The Shaping of Black London

A capsule history of Black Settlement in Britain's Capital

AD 50 Roman London
Earliest Londoners come from all over Europe and Africa

Africans served in Roman army. "Negro head" carved wooden spoon found at Southwark bridge is earliest African connection in Southeast London.

16th century
Black trumpeter at court 1507; and "John Blanke" served Henry VII at Greenwich and later Henry VIII.

Catherine of Aragon lands at Deptford in 1501 with her African attendants.

1555 "Certain black slaves" arrive from Africa with John Lok; and marks beginning of continuous Black presence in London.

Late 16th century, opening up of West African trade. Africans became part of London's population in seafaring centres like Deptford.

1593 First record of black person, "Cornelius", in parish register 1593.
1596-1601 Fear of increased black population in London and other towns leads to Royal proclamation by Queen Elizabeth I to arrest and expel all "Negroes and blackamores" from her kingdom.

Mid-17th to late 18th century

First era of large scale settlement of blacks in Britain.

Spans period of Britain's involvement in the tri-continental slave trade.

Black slaves were in attendance as sea captains sauntered through the streets.

In Tottenham, All Hallows Church baptismal register records "John Cyras, Captain Madden's black" in March 1718, and at St Mary's Church, Hornsey "John Moore, a black from Captain Boulton's" 8th October 1725 and "Captain Lissles black from Highgate" in 1733.


Significant presence of Black people brought as slave-servants of returning ex-colonial officials, traders, plantation owners, andmilitary personnel.

Growing evidence of Black presence in the northern, eastern and southern areas of London.

In addition, there were small number of free slaves and seamen from West Africa and South Asia.

Many reduced to beggary through lack of jobs and racial discrimination.

1750s London by now home to communities of Blacks, and of Jews, Irish, Germans, and Huguenots.

Black Londoners number 10,000-15,000 of the nation's 20,000 black people.

Evidence appears in registered burials.

The status of Black people in society becomes part of public debate.

Widespread view that blacks were less than human expressed in slave sales and advertisements.


Mounting black response to slavery through covert means, resistance and flight.

Notable Black activists are: Oluadah Equiano; Ignatius Sancho; and Ottobah Cugoano.

Movements among Britons to demand black freedom from slavery.

Supporters include workers and urban poor who themselves suffered under the ruling classes of the day.

Mid-18th century

London Blacks vociferously contested slavery and the slave sales widespread in Britain.

The legal status of these practices were never clearly defined.

Slavery of whites was forbidden.

Free blacks could not be enslaved. But blacks who were brought as slaves to Britain were considered bound to their owners.


Lord Mansfield court ruling that a slave who has deserted his master could not be taken by force to be sold abroad.

Verdict triggers black flight from their owners, the decline of slavery in England, and calls by Equiano and others for the abolition of the slave trade.

Clandestine Black quarters develop.


In the wake of the American revolution hundreds of "Black loyalists" , the African-American slave-soldiers who fought on the side of the British, arrived in London.

Deprived of pensions many of them became indigent and begged in the streets of London.


London's Blacks and Asians (Lascars) lived among whites in such areas as Mile End, Stepney, Paddington, and the St. Giles areas.

The majority were living, not as slaves and servants in wealthy homes, but as free men, householders or tenants.

Many became the Black Poor: ex-low-wage soldiers, seafarers, and plantation workers, but with few desirable skills in an evolving urban capitalist economy.


Blacks and south-east Asian Lascars did not fit easily into the Poor Law welfare strategies of the period.

A special Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor laid plans for the Settlement of Blacks in Sierra Leone, West Africa.

1789 Publication of the memoirs of Equiano, the chief Black spokesman of Britain's Black community, The Interesting Narratives of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.
1792-1815 Further groups of black soldiers and seamen settle in London after services in the Napoleonic wars.

Late 18th century

The slave trade declines greatly in economic importance to Britain with the evolution of industrial capitalism.

Resurgence of intolerance buttressed by "scientific racism".

This effectively ends the first period of large-scale black immigration to London and Britain.

Decline in immigration and gradual absorption of blacks and their descendants into the white population occurs.

19th century
1807 The British slave trade is abolished

Parliament abolishes slavery throughout the British Empire.

Steady decline in numbers and visibility of London's black population as fewer blacks were brought by West Indian planters and restrictions on immigrants from Africa.

1880s New build up of small black dockside communities in London's Canning Town, and in Liverpool and Cardiff, as new shipping links are established with the Caribbean and West Africa.

20th century

London-born Black people begin to make a mark in London life.

Continuous influx of African students, sportsmen, students, and businessmen.

Caribbean professionals gain positions as doctors,politicans and activists.

World War I

Black communities grow with arrival of black merchant seamen and soldiers.

They survive as the oldest black communities.

Continuous presence of small groups of students from Africa and the Caribbean.

World War II

Caribbean and West Africans arrive in small numbers as wartime workers, merchant seamen and servicemen in the army, navy and air forces.

Perhaps 20,000 blacks in Britain concentrated in dockside areas of London, Liverpool and Cardiff.

Learie Constantine, welfare officer in the RAF, refused service in a London Hotel and later wins damages.

Post-war period

Britain's first group of post-war Caribbean immigrants come to London on the SS Empire Windrush.

Many of the 492 passengers settle in Brixton now a prominent black district.

1950s to 1960s

Mass migration of workers from all over the English-speaking Caribbean, particularly Jamaica.

They are "invited" to fill labour requirements in hospitals, transport and railways and contribute to rebuilding the post-war urban economy.


Commonwealth Immigrants Act and a succession of laws in 1968, 1971, and 1981 severely restrict Black entry to Britain, and brings this period to an end.

Emergent Black and Asian struggle against race prejudice and intolerance.

1975 David Pitt brings a new popular voice to the House of Lords.
1987 Black population, workers, and community activists aid election of four Black Members of Parliament.

Black Londoners numbered half a million people in the 1991 census, of which an increasing proportion were London- or British-born.

Despite modest socio-economic gains, discrimination remained a problem, even where skill deficiencies were being overcome.

Black Parliamentarians increase to six in 1992 and nine in 1997 elections.

"High-tech"and information revolution and a changing urban economy drive unemployment rates higher among Blacks and threatens to erode Black progress.

Capsule history by Thomas L. Blair (c)


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Gundara, Jagdish S. and Ian Duffield, eds. (1992), Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain. Avebury, Aldershot.

Merriman, Nick ed. (1993), The Peopling of London: Fifteen Thousand Years of Settlement from Overseas. Museum of London, London.

Scobie, Edward (1972) Black Brittania: A History of Blacks in Britain. Johnson Publishing. Chicago.

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Walvin, James (1973), Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945. Penguin, London.

Comments, corrrections and additions will be gratefully received.