Black History Month – a journey along and around the River Thames

Obelisk in London
The Cleopatra’s Needle was built in Africa 1,500 years before London was founded.

Black History Month is an occasion to recognise and celebrate the invaluable contributions of Black people to British society.

The first Black History Month in the UK happened in 1987, marking the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean and the 25th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity.

In order to understand our present times, it’s important to look to the past. Here, we want to use this opportunity to highlight the often-unexplored relationship between Black people and the River Thames. We will also shine a spotlight on landmarks and happenings around the River Thames and its links to Black history.

Roman times

There is evidence to show that people with African ancestry lived and worked in Britain since Roman times. In AD 43, the Romans invaded Britain and around AD47 they built ‘Londinium’ on the banks of the River Thames. Londinium was a diverse city. People travelled here from all corners of the Roman Empire.

A recent study[1] in a cemetery in Southwark revealed the remains of several adults of African descent, who seem to have travelled from the southern Mediterranean.

Tudor period

Historians have also recently unearthed fascinating evidence of Black Tudors.

It is estimated that there were around 300 Black people living in England and Scotland at that time. Documents show that Black people were living, working and intermarrying into British society during this time.

The first image we have of a Black person from the Tudor period (and from Black British history) is of John Blanke, the trumpeter to Henry VII and Henry VIII. He would have lived in the household of Henry VII – the Tower of London[2]

Blanke would have visited and worked at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich near the River Thames, very close to where the National Maritime Museum now stands. He performed at Henry VIII’s coronation in 1509, and in 1511 at the Westminster Tournament, a huge celebration organised in honour of the new prince, Henry. This child was born to Katherine of Aragon on 1st January 1511 but sadly died only ten days after the Tournament in February.

In the Stuart period, the presence of Black people in London arose from the growing English involvement in the horrific Atlantic slave trade, which began in earnest in the mid-1600s. This had started in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I when John Hawkins undertook four voyages to Sierra Leone (between 1564 and 1569) and transported a total of 1,200 African people across the Atlantic to sell in the Spanish Caribbean. In fact, between about 1500 and 1900, Europeans forcibly uprooted millions of people from throughout West Africa and West Central Africa and shipped them across the Atlantic in conditions of great cruelty.

18th Century England

In the latter half of the 18th Century, England had a Black population of around 15,000 people. They lived mostly in major port cities – London, Liverpool, and Bristol – but also in market towns and villages across the country. The majority worked in domestic service, both paid and unpaid.

Whilst slavery had no legal basis in England, the law was often misinterpreted. Black people previously enslaved in the colonies overseas and then brought to England by their owners, were often still treated as slaves. Some individuals who had formerly been enslaved got baptized, believing this would ensure their freedom. Others took advantage of being on English soil and absconded. Notices for ‘runaway slaves’ from ships boarded on the Thames featured in newspapers during this period.

During the latter half of the 18th century the law was tested in the courts; most notably in 1772 with the case of James Somerset. Somerset helped to kick start the anti-slavery movement in Britain.  It was recorded in the Public Advertiser in 1772 that 200 Black people celebrated the Somerset verdict at a pub in Westminster[3].

There was always danger of recapture and the prospect of a worse enslavement, even perhaps early death in the West Indies, if a person ran away from his or her owner in Britain. British authors Thomas Day and John Bicknell wrote a poem about the true story of the suicide of a Black man kidnapped from England and from his English wife, who shot himself on a boat on the Thames rather than face slavery.

Charles Ignatius Sancho is an important chapter in our shared history, during this period.

Sancho was born, around 1729, on a slave ship en route from Guinea to the Spanish West Indies.  As a toddler, still enslaved, he moved to Greenwich to work for three sisters near Dartmouth Row, where he met the Duke of Montagu. After the duke’s death in 1749, Sancho ran away from the house in Greenwich and persuaded the duke’s widow to employ him. He  became her butler and head of a large household close to Greenwich Park.

In the last six years of his life, Sancho’s celebrity took off. He opened a grocery shop in Charles Street, Westminster, where the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office now stands. He composed many pieces of music and would eventually be best known as an epistolary writer, penning accounts and critiques of 18th-century culture and politics.

In fact, he was known for conducting lively correspondence with his friends, including aristocrats, artists, actors, bankers, and booksellers.

As a literate man of property, Sancho was able to vote. He was the first recorded Black voter in a Westminster election when he voted for Charles James Fox, the abolitionist who proposed a successful bill to abolish the slave trade in 1807, who wrote to thank him. Like Sancho, Fox would not live to see the bill pass.

Sancho died in 1780 and was the first Black man to have an obituary in the British press. His letters were published posthumously in two volumes, raising the large sum of £500 for his widow and surviving children.

Sancho is an important chapter in British history and lived near the Thames. 

Want to know more about the often-unexplored relationship between Black people and the River Thames? If yes, please read on.

Have you spotted these prominent landmarks on your walks along the Thames?

Mandela’s bust and British Film Institute, South Bank

Nelson Mandela’s statue was made by English sculptor Ian Walters to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the African National Congress foundation.  It was unveiled in the South Bank in 1985 and have suffered vandalism episodes, leading it to be recast and re-erected on a higher plinth years later.

A short walk from there, the British Film Institute (BFI) hosts the African Odysseys programme, screening inspirational films made by and about African people, a one-of-a-kind celebration of African roots and culture. The monthly screenings are followed by Q&A sessions.

Cleopatra’s Needle, Embankment

This 68ft tall obelisk was built in Africa 1,500 years before London was founded. It was taken by the British from Egypt and erected in London in 1878. Despite its name, it was constructed years before Cleopatra was even born. Obelisk statues date back thousands of years from Africa, where they were usually placed outsides temples probably as rebirth symbols. They can now be found in many European cities outside cemeteries and in war memorials.

Mary Seacole’s statue, Lambeth

Mary Seacole was a nurse, traveller, businesswoman and author. Born in Jamaica in the 1800s from a Scottish father and Jamaican mother, she helped her mum, who was a doctor, care for the sick from a young age. She travelled the world nursing people and set up her own front-line hospital during the Crimean War. When she came back from the Crimean War she was almost destitute. However, to help her, Lord Rokeby, who had been an important military commander in Crimea, threw a four-day festival in her honour in the Royal Surrey Gardens in Walworth, with thousands of performers, including nine military bands and an orchestra, according to a report in the Times.  It took her many years to have her work recognised after this period. In 2016, a statue to honour her was unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital, the UK’s first to be dedicated to a named black woman.

Black Peoples’ Day of Action 1981, Blackfriars Bridge

Triggered by the death of 13 Black youngsters in New Cross, in what was a suspected racist attack on the 18th of January on the same year, the Day of Action was the biggest ever march of Black people in England. The demonstration happened on the 2nd of March and gathered between 15,000 to 20,000 people protesting racism and demanding equal treatment under the law. It went from New Cross all the way to Hyde Park, crossing the Blackfriars Bridge, where the police unsuccessfully tried to block it.

West India Docks, Isle of Dogs

Built in 1802, the West India Docks – now known as Canary Wharf and one of the most important business areas in the city – were created to handle the great amount of trade coming from the West Indies. Not only the construction was partly funded by slavery profits, but most goods were produced by enslaved Africans. It’s a testament of the exploitation and violence that Black people suffered.