A brief history of black immigration

The influence of black immigration on the Britain we know now is everywhere; it is in the landscape and the culture, in food, music, literature and art. It is part of the living fabric of the country. It has given us black writers such as Olaudah Equiano to Ignatius Sancho, who touched the hearts and minds of people in the 18th century and helped bring about the abolition of the slave trade. Black immigration has given us medics such as Mary Seacole, who pioneered life saving techniques during the Crimean War, and actors and musicians such as the nineteenth century actor Ira Aldridge.

Following the end of the slave trade black immigration declined in the UK in the 19th century, and as a result those immigrants and their descendants who were already living here became more deeply incorporated into British society. While racism, particularly the belief in “Scientific racism” remained rife in the period there were a number of African and Caribbean immigrants who did succeed in achieving “high status” levels in Victorian society. While their legacy has been largely forgotten, they played a key role in the cultural changes that were taking place in the country at the time – a role that is only just beginning to receive recognition.

The outbreak of World War I proved to be another defining moment in the history of black immigration. Approximately 15,000 West Indians were recruited into the British West India Regiment, and many more found new opportunities provided by the war effort to find work in munitions and chemical factories across England, most notably in the North West. By the end of the war racial tensions started to flare once again as soldiers began to return home. Between the two World Wars, discrimination reached such a point that black seamen had to be registered and only a limited number were allowed to work on ships in order to reserve jobs for the white British community.

In an attempt to combat the prejudices of the times, and provide more opportunities the community leader Dr Harold Moody established the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931. Until its closure in 1951, the league formed one of the most crucial bastions of the civil rights movement in the UK, driving forward the need for equality within UK society.

By the end of World War 2 changes were beginning to occur across the world. Cultures and identities were being questioned even as a new phase in black immigration to the UK was unfolding. The arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, bringing with it 493 West Indian passengers, is often hailed as the start of the next phase of black immigration. Despite the changes taking place however, the Colonial Office was more concerned with discouraging further immigration from the Caribbean than with helping those who were coming over. These priorities were made clear in the communications between Tom Driberg MP and the Colonial Secretary at the time Arthur Creech Jones, in which the latter states: “no steps are therefore being taken at the moment to encourage or assist migration to this country”.

Immigration did continue, and so too did discrimination, with many black immigrants being prevented from entering higher paid, high-skilled jobs. British cities nevertheless continued to rely heavily on black labour, and the transport and manufacturing sectors in particular continued to provide the necessary jobs for those who had come over. By the 1980’s, 60% of black immigrants to the UK were employed in the transport and public-sector industries. This was largely due to a determined recruitment drive by Transport for London, at the invitation of the Barbados Government, from February 1956 to encourage people to emigrate from the Caribbean to London to fill the staffing shortages which the company faced.

In sum, the history of black immigration into the UK has been a story of discrimination and struggle for acceptance, but it has also been a story that has influenced everything around us, and has decisively shaped the social fabric of the UK.

By Daniel Gibson