Africans in British History
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Africans in British History

The whole British population could be described as being from Africa in the sense that humankind is thought to have originated there and to have later migrated to populate the world’s different continents.

In recorded history it is known that at the time of the Roman Empire there were many hundreds of North African troops among the Roman legions on the northern frontier with what is now Scotland, and recent genetic research has led to speculation that groups in today’s UK population are among their descendants.  The first ‘African’ Roman Emperor, Septimius Severus, who was born in Libya and with part-Libyan ancestry, fought campaigns in Britain and died at York in 211AD.

Following the development of contacts between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, black Africans began to arrive in Britain.   An early instance was in 1544 when Captain John Lok  brought five Africans to London to learn English so they could act as interpreters for English traders with Africa.  The number of Africans, some slaves and some free, living in Britain grew in Elizabethan times to the point where in 1601 the Queen decided all Africans should be expelled. 

This was not successful and it is generally reckoned that in the eighteenth century about 15,000 people of African descent were living in Britain.  This increase was to a large extent the outcome of British imperial expansion and its leading role in the notorious slave trade and the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources.  Many of these Africans would have come via the West Indies where they and their families had been taken as slaves, but the status of many of them in the UK was that of free men and women.  At the end of the 18th century, the ‘Sons of Africa’ were leading campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade: in the same way as the Africa Association in the 19th Century campaigned for the advancement of Africans, and events like the 5th pan-African Congress in Manchester after World War II was a critical episode in the campaign for independence for African countries from colonial rule.  One of the most influential Africans fighting for the abolition of the slave trade was Olaudah Equiano, born in Nigeria, transported to Barbados as a slave, who eventually bought his freedom and then came to England.  Ottobah Cugoano was another prominent campaigner.

In the nineteenth century with the ending of slavery there were more opportunities for Africans to come to the UK, many of them arriving as sailors or coming to study.  Several went on to practise a profession or engage in business and trade.  Samuel Coleridge Taylor (p  ) and Arthur Wharton (p    ) were members of this generation of Africans.

In the 20th century, as globalisation proceeded, the flow of Africans to the UK increased.  Many came for training and study – including famous names like Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu  - in some cases staying on to gain practical experience and sometimes settling permanently.  Others arrived as members of the armed forces.  

From the 1960s onwards Britain imposed ever tighter restrictions on immigration from Commonwealth countries but the effect of these restrictions was offset by a number of factors


·         Civil wars and political conflicts in independent African countries resulted in an increase in the number of refugees.

·         Education institutions were required to charge differential fees for students from abroad and found it profitable to attract students from Africa and elsewhere

·         Independent African governments opened diplomatic missions in London, and business organisations of various kinds needed Africans to represent them in the UK.

·         Inter-marriage between Britons and Africans increased.

·         Skill shortages in some key occupations in Britain often resulted in relaxation of the immigration rules in particular cases.


In the most recent period the number of Africans in Britain has been increasing rapidly.  The 485,000 Black Africans in the 2001 census compares with 270,000 ten years earlier.  And since 2001 the number has continued to increase – a study for the Office of National Statistics suggested that in the single year 2003 to 2004 the numbers of Black Africans in England rose by 6.8%.