Daniel Nelson

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery - Equiano and Enslavement - period clothes

Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery - Equiano and Enslavement - period clothes

Image by Elliott Brown

On my way home from the 'Black Georgians' exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives I picked up a newspaper and read: “In the world of blue plaques and green National trust badges, there’s a missing colour:  black.

“Most of our heritage institutions – all of them full of well-meaning, highly-educated and liberal people – struggle to bring black people through their doors, as either visitors or colleagues, despite the efforts of many committed people working in the field.”

The article was by British- Nigerian historian and broadcaster David Olusoga in The Guardian. He added: “But here’s the irony. History is valued by black Britons in ways that are unique. No other people see history in quite the same way because no other people have had their history so comprehensively denied and disavowed.”

Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar is part of efforts to rectify this gap.

It’s the third major exhibition at the Brixton-based institution and it aims to tell visitors about the everyday lives of black people in the period 1714-1830, from the reign of King George 1 to the death of George IV’s brother, William IV – when Victoria became queen and the Georgians gave way to the Victorians.

Anti-slavery legislation was passed only towards the end of the Georgian  period – and was not immediately and universally  implemented – and many of the black personalities featured in the exhibition were anti-slavery campaigners, along with their other work.

The best-known campaigner (and “best-known” does not mean well-known generally in Britain) was Olaudah Equiano, from what is now eastern Nigeria, who wrote: “Can any man be a Christian who asserts that one part of the human race were ordained to be in perpetual bondage to another?”

Other personalities included two leading sportsmen, boxers Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond. After narrowly losing – in the 60th round - to later British and world champion Tom Cribb, the self-taught Richmond bought the Horse and Dolphin pub In London’s Leicester Square and set up a boxing academy.


Phillis Wheatley was the first African-American woman to be published in Britain and came to London in 1773. Like many women, black and white, then and now, she had to defend her writing as her own. Another to achieve a “first” was Ignatius Sancho: born on a slave ship, he was the first African prose writer to publish work in England. He was left a small legacy by the Duke of Montagu, with which he opened a grocery in Westminster.

Francis  Barber was brought here from Jamaica in 1752 and became valet, companion and friend to writer and poet Samuel Johnson, who left him an annual annuity in his will.

Nathaniel Wells , the son of a slave and a Welsh merchant,  inherited plantations, and became a wealthy landowner and magistrate, the second black person to hold a commission in the armed forces, and Britain's first black High Sheriff.

This is not a blockbuster exhibition in the sense of a major Royal Academy or British Museum show. It’s modest, with few original works, but it’s well put-together, interesting and important and  worth a visit. These are people who lived their own lives and also fought prejudice and assumptions and began a still unfinished revolution in thought.

And as a bonus, the staff at the Black Cultural Archives are as friendly a bunch as I’ve come across in any institution.

·      Black Georgians: The Shock of the Familiar is at Black Cultural Archives, 1 Windrush Square, SW2, until 9 April It is free. Info: www.bcaheritage.org.uk

+ 22 Oct: Black people in Lambeth's 18th century parish registers, 1pm

+ 5 Nov: The life of Ignatius Sancho, 1pm

+ 12 Nov: Gaps in Black British History, David Olusoga, Marika Sherwood, Miranda Kaufmann, 4.45-8.30pm, £20/£15, Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, WC1


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