No, the first Britons were not ‘black’

So-called anti-racist activists are dabbling in blood-and-soil nationalism.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Identity Politics UK

The idea that the native inhabitants of a nation have some kind of mystical connection with the land is something usually associated with the ultra-nationalist far right. So why are self-professed anti-racists now trying to bring back this blood-and-soil mindset?

Last month, the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in Brixton, south London hosted an exhibition claiming that the first Britons were black. The Brilliant Black British History exhibition was based on the children’s book of the same name by Nigerian-born poet and author Atinuke. The exhibition, funded by both Lambeth Council and Arts Council England, made some truly astonishing claims.

Visitors to the exhibit were told that ‘Britain was black for 7,000 years’ before white people arrived. Apparently, scientists have discovered that ‘the first migrants to Britain around 12,000 years ago had black skin’. This seems to be based on the contentious genetic study that claimed the Cheddar Man – the 10,000-year-old set of remains found in Somerset – was likely to have had ‘dark to black skin’.

Of course, that would not have made the Cheddar Man ‘black’ in any meaningful sense. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the dark-skinned, blue-eyed people who inhabited most of western Europe 10,000 years ago had any concept at all of ‘blackness’. And it is even more ridiculous to suggest that the pigmentation of the Cheddar Man’s skin meant that he shared the same ethnicity as today’s Brits of African and Caribbean descent.

Undeterred by these inconvenient facts, the exhibition goes on to claim that Emperor Septimius Severus, who died in York in the 3rd century AD, was ‘a black Roman ruler’. As it turns out, Severus was born in North Africa, a fact that has been taken to mean he was ‘black’. In fact, it is much more likely that Severus was of Italian and Middle Eastern descent.

The curators make this mistake once again when they claim that a whopping 11 per cent of Roman York was black. This seems to come from a misunderstanding of a 2009 study, which found that one group of human remains in York was composed mainly of migrants from North Africa.

Amazingly, the content of the BCA exhibition was actually a lot tamer than the children’s book it was based on. Atinuke’s Brilliant Black British History tells young readers that black people built Stonehenge, that ‘every single British person comes from a migrant’ and that Britain’s population was majority black for longer than it has been majority white.

These claims are skewed, to say the least. But perhaps more importantly, most Brits wouldn’t care even if they did prove to be true. As historian David Abulafia told the Telegraph, ‘I am totally nonplussed by the obsession with the skin colour of people in Britain’s remote past’. This is surely the majority view. Most people are more interested in trying to make today’s multiethnic society run smoothly, than they are trying to score points over who was here ‘first’.

Regular Brits might not care about the skin colour of their ancient forebears, but our cultural institutions clearly do. The BCA is a charity supported by, among others, Lambeth Council, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the British Film Institute. Until 2021, it was even working with the Home Office.

Our educational institutions also seem keen on peddling identitarian falsehoods. In December last year, it emerged that some schoolkids across the UK were being falsely taught that St Hadrian of Canterbury – an abbot living in 7th-century England – was black. He wasn’t. He was born in Libya and was probably of Berber descent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BBC has also got in on the action. Beloved kids’ series Horrible Histories recently came out with a song called ‘Been Here From the Start’. The lyrics imply that black people have always maintained a significant presence in Britain. The supposedly educational, non-fiction show omits the fact that this is patently untrue.

This obsession with inventing an alternative black British history is deeply unhealthy for all of us. For starters, there are plenty of black Britons who really were black and who really did make significant contributions to our history. Making demonstrably false claims about black people being the true natives of the British Isles both ignores the real black figures of British history and revives some pretty ugly nativist notions.

As an organisation that claims to dedicate itself to both education and anti-racism, the Black Cultural Archives should know better than to spread this kind of divisive nonsense.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is director of campaign group Don’t Divide Us.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics UK


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