slavery Society, but also by individual white men. The poet and artist William Blake was one of these (Erdman, 1952). His great poem, espousing both gender and racial equality, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, was published in 1793. The following year he was asked to illustrate Captain J.G. Stedman’s book on the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Blake would have gained invaluable knowledge of slavery from reading the text. He must also have gained more first-hand information from Ottobah Cugoano, the Africa-born anti-slavery writer, who was the manservant of the artist Richard Cosway, whom Blake often visited (see Fryer, 1985 for Cugoano). While Blake’s poetry is subject to ongoing debate, his inveighing against slavery is unambiguous. This is also true of his notions about the ‘English’ on pilgrimage to Canterbury. The 1816 engraving shows an unmistakably ‘multicultural’ group making its way to the shrine of Thomas Beckett. There are at least three unmistakeably black men and a number of others of debateable ethnicity in the group of thirty-five.

To mention just one other person, this time fighting against prejudices at the end of the nineteenth century, and still wholly unrecognised, let me introduce Catherine Impey, a Quaker, whose family had connections with India. Propelled by her sense of injustice and the destructiveness of the caste system there she published a journal, Anti-caste, ‘to give insight into the evils of Caste as it prevails in countries where our white race habitually ostracises those who are even partially descended from darker races; and by circulating in our pages the current writings of prominent and thoughtful persons of coloured races hope to give them fresh opportunity of presenting their case before white readers’ (Impey, 1888). Learning of the not wholly dissimilar situation in the USA, she travelled there to meet Frederick Douglass and soon the journal contained articles on the situation there. Catherine Impey was probably the first owner/publisher of a journal to employ a black editor, Dominica-born Celestine Edwards.

Inevitably these intermarriages mean that many ‘British’ are also African and/or Indian, or the descendants of other sons and daughters of Empire living in or visiting Britain.

The early twentieth century - marketing the Empire

By the time we reach the twentieth century, a vast propaganda effort had developed to reinforce a certain view of Britishness (see Mackenzie, 1985 and Yeandle’s article in this edition). One such was the series of Empire Exhibitions which demonstrated the use of the colonies as producers of raw materials and as consumers of manufactured products. While the very first, called the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, was only attended by five and a half million people, the next in 1924, called the Empire Exhibition, was visited by 27 million people – over half the population. The Royal Anthropological Society produced a leaflet for the Exhibition, which warned that ‘many primitive beliefs and customs appear repulsive to the civilised man’. Among the displays were ‘natives’ imported from the colonies and displayed to demonstrate their cultural, linguistic, intellectual and technological inferiority. This was more sophisticated than the 1810 display of The Hottentot Venus (Saartjie Baartman: see McGreal, 2002) in Piccadilly Circus or, the ever-growing exhibitions of ‘natives’ such as the groups of Zulus on show in the 1850s in St.George’s Gallery on Hyde Park Corner and at the Linwood Gallery in Leicester Square (see Graham-Stewart, 1996 and 2001). Not surprisingly, Africans in Britain protested to the Colonial Office, pointing out that such exhibits were unlikely to ‘improve or educate’ public opinion as to the actual conditions of home life’ in Africa (Public Record Office: CO554/64 #23120 and CO554/64 #24146. Copies of some of the protests found their way to the USA as I found them in the Schomburg Center: Phelps Stokes Papers, Box 24, file 1. See also West Africa 22/3/1924, 10, 17 and 24 May 1924 and 4/10/1924, p.1050).

Undeterred and unwilling to learn, smaller exhibitions were mounted regularly until the last pre-WWII massive effort in Glasgow, attended by twelve and a half million. It was replete with models, colonial products, panels of information and, of course, live exhibits. According to one chronicler of this event, the latter evoked ‘blatant contempt for the exotic and the unfamiliar… for the tradition that native peoples were objects of fun or distrust was deep-rooted’ (see Crampsey, 1988, p.31). This time the protests were manifold: for example, colonial organisations led by George Padmore worked with the Independent Labour Party to mount a counter-exhibition shown both in Glasgow and London; the Scottish left-wing paper Forward printed letters of protest (International African Opinion, 1938; Workers’ Empire Exhibition Committee, 1938; Forward, 1938).

The final exhibition in 1949, now again ‘Colonial’, was mounted by the post-war Labour government. It was probably the brainchild of the Colonial Office, as a recent opinion poll had found that over half those questioned could not name one colony, 75% did not know the difference between a colony and a dominion, and 3% believed ‘America was still a colony’ (The Times, 1949a). Exhibitions were mounted in a variety of venues such as various missionary society headquarters, the Royal Geographical and Anthropological Societies (see Rainger, 1978), and the Royal United Service Institute, which displayed ‘models, pictures, portraits…connected with actions in the Colonies, and personal relics of the great commanders who were responsible for the acquisition and protection of Colonies’. One can thus make an informed guess as to what message these exhibits were conveying: blacks were exotica, awaiting western civilisation, which was kindly provided by Britain, even if sometimes at the point of a gun. This hypothesis is borne out by the central feature, put together by the Central Office of Information. A ‘collection of effigies of the surprising and often alarming aboriginals of the colonies… displays showing colonial progress, for example in medicine, education and controlling pests…’ Naturally, effigies of whites dispensed all this ‘progress’ (The Times, 1949b).

But, while techniques had grown more sophisticated in that the ‘natives’ on display were presented to the King when he opened this propaganda exercise, attitudes had not changed. In his speech the King stated that the colonies needed ‘capital investment, which would be undertaken primarily for the benefit of the colonial peoples and could equally serve the economy of the Mother Country’. The Times’ editorial noted that ‘it is implicit in the mission of the empire that the peoples under temporary tutelage shall be enabled and encouraged to participate in the more sophisticated culture and political development of the ruling race’. It would of course take some time for the ‘primitive mind’ of the Africans to be ‘naturalised in the principles of British self-government’ (The Times, 1949c).

Milton Brown, a Nigerian residing in London, published a pamphlet of protest, An African at the Colonial Exhibition. In this he wrote that the much-vaunted colonial progress was ‘never seen at home’. White superiority was personified by pictures and mock-ups of white advisors to the chiefs, by white doctors and nurses tending ill natives. The caption regarding medical services so kindly provided by Britain suggested that if only more Africans would come forward to be trained, there would be no need for these whites. But, he explains, Africans cannot ‘pay for the education’ as their wages are abysmally low. Yet the British companies which hired them saw their profits rising year on year. Propaganda was rife, but with the new ‘trusteeship’ vision: Brown states that to visitors it was explained that ‘when the traders and slavers had come to Africa the British government was reluctantly forced to follow, to take over the administration of my country, to put a stop to bloodshed and to ensure justice, as it were, between the traders and the native peoples.’ Brown found this ‘strange, for to us Africans the Government has always appeared as the force behind the traders, smoothing their path with laws imposed upon the native people, and ready to back them with troops against the African when necessary. There is a great deal at this exhibition about the “reluctance” with which our British rulers came, but nothing at all about the conditions they imposed upon the people of Africa in the interests of the traders.’

What Brown did not know regarding the training of Africans for the medical profession is that while British medical schools accepted Africans if they could pay the fees, it was almost impossible for those who had passed their final examinations to gain the ‘house appointments’ required. Those that had qualified were employed by the Colonial medical service at lower rates of pay than whites who had qualified in the same medical schools. Some colonies did not employ black medical men at all. Those wanting to train as nurses were confronted with the same colour bar: Dr Harold Moody, the founder of the League of Coloured Peoples had raised the issue with the government in 1937; in 1938 the Overseas Nursing Association enquired from 18 hospitals in the UK if they would take ‘coloured’ probationers: none would (Sherwood, 2002).

The Empire Marketing Board (EMB) had a shorter life than the Exhibitions. It was an explicit propaganda venture by Leo Amery, arch-imperialist and Conservative MP, who went on to become Colonial Secretary in 1924.The EMB emphasised the ‘complimentary’ role of the Mother Country and her colonial empire: the colonies produced raw materials and purchased the manufactured products of the UK. Manufacturing was prohibited in the colonies. The Board used posters to elucidate and circulate this notion nation-wide. The posters stereotyped colonials as often scantily clad (if women) labourers and promoted the image of the ‘strong silent bush officer’. The EMB recognised that colonials were not homogeneous, differentiating between, for example Malta and ‘at the other end, the vast backward regions of Africa inhabited by primitive peoples whom we are only beginning to lift up from the more elementary barbarism, and among whom such a thing as national sentiment is, of course, an entirely inconceivable idea’ (see Meredith, 1986 and 1987). Thus the EMB’s message was explicitly racist – and also deliberately misinforming at another level, as the National Council of British West Africa, with nationalist representatives from Britain’s West Africans colonies espousing a ‘national sentiment’, had first met in 1920.

It is hardly surprising with this kind of propaganda, that as soon as WWII ended, workers brought here from the colonies to aid the war effort were immediately asked when they were going home. Or that those who had returned to the Caribbean and found themselves jobless, were not welcome when they returned to try their luck in the Mother Country.

Colour bar Britain

Given the propaganda efforts of the government, the racism espoused in popular culture and in the schools, it is hardly surprising that post-war black immigrants were seen as intruders into a homogeneous and civilised white society. Black people and their centuries of presence here had been carefully written out of English history, and even the histories of the world wars. We should therefore not be surprised that racism in many forms, including direct ‘colour bars’ were prevalent. This was linked to anti-Irish sentiment, reflected in signs such as ‘no Irish, no blacks and no dogs’. The government set up a Royal Commission on Population, which reported in 1949 that immigrants to Britain should be ‘of good human stock and not prevented by their religion or race from intermarrying with the host population and becoming merged in it’ (Royal Commission on Population, 1949).

As ever, some must have believed that there might be some contradiction between being ‘civilised’ and operating a colour bar. The question of introducing legislation against the colour bar was first raised in the Colonial Office (CO) by Lord Moyne in June 1941 (see Sherwood, 1985). The issue was raised again in 1948 when the CO asked the Attorney General not to ‘close the door’ on legislation being discussed with the Home Office as there had been ‘innumerable instances of discrimination in the past twelve months’. The Attorney General was less than enthusiastic, finding that even legislation regarding the colour bar being applied against those blacks seeking accommodation would be ‘an unwarrantable interference in the freedom of contract’. Some inter-departmental meetings were held: Ivor Cummings, a black official in the CO’s Welfare Department recorded that ‘it is clear that neither the Home Office nor Health want to have anything to do with this’ (Correspondence in Public Record Office: CO537/2588 (11035/B)).

The following year there was yet more discussion in the CO, this time with the new Commonwealth Relations Office, which supported the idea of legislation. Lord Faringdon had hoped that the Colonial Affairs group in the Parliamentary Labour Party would be lucky in the draw for a private member’s bill, but it was not. Unable to raise the question of legislation in the House of Commons, Lord Faringdon suggested proposing legislation in the House of Lords, but was advised against it by Lord Listowel presumably because the Lord Chancellor was firmly against any anti-colour bar proposals. He had even rejected a plea by Phil Piratin MP in the House of Commons for a law against ‘restrictive covenants’ in tenancy leases (Correspondence in PRO: CO537/4273 (11035/B).

The issue went on and on, though the CO was merged into the Dominions Office and the officials of the crusading Welfare Department were retired. Fenner Brockway proposed bills annually in the early 1960s. Yet nothing was done until the passing of the Race Relations Act in 1976, which was given some powers to investigate allegations of certain forms of racism, but had no powers to prosecute until the Act was amended in 2002.

Given the above, it is of little surprise that ignorance and racism was manifest in the education system. The issue of ignorance regarding ‘overseas dominions’ was raised as early as 1913 (See e.g. Multicultural Teaching, 1988). This was repeated in 1939 in a letter to The Times (8/7/1939, p.8) by a retired director of education who had served in two colonies. The Federation of Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire at its 1939 congress discussed the issue. At the same time an official of the CO noted that interest in the Empire was so low that at the last debate in the House of Commons only about one hundred MPs were present. So the CO decided to approach the Board of Education. The 1941 discussions on legislation against the colour bar, mentioned above, which involved many government departments, reveals some aspects of the Board’s attitudes. Its official stated that this was a ‘thorny topic…in certain districts, for example the large ports, parents may very justifiably hold very strong feelings on the idea of the mingling together socially of coloured peoples and our own people’ (Correspondence in PRO: CO859/80/7 & 8. On the situation and experience of Black workers in Britain during WWII, see also Sherwood (1985)).

The following year the Board of Education maintained that ‘colour prejudice does not arise through teaching or impressions gained by young children in schools’ without giving any research source for this assertion. It was parents, and ‘outside sources’ that were responsible, but the Board official agreed that ‘many teachers [were] indifferent and ignorant of colonial matters’ (PRO: 859/80/11: internal minute of meeting between Keith and Charles, 27/1/1942). The idea that teachers were just as ignorant of the history of black peoples in Britain did not cross the minds of these officials.

The issue of colour prejudice was raised with the CO by sociologist Kenneth Little (Little,1947: the first sociological treatise on black peoples in Britain) in August 1942. He wrote that such attitudes were based on ‘notions of inferiority and unintelligence….passed on by every cultural medium.’ Little suggested a revision of textbooks and pressure on the media and missionaries to stop propagating negative images. Similarly, the League of Coloured Peoples, the major black campaigning organisation of the 1930s and ‘40s, had long been concerned with education issues and published a booklet which reported on a survey of text books in current use that:

it can be stated positively that the subject of Coloured Peoples is virtually disregarded in most of the History books…in non-European countries of the Empire the light is entirely on the roles of European administrators…there is virtually no reference or comment to coloured people as personalities… the unsophisticated reader would scarcely imagine that the wide continent of Australia had any inhabitants at all before the arrival of the English convicts… Equally astounding is the virtual absence of any discussion of race relations (League of Coloured Peoples, 1944, p.10)

In his portentous essay ‘Some aspects of the “colour bar” in Britain’, included in the booklet, Kenneth Little stated that popular culture, and ‘popular knowledge’ are:

pseudo-anthropological, and concern the ‘mental inferiority’ of Coloured People; the biological ‘ill-effects’ of racial crossing and a variety of other superstitions… It is in this cultural ‘atmosphere’ that most children in English society grow up. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of them absorb prejudicial ideas and notions concerning Coloured People. (ibid, p.51)

The legacy of imperial/racist ideologies, of course, was long lasting and framed discussions and policies relating to ‘race’ and ‘race relations’ in the post-war period. Blacks and Asians that entered Britain in large numbers from the 1950s onwards suffered the social, cultural, political and economic effects of this racism, which had their origins in the mid nineteenth century onwards.

On the one hand, attitudes to ‘race’ have changed markedly since the 1940s but sadly, in some respects, it could be argued that Little’s comments above are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago. Having steeped our pupils in notions of British superiority and kept them in ignorance of the histories and achievements of black peoples in Britain and in their countries of origin, it seems to me that the current history curricula in Britain do little to redress the balance. There is little recognition of the black population of Britain before the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. I recently looked through six books on Victorian Britain; depressingly, there was not a black face in sight. It confirms my view that the concept of ‘Britishness’ has been manufactured by those with power in the past. The effect of this has been to create the myth that the British were - and are - ‘white’, when in fact, as this article has tried to show, this was not the case. It is a message that needs far more articulation in the history classrooms of twenty-first century Britain.


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Directory: historyresource -> journal5
journal5 -> School History, National History and the Issue of National Identity Ann Low-Beer, University of Birmingham, Westhill, Birmingham
journal5 -> Empire, Englishness and Elementary School History Education, c. 1880-1914
journal5 -> Black and British? History, Identity and Citizenship Andrew Wrenn Abstract
journal5 -> A case for National History Raphael Samuel Abstract
journal5 -> History Education and National Identity in Northern Ireland
journal5 -> Wales! Wales? Britain! Britain? Teaching and Learning about the History of the British Isles in Secondary Schools in Wales
journal5 -> Nationalism and the Origins of Prejudice Cedric Cullingford, University of Huddersfield, United Kingdom
journal5 -> Sydney Wood, Honorary Teaching Fellow, University of Dundee, Scotland

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