Peter Fryer and the politics of black British history

Issue: 172

Christian Høgsbjerg

A review of Black British History: New Perspectives, Hakim Adi (ed) (Zed, 2020), £18.99

Black People in the British Empire, Peter Fryer (Pluto, 2021 [1988]), £14.99

Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Peter Fryer (Pluto, 2018 [1984]), £16.99

The emergence of “black studies” within the American academy in the 1970s was one of the products of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s. Likewise, the more recent wave of global protests inspired by Black Lives Matter—and student campaigns such as #whyismycurriculumwhite, Rhodes Must Fall and “decolonising the curriculum”—have led to both “black studies” and “black British history” finally winning a degree of academic legitimacy in British universities.1 Just one sign of this is a series of regular conferences over the past seven years that has asked “What’s Happening in Black British History?” Another is that various history departments are now finally beginning to recruit lecturers in “black British history”.

Black British History: New Perspectives is a collection that emerged out of a conference organised in 2017. Edited by Hakim Adi, a pioneering scholar in this field, the book serves as a marker of the progress that has been made to date. The popularity of David Olusoga’s excellent television series and book Black and British (2016) and the housing of the Black Cultural Archives in a new purpose-built centre in Brixton since 2014 also show how a once-marginalised field has begun to win a place in the mainstream. These developments underline that the black experience of the British Empire and the long history of black presence in British society are not peripheral matters. Rather, they are central to making sense of modern, multicultural Britain.

Yet, as Adi notes in his short introduction to this volume, “Unfortunately, the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain, which stretches back over two millennia, is still a hidden one.” Indeed, it remains “barely a feature of the National Curriculum in Britain’s schools”. This partially explains the shockingly low level of interest that young people of African and Caribbean heritage have in studying history at university—only agriculture and veterinary science are less popular.2 Moreover, given the Tories’ past and present record of attacking the field of black British history, we should not fall for liberal illusions that hope for inevitable slow improvement and progress in this area. To see how things can go backwards, we need only remember when the then Tory education secretary Michael Gove tried to remove the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum and replace her with the colonialist Clive of India.3 Such attacks take place in the wider context of the Tories’ racist “hostile environment” policies, which led to the Windrush scandal. The rise of racist populism in Britain and internationally means that the intellectual legitimacy of black British history and black studies will be under greater challenge than ever by those who deny the existence of institutional racism. Such forces are keen to overturn and reverse the small gains that have been won so far.

One of the strengths of Black British History is its attempt to give some sense of the long presence of black people in Britain. As Adi notes, “Africans were present before the settlement, centuries later, of Angles, Saxons and Jutes.” Indeed, it has long been established that Africans were in Britain as part of the Roman army of occupation. However, Adi claims that “DNA evidence suggests African migrants may have even been present in the British Isles perhaps a thousand years before the Romans.” In 2018, research conducted on the skeletal remains of “cheddar man”, who is thought to have lived in England around 10,000 years ago, suggested he had “dark to black” skin. As Adi notes, “the development of pale skin pigmentation took place much more recently” than previously thought. Moreover, “research into the origins and appearance of cheddar man suggests that the population of Western European hunter-gatherers of that period almost certainly looked similar to cheddar man, with dark to black skin.” Thus, “notions of Britishness and Englishness once more need to be re-thought”.4

After the Roman exodus, black people continued to be a feature of life in Britain. DNA evidence of skeletal remains in Gloucestershire, Norfolk, Ely, Wales and Northumberland has now revealed that “Africans were certainly living in Britain in the early medieval and medieval periods.” This was possibly as a result of Viking raids on North Africa or Muslim Spain, but also possibly through free migration as there were trading routes between England and the Muslim world long before the Norman conquest. In 668, for example, a North African abbot called Hadrian was sent to England by the pope and ultimately became the head of St Peter and St Paul’s monastery in Canterbury. Hadrian was mentioned by the Venerable Bede and “introduced students to new ideas in various subjects from astronomy to philosophy”.5 By the 13th century, we have “one of the earliest depictions of an African man in England” in the section on Derbyshire in the Domesday Abbreviato, an abbreviated version of the Domesday Book demanded by William the Conqueror in 1085. In the Calendar of Patent Rolls of Henry III for 21 June 1259, we also have a record of an “Ethiopian named Bartholemew, formerly a Saracen slave”. He had been brought to England by one Roger de Lyntin but had then been placed under arrest by the king for “having run away from his lord”. As Adi notes, “This early record of an enslaved African is also a report of an African engaged in his own self-liberation.” Although “unfortunately, the fate of Bartholemew is unknown”, “his act of resistance would be adopted by other Africans held in servile status in Britain in later centuries”.6

Onyeka Nubia’s contribution to Black British History turns to the early modern period. Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors (2017) has recently challenged many preconceptions people have about the “whiteness” of this period in English history. Nubia’s essay is based on painstaking archival research into parish records. He persuasively suggests that many Africans in Britain were Iberian Moors with memories of—and pride in—their past “nations”. This played a role in defining their wider identity, shifting the common popular term at the time to describe Africans from “Moor” to “Blackamoore” to incorporate the word “black”.7 Nubia argues that this shift suggests that Africans in early modern England had a “black sense of self” in a society where “ideas of difference and inferiority did exist”—even though it was before British participation in the Atlantic slave trade and so before the “pseudo-science of race” or a “coherent racist philosophy” came into being.8

Molly Corlett’s essay takes us to 18th century London, during the “golden age” of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade. She examines the precarious status of black servants when colonial laws and norms impacted strongly on the imperial metropole. What is apparent once again is the spirit of resistance and rebellion. For example, we learn, “Between 1691 and 1776, at least 222 advertisements for black runaways were placed in the London papers. The vast majority of these runaways were young black men, although 18 were women or girls”.9

John Siblon’s fine essay on “‘Race’, Rank and the Politics of Inter-War Commemoration of African and Caribbean Servicemen in Britain” details institutional racism in the aftermath of the First World War. In this period, the British state “used memorial culture and other means to symbolically and politically relegate black ex-servicemen to an inferior position in society” in order to “calm imperial anxieties about the social advancement of subject peoples”.10 For example, during the Peace Day Parade on 19 July 1919, and then at the first Armistice Day ceremony in November 1920, black British colonial troops were not invited to participate. This exclusion was extended even to the black war dead; “African, Asian, Arab and Caribbean sailors” who had died during the war were commemorated separately “on memorials away from Britain”. This reinforced the racist mythology of the First World War as a “white man’s war”, with the contribution of the colonial troops exorcised in British collective memory.11

Given this kind of official racism, it is unsurprising that, as Kesewa John explores in her essay, a minority of radical black activists in Britain campaigned against conscription for colonial subjects as another inter-imperialist war loomed in the 1930s. These activists were organised around the International African Service Bureau (IASB), which was led by George Padmore, Amy Ashwood Garvey and C L R James. John examines the IASB Manifesto Against War (1938), which exposed the hypocrisy of Britain’s claims to be fighting for democracy and freedom, even though it had just brutally repressed striking workers in the colonial dictatorships it presided over in the Caribbean. As the Manifesto says:

You, in the West Indies, after a hundred years of so-called emancipation, are still denied the most elementary rights of human beings. When you ask for bread, they give you hot lead.12

Chris Braithwaite, the IASB’s organising secretary and leader of the Colonial Seaman’s Association, had served in the British Mercantile Marine during the First World War. In 1939, he wrote:

We have no faith in capitalist governments, whether they call themselves democratic or fascist. They are all imperialists and as such the exploiters and oppressors of colonial peoples. Therefore we are determined never again to allow ourselves to be used as cannon fodder by either camp in the coming war.13

Such voices, as John rightly notes, “present a certain challenge” to those who respond to racism by stressing “the ‘loyalty’ of Britain’s immigrants and immigrant-descended populations”. Implicit in such approaches is “an acceptance of the insidious idea that dissent is a gift, not a universal right”. This is something that “condemns us to an infinitely intellectually narrower present and future”.14

The remaining essays in the volume relate to the post-Second World War period after the arrival of the Empire Windrush passenger ship in 1948. Each of these contributions bring a new light to bear on their respective subject matters. Some of the topics covered are all but unknown, such as Kevin Searle’s discussion of “the Causeway Green ‘riots’ of 1949”, in which European migrant workers in the West Midlands attacked Jamaicans in order to drive them out of a Ministry of Labour hostel. These events led to a restriction on the number of black workers allowed to stay in government hostels at any one time.

Kennetta Perry’s fascinating essay explores lesser known “black British” angles on famous moments in global black history, stressing the importance of historians taking a transnational approach. For instance, she discusses the solidarity march from Ladbroke Grove to the US Embassy in London organised at the time of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The demonstration was led by Claudia Jones, the Trinidadian Communist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival. Another of Perry’s focuses is Malcolm X’s visit to the West Midlands town of Smethwick in 1965 to show solidarity with black and Asian communities in the aftermath of a racist Tory election campaign.

W Chris Johnson uses oral history and archival research to recover the history of a small revolutionary black nationalist group in Britain, the Black Liberation Front (BLF). Formed in North London in 1971 and led by Tony Soares, Zainab Abbas and Ansel Wong, it published a newspaper called Grassroots. The BLF, like other radical groups, suffered state repression and attacks from the far right during the 1970s, but, remarkably, it survived into the 1980s. However, it slowly shifted in emphasis from “revolutionary black nationalism” towards a kind of Pan-Africanist socialism.

Pan-Africanism is the theme of two further essays in this collection. Claudius Adisa Steven writes on four British-based Pan-African organisations from 1975 and explores initiatives such as African Liberation Day, which at its height in 1977 attracted some 30,000 black people to Birmingham’s Handsworth Park.15 Esther Stanford-Xosei narrates the emergence of a growing movement around reparations and reparatory justice in the UK over a similar period and discusses the role played by the black MP Bernie Grant.

Elsewhere in this collection, Carol Pierre provides a full account of the New Cross Fire of 1981 and its aftermath, in which 13 black teenagers died in a devastating house fire (a 14th, traumatised young person would later kill himself). She examines how the tragedy led to some 15,000 to 20,000 joining the Black People’s Day of Action demonstration against institutional racism in March 1981, “the biggest black protest to date in Britain”.16

The volume concludes with Christopher Roy Zembe’s discussion of the development of the black Zimbabwean community in Britain. He analyses its migration patterns and the complex internal tensions produced by “ethnic attachments and allegiances based on memories of shared historical experiences”. These tensions originated in “the implementation of a ‘divide and rule’ agenda by the British during the colonial era”, but were also shaped by “the postcolonial civil conflict (‘Gukurahundi’) of the 1980s”. Zembe argues that “the memories of the government security forces brutally supressing the conflict within the Ndebele community” live on today among many Zimbabweans in Britain.17

New perspectives?

This wide-ranging collection of essays stands as a valuable contribution to the growing scholarship on black Britain. However, the meaning of the subtitle “New Perspectives” is somewhat elusive. For this reason, it is worth dwelling a little longer on some of the different perspectives that have existed in the field of black British history. In his introduction, Adi simply claims:

What is new about the work of the scholars in this volume is that they approach the history of Britain not from a Eurocentric perspective but from the perspective of…including and focusing on those of African and Caribbean heritage… What is also new is an edited volume in which most of the contributors are also of African or Caribbean heritage.18

The second sentence certainly has a better claim to speak of a new development than the first, and even then only in the specific context of writing about black British history—although even this obviously represents a welcome step forward.19 Nevertheless, some of the pioneering early historians of black Britain were of African and Caribbean heritage: the Jamaican Joel Augustus Rogers, the Dominican Edward Scobie, the Nigerian Folarin Shyllon and the Trinidadian Ron Ramdin.

Yet the most path-breaking theoretical and political contribution to the field remains that made by Peter Fryer and his classic Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984), republished by Pluto for its third edition in 2018. Born near Hull, Fryer had become a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) during the Second World War, inspired by the Red Army’s contribution to the fight against fascism. Fryer’s interest in black British history was first sparked when he covered the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 for the CPGB’s Daily Worker.

In 1956, Fryer was famously sent to cover the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist regime in Hungary for the Daily Worker. Yet instead of towing the party line and condemning the rebels as counter-revolutionaries, Fryer honestly reported what he saw: a workers’ revolution struggling in the face of the Russian tanks that he had so admired during the Second World War. Fryer wrote a glorious eyewitness account of the resistance. He hoped it would be excitedly welcomed by the comrades back home, but the Daily Worker refused to print it. Fryer’s account, subsequently published as The Hungarian Tragedy, became a key point of reference amidst the CPGB crisis of 1956, and he was one of most important people to leave the CPGB that year and turn to Trotskyism.20

Peter Fryer’s Staying Power

One of Fryer’s great achievements in Staying Power was to successfully pull together a host of often fragmentary and scattered writings, drawing on the work of the historians mentioned above as well as other important pioneers such as Marika Sherwood and James Walvin. He synthesised these into a masterful new narrative, all built on a solid foundation of detailed and dedicated archival research. In this sense, Fryer was “the Herodotus of Black British History”.

However, what ultimately made Staying Power such an outstanding work for its time was Fryer’s historical method. This involved making a new synthesis out of the mass of material at his disposal and using it to explore the underlying rhythms and rhymes of black British history.

That said, if Fryer’s book reached a new theoretical height in the field, this was because he consciously and openly stood on the shoulders of some great figures. First and foremost of these greats was the Trinidadian Marxist C L R James, author of The Black Jacobins (1938), a masterful account of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804).21 Fryer was also clearly influenced by James’s compatriot and colleague in the anti-colonial movement, Eric Williams, who authored the classic work Capitalism and Slavery (1944). William’s book demonstrated how the enslavement of African labour in forced labour camps in the Caribbean, euphemistically called “plantations”, had been central to making Britain “great”. In the aftermath of the uprisings that rocked British cities in the summer of 1981, James was asked by Paul Gilroy to comment on these riots’ historic significance:

British capitalism went to Africa and bought slaves chiefly to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Then, after many years, the British economy needed some labour to do special work in Britain. So British capitalism went to the Caribbean and brought workers to Britain. Capitalism creates its own gravediggers. Now there are two or three million of them in Britain, and the recent upheaval in this country shows that they are a tremendous force in the struggles against this society.22

James added that “the method by which I work emphasises those connections”. When writing Staying Power, Fryer recognised the importance of using James’s historical materialist method to situate the black experience in Britain in its concrete context of class struggle, domination, capitalist accumulation, slave-trading and empire-building. James himself admired how Staying Power was “rare in its mastery of the constant historical contradiction: range and, at the same time, event. Two thousand years is a long time; Peter Fryer never loses his grip in time or place”.23

Written in 1984, in the immediate aftermath of the 1981 uprisings, Staying Power was above all a political intervention. Fryer explained the title of the book by saying, “Politics is essentially about power. It’s about who has the whip hand over whom.” Discussing Britain’s black and Asian communities, he wrote that “the only power they had” in the face of state and popular racism “was staying power”.24 Fryer insisted on making questions of racism, plantation slavery and colonialism central because they “go to the heart of the matter”.25

Staying Power is thus very much in the tradition of a “reparative history”, acknowledging what Fryer called the “deep pain at grievous historical wrongs” of colonial slavery and the racism it gave birth to.26 As the great novelist Alexandre Dumas, who was himself of Haitian descent, put it in his novel The Count of Monte Cristo: “Moral wounds have this peculiarity—they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart”.27 Fryer recalled that working on Staying Power was “painful for me”:

It was a disagreeable shock, for instance, to find that one slaver captain operating out of Liverpool in the year 1789 bore the same name as my own son. I’ve no idea whether Captain James Fryer, commander of Little Ben, which carried 75 slaves, was in fact an ancestor of mine. What I do know about him is that he was a cog in a money-making machine devised not simply by white Europeans but by European capitalism.28

When asked about what he made of the demands for “reparations” for slavery, Fryer would respond that as a socialist he was in favour of reparations. However, he also reminded his audiences that the damage caused by four hundred years of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery “could not be repaid, even in part, without dismantling the whole capitalist system”.29

C L R James famously once wrote that black revolutionary history was “rich, inspiring and unknown.” He noted that black people “revolted against the slave raiders in Africa”, then “revolted against the slave traders on the Atlantic passage” and “revolted on the plantation”—“the only place” where they “did not revolt” was on “the pages of capitalist historians”.30 Black resilience and resistance were central to Fryer’s narrative, as since the rise of racism in the aftermath of the slave trade and slavery, “black people in Britain have asserted their humanity, dignity, and individuality in the teeth of racist beliefs and practices”.31 One example he gives from the 18th century even seems to suggest an early form of “British Black Power” militancy that would have made Darcus Howe proud. An anecdote tells how a black military bandsman was strolling down the Strand when he was accosted with the question: “Well, blackie, what news from the devil?” He knocked the questioner down, remarking, ‘He send you that—how you like it?’32

Fryer suggestively points to the impact on imperial Britain made by revolts of the enslaved in the Caribbean, such as Tacky’s Rebellion in Jamaica in 1760. He quoted the magistrate Sir John Fielding, an “authentic voice of the English governing and master class”, complaining in 1768 that it was the practice of British blacks “intoxicated with liberty” and “grown refractory” to “enter into societies, making it their business to corrupt and dissatisfy the mind of every fresh black servant that comes to England.” Worse still, from the point of view of Fielding, the blacks had “the mob on their side”. By “the mob”, Fielding meant “porters, labourers and drunken mechanics”—in other words the working people of London. He was angered by how the actions of these workers made it “not only difficult but dangerous” for owners to recover their black chattel “when once they are spirited away”. Fielding says of black people in Britain that “they no sooner come over, but the sweets of liberty and the conservation with free men and Christians enlarge their minds.” After this, “they grow restless” and are “prompt to conceive, and alas to execute, the blackest conspiracies against their governors and masters”.33 So though some on the British left today continue to use terms such as “the white working class”, we can see this was already a mythological concept by the mid-late 18th century. As Fryer shows, there was a formidable potential and actual alliance between the growing black community and the wider working people of London. These workers “saw black people as fellow victims of their own enemies, fellow fighters against a system that degraded poor whites and poor blacks alike. With their help London had become a centre of black resistance by the 1760s”.34

Fryer’s Staying Power recovers the great tradition of what Hassan Mahamdallie has termed “Black British rebels”: this “unique and rich phenomenon—the black radicals that led British workers into the struggle for freedom, justice and a better world.” Taking “black” in its broader political meaning to include South Asian activists alongside black Africans or Caribbeans, Staying Power included biographical portraits of critical figures in the tradition of “black British radicalism”: the African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano; the mixed heritage Jamaican agitator Robert Wedderburn; the black Chartist leader William Cuffay; the Indian Communist Shapurji Saklatvala, who was elected MP for North Battersea in 1924 and imprisoned during the 1926 General Strike; and a host of others. Eloquently describing this tradition of black British rebels, Mahamdallie writes:

All of them combined the fight to end racism with the wider fights of the working class movement. All of them understood that the two arenas were not different forks in the road—they were the same road that had to be travelled by all. Quite simply, while one soul is in bondage, none of us can be free.35

More broadly, a dialectic of resistance emerged over time with the rise of the working-class movement. When any oppressed group begins to fight back as a collective, this finds a resonance and lays a basis for alliances with the great mass of exploited people. Conversely, when workers struggle against their exploitation through strikes and other forms of collective action, this can inspire oppressed groups in that society to seek a way forward for themselves too. Against ruling class strategies of “divide and rule”, the arguments for “unity” are not abstract ones but have a basis in real material interests, hence the old adage “unity is strength”.

Fryer traced the shifting currents of race and resistance in British history, understanding how intersections of race and class sometimes drove progress. However, he also explored how the ruling class would regroup and look for opportunities to counter-attack. For instance, in 1919, amid a wider workers’ offensive in Britain, racism against black seafarers in port cities was whipped up. It found an echo at a time when the official British labour movement still held incredibly backward attitudes to anti-racism and anti-colonialism:

For Britain’s black community, 1919 illuminated reality like a flash of lightning…the lessons of the riots were etched onto the consciousness of an entire generation. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, black people in Britain, struggling against the hidden and open attacks on them that went by the name of the “colour bar”, knew very well what their fate would be if they failed to struggle.36

The two souls of black British history

A discussion of Fryer’s historical method goes to the heart of the question of “the politics of black British history”. In 1960, the American Marxist Hal Draper wrote a classic pamphlet on what he called “the two souls of socialism”. The first saw socialism as coming through “emancipation from above”; it was historically embodied in social democracy and Stalinism. The second was the classical Marxist vision of working class “self-emancipation from below” (through forms of revolutionary democracy). In a sense there are also “two souls of black British history”. As Draper noted, his argument was not just related to socialism alone:

The yearning for emancipation from above is the all-pervading principle through centuries of class society and political oppression. It is the permanent promise held out by every ruling power to keep the people looking upward for protection, instead of the people looking to themselves for liberation from the need for protection. The people looked to kings to right the injustices done by lords, to messiahs to overthrow the tyranny of kings. Instead of the bold way of mass action from below, it is always safer and more prudent to find the “good” ruler who will “do the people good”.37

The overriding “yearning for emancipation from above” finds expression in what might be called the dominant, liberal, assimiliationist approach—“black British history from above”, which stresses the steady “progress” and “tolerance” that has given rise to multiracial Britain. These liberal narratives often form part of a wider celebratory narrative about “Britishness”, which downplays questions of racism and resistance, instead commemorating “safe” and “respectable” figures such as many of those included in the “100 Great Black Britons”. This liberal approach either implicitly or explicitly marginalises the role played by black radicals and black liberation struggles as well as wider anti-racist and anti-fascist movements. It rose to dominance amid the wider crisis of black political leadership since the 1980s and particularly with the emergence of “New Labour”.38 It shapes the methodology behind influential works such as The Oxford Companion to Black British History (2007).39 It may also help explain the decision by several respected historians of black Britain—despite writing eloquently about British slavery, one of the great crimes of the British Empire—to accept “Orders of the British Empire” from the Queen for their work.40

The alternative path to liberation is through, as Draper has it, “the bold way of mass action from below”. This was once well summarised by Darcus Howe, the great-nephew of C L R James and a leading figure in Britain’s Black Power movement, in one of his most famous speeches at a protest march in August 1970. The demonstration, protesting police harassment of London’s Mangrove restaurant, led Howe, Altheia Jones-LeCointe and seven others to be charged in the “Mangrove Nine” case. The case forced official recognition of racism in the Metropolitan Police for the first time. Howe declared:

It has been for some time now that black people have been caught up in complaining to police about police; complaining to magistrates about magistrates; complaining to judges about judges; and complaining to politicians about politicians. We have become the own shapers of our destiny as from today.41

All of Fryer’s writings—from Staying Power to his other books on this theme including Aspects of British Black History (1993) and The Politics of Windrush (1999)—are embued with this radical vision of a “black British history from below”.

Fryer’s Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction (1988) cogently explores the black and Asian experience of British imperialism, and thus serves as an essential, complementary partner work to Staying Power. In some details the book may seem slightly dated by the profusion of historiography in the field of “imperial history” over the past 30 years. Nonetheless, Fryer’s journalistic eye for telling quotes means that this work, which combines an ambitious synthesis of material with a popularisation of a wide range of anti-imperialist scholarship, should be celebrated today. It is a pioneering and powerful work about the murderous brutality of British imperialism and the heroism of those who resisted it.42 Thus it is very welcome that Pluto Press have now republished it with a new foreword by Stella Dadzie, author of the fine recent historical study A Kick in the Belly: Women, Slavery and Resistance (Verso, 2020).


In this sense, rather than talk about the need for “new perspectives” in black British history, what is needed is to return to, and build upon, the Marxist historical method and foundations of Staying Power. Fryer once remarked, “I feel like I’m just a John the Baptist for some future black historian from the black community”. He hoped that this person would “take the torch that I have lit and carry it forward”.43 There are reasons to be hopeful that Fryer was right, given the radicalism of many contributors to Black British History: New Perspectives.

We are now almost a decade on from the optimistic moment of the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Games that celebrated the Windrush Generation’s arrival. Since then, we have witnessed the “Windrush scandal” as a result of the Tory government’s “hostile environment” policies. We have also seen resurgent racist populism and far right internationally, the state violence of British immigration detention centres, police and prisons, and rising racist attacks and hate crimes. Moreover, the wider issues of poverty and inequalities in employment and housing remain. It would be hard to write a liberal narrative of “progress” in “post-racial” Britain today. This is so despite the best efforts of the Tories’ hired apologists, who penned the disgraceful Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ Report that celebrated Britain as a “beacon” of racial justice in March 2021.

Fryer once wrote:

The Windrush generation and their descendants have wisdom and experience. They have courage and determination. Above all, they have the intellect to turn personal pain…into effective collective action. That, in my view, is the chief political lesson to be learnt from…black British history, and it is a lesson that all of us need to learn and take to heart, whatever colour we happen to have been born with.44

That the Windrush generation and their descendants are still collectively struggling for their rights and for justice so many years on is shameful, but that they have kept fighting has been inspirational.

A new generation of radicals have become politicised through anti-racist campaigning and movements such as Black Lives Matter. They have begun to win victories such as the glorious toppling of the statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston on 7 June 2020. In this context, we should recall Malcolm X’s claim that, “of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research”.45

The digitalisation of archives and newspapers is helping to make this argument. For example, the path-breaking work of the Legacies of British Slave Ownership team, led by Catherine Hall at University College London, has confirmed many of Williams’s arguments in Capitalism and Slavery about the importance of colonial slavery to British capitalism. Moreover, it has also shone light on “Britain’s forgotten slave owners”—including the slave-owning ancestor of former Prime Minister David Cameron, General Sir James Duff. Duff was a Tory MP who owned over 200 slaves on the Grange Sugar estate in Jamaica.46

The current Tory MP for South Dorset, Richard Drax, is finally facing pressure from campaigners for accountability for the Drax family’s long history of profiting from colonial slavery in Barbados. It was James Drax who pioneered the “sugar revolution” that institutionalised plantation slavery when he was a slave owner in the 1640s. As a result of the kind of empirical historical work that has uncovered these connections, and wider movements for “reparative justice”, certain British institutions, such as the University of Glasgow, are finally beginning to face up to their past involvement in slavery and slave trading.47

Yet there is still far more work to be done to recover the rich, inspiring and unknown history of “our side” and “our ancestors” as well. In this spirit, I will conclude with the story of someone who I think has a claim to being “Britain’s first black revolutionary socialist”.48

Thanks to the digitalisation of Justice, the newspaper of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Britain’s first Marxist organisation, we learn that “Comrade Algerine Sankoh of West Africa” spoke to Kirkdale branch of the SDF in Liverpool on “Socialism and the Negro Race” on 19 March 1908.49 Later that year, according to the Cheshire Observer, Sankoh spoke at Mollington Chapel to “a most appreciative audience” alongside “Mr J G Agamasong Lawson of Sierra Leone”, who “gave an excellent lecture, ‘Folk Life in the Interior’, illustrated by lantern views.” Sadly all the newspaper reports is that “Mr Sankoh was most entertaining in telling his adventure on first landing in this country”.50

Algerine Kelfallah Sankoh was in fact the name recently adopted by Isaac Augustus Johnson. He was a British colonial subject, and seems to have been a Saro—a member of the Sierra Leone community in the Niger Delta who were descended from freed slaves. Like many of his contemporaries, he was keen to adopt a more African name. Partly because he joined the freemasons—one of the few organisations in Britain at that time that didn’t operate a “colour bar”—on 30 June 1909, we know he was born in about 1882, placing him in his mid-twenties when he spoke to the SDF.51 He was a law student in Liverpool at the time, and we have a record of him residing there until about 1914. We know little as yet of his wider life and struggles, but from 1932 he was back in colonial Nigeria, by now an ex-pastor and working as a respected member of the editorial board of the Nigerian Observer. In 1938, just before his death in November 1940, he was appointed vice-principal at Enitonna High School in Port Harcourt. Sadly, it seems Kirkdale SDF members failed to make a record of the lecture from “Comrade Sankoh” on “Socialism and the Negro Race”. Perhaps they did not grasp the historic significance that this was possibly the first time a black socialist had addressed a revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain.52 Nevertheless, the fact remains that black activists have been part of the British working-class movement from its early origins in the 1760s. Moreover, they have also been part of the modern socialist movement in Britain since the 1900s. These facts should help us better appreciate the traditions of international and multiracial working class unity that we stand upon in the struggles ahead.

Christian Høgsbjerg teaches history at the University of Brighton and is the co-editor, with David Featherstone, of ­The Red and the Black: The Russian Revolution and the Black Atlantic (Manchester University Press, 2021).


1 The “Obama effect” since 2008 has also helped legitimise “black studies” among even the most conservative history departments in Britain.

2 Adi, 2019, pp2-3.

3 Boffey, 2013. For a wider dicussion of school history, see Stone, 2011.

4 Adi, 2019, p4.

5 Adi, 2019, p7.

6 Adi, 2019, pp8-9.

7 Adi, 2019, p18.

8 Adi, 2019, pp20-21.

9 Adi, 2019, p39.

10 Adi, 2019, p52.

11 Adi, 2019, p61. For more on colonial troops, see Ahmed, 2016.

12 Quoted in Adi, 2019, p81.

13 Adi, 2019, p82. For more on Braithwaite, see Høgsbjerg, 2014.

14 Adi, 2019, p86.

15 Adi, 2019, p147.

16 Adi, 2019, p167. This was written before the huge Black Lives Matter protests in Britain in 2020.

17 Adi, 2019, p215.

18 Adi, 2019, p3.

19 An earlier collection was Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain: From Roman Times to the Mid-twentieth Century (1992), edited by the Kenyan Asian educationalist Jagdish S Gundara and the Scottish socialist Ian Duffield.

20 More on Fryer and his work can be found in Brotherstone, 2006, and Waters, 2016. For a thought-provoking critical review of Staying Power from the time, see Rich, 1984. Fryer’s last work was Rhythms of Resistance: African Musical Heritage in Brazil (2000).

21 For more on James’s The Black Jacobins, see Høgsbjerg, 2010, and also Forsdick and Høgsbjerg, 2017.

22 From “C L R James” in MARHO: The Radical Historians’ Organization, 1984, pp271-273.

23 See dustjacket of Fryer, 1984.

24 Fryer, 1999, p25.

25 Fryer, 1984, pxii.

26 Peter Fryer, 1993, p8. For more on reparative histories, see Bergin and Rupprecht, 2018.

27 Dumas, 2002, p679. On Dumas’s father, a Haitian-born general, and his rise and fall in the French revolutionary army during the 1790s, see Reiss, 2013.

28 Fryer, 1993, p8.

29 Fryer, 1999, p70.

30 James, 1939.

31 Fryer, 1984, p190.

32 Fryer, 1984, p88.

33 Fryer, 1984, p71.

34 Fryer, 1984, p72. For more on the intersections of race and class in modern Britain, see the excellent account in Virdee, 2014.

35 Mahamdallie, 2012.

36 Fryer, 1984, p316. On 1919, see also Virdee, 2014, pp77-81.

37 Draper, 1966.

38 For an account of the crisis of black leadership, see Choonara and Prasad, 2012.

39 Dabydeen, Gilmore and Jones, 2007. This book is 550 pages long, but the space allocated to “black British rebels” is minimal. Olaudah Equiano and Robert Wedderburn get three pages between them, and William Cuffay receives just half a page. Instead there is a focus on academic concerns: “African Studies” gets four pages, “Caribbean Studies” two and “Postcolonial theory” three. “Marxism” does not receive even half a page, despite shaping works such as James’s The Black Jacobins, Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery and Fryer’s Staying Power. David Olusoga’s work also has little on black British radicalism, arguing that it has already been “covered exhaustively in earlier books” by “historians including Peter Fryer and Hakim Adi”—Olusoga, 2016, pxxi.

40 See Gopal, 2019. Some 44 out of the “100 Great Black Britons” selected by Patrick Vernon and Angelina Osborne in 2020 were figures who had been honoured by the British state in various ways—see Vernon and Osborne, 2020.

41 Bunce and Field, p105. See also Howe, 2020.

42 For more recent works on the British Empire and those who resisted it , see for example Gopal, 2020 and Newsinger, 2006.

43 Fryer, 1999, p57.

44 Fryer, 1999, p53.

45 Malcolm X, 1963.

46 On Cameron’s family history, see Davies, 2015. For the Legacies of British Slave Ownership database, see

47 Busby, 2019.

48 One revolutionary socialist who was active in Britain for periods from the 1860s to the 1880s and who could be said to be “politically black” was the Cuban-born Paul Lafargue, son-in-law of Karl Marx and the grandson of a “mulatto” (mixed heritage) refugee from Haiti.

49 Justice, 14 March 1908.

50 Cheshire Observer, 12 December 1908.

51 United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Registers, 1751-1921—see

52 For more on Sankoh, see also Jones, 2018, pp82-83, 139; and Dixon-Fyle, 1999, pp93, 98, 242.


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