Module Fifteen, Activity Five

Africans in Great Britain

In the next unit, you will read about peoples of African descent living in Great Britain. After completing the reading, please respond to the questions and complete the activities included at the end of the module.

Historical evidence shows that there were blacks living in Britain before the slave trade. In this activity, you will learn how the slave trade and subsequent migrations of people of African descent impacted the history and culture of England. [Click here to see a map of Europe]

Coming to Great Britain

In 1544, five Africans sailed from Africa to Great Britain with Captain John Lok. They were brought to England to train as interpreters and to help develop trade relationships between Africa and Britain. As Great Britain’s involvement in the slave trade grew, more blacks came to the country and the interactions between Africans and Britains became motivated by prejudice and racism. By 1596, a number of African slaves and free blacks were living in Britain. This prompted the queen, Elizabeth I, to order that all Africans be expelled from England in 1601 because she blamed them for creating social problems. The attempt to rid England of blacks did not work because blacks had become a part of English society. Many were free people, and many of those who were slaves were owned by wealthy families who wanted to keep their servants.

By the eighteenth century, approximately 15,000 people of African descent were living in Britain, and many lived near the ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol. In Great Britain at this time, there was no legislation that made slavery legal. A court decision in 1772 made it a crime to send an African living in Britain back into slavery. Many people interpreted this incorrectly as meaning that slavery did not exist in Britain and that any black person coming to Britain would be free. As you learned in the previous activity, after the American Revolution, many blacks living in America as slaves were promised freedom in exchange for their support during the Revolution. In addition to going to Nova Scotia, Canada, many of these American slaves came to London.

Blacks arriving in Britain found a country that could not assist them and did not want them there. In 1731, a law was passed that made it illegal to allow blacks to learn trades, making it impossible for people of African descent to earn a living and live independently. Most blacks at this time worked as servants or begged in the streets. Blacks were blamed for the many problems that the country faced. This is one of the reasons that groups of white men proposed to re-settle the blacks in another country. This led to the settlement of Sierra Leone in West Africa. You will learn about Sierra Leone in the next and final activity of this module.

After the abolition of slavery, colonialism defined the interaction between Great Britain and Africa. The industrial revolution in Britain created demands for raw materials to use in the factories. The British also looked for new markets in which to sell the products produced in Britain. Africa provided both.

In the early twentieth century, a number of blacks came from British colonies in the West Indies to Britain in search of work, and many black sailors came to work in port cities such as Liverpool. Here, they faced poverty and hardship. At the onset of World War I, a few thousand blacks were living in Great Britain. Although British law did not allow blacks to fight in the war, some worked as members of sailing crews in the navy. Many blacks worked in factories in England and provided the much-needed labor that the war effort required. After the war, the former soldiers returned to Britain and many blacks lost their jobs. The unemployment rate was very high, and this resulted in social unrest. White Britains blamed the blacks for the troubles with the economy. In 1919, race riots erupted in cities including Liverpool and Manchester.

In response to this prejudice and mistreatment, blacks formed political and educational organizations such as the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) to improve the welfare of blacks through legal and diplomatic means. London also was the center of the Pan-Africanist movement. Pan-Africanism is a movement to bring together peoples of African descent in the struggle for freedom and justice. Peoples of African descent published newspapers such as the African Times and Orient Review. The West African Student Union was established in London to facilitate the study of African history and culture.

To refresh your memory on Pan-Africanism, link to the discussion on this topic in Module Ten: Politics in Africa.

World War II (1939-1945)

More blacks came to Great Britain with the outbreak of World War II. They came looking for work in the factories and as soldiers and sailors. In the book Behind the Frontlines by Ferdinand Dennis, the author describes his interactions with one of these migrants, a man named Holy Joe. Holy Joe was an African immigrant from Sierra Leone who claimed to be 108 years old at the time that he spoke to the author of the book. Below is an excerpt.

“Holy Joe Johnson was just one of the many African sailors attracted to Liverpool during its heyday. Exactly how he got there wasn’t clear, but within days of arriving he secured a job on a British warship. Unfortunately, the night before it was due to leave port, Holy Joe was beaten unconscious and robbed. When he woke up his newly bought shoes and trousers and all his money had been stolen. A good Samaritan, a Liberian, sheltered and nursed him until he was well again. When Holy Joe went to the docks to enquire about his ship, he learnt that it had been sunk by a U-boat.

That was the first of his miraculous escapes from death. Others happened in the Second World War. His most memorable one occurred when he was hired as head cook in a new battleship. He took the job reluctantly. Two previous cooks had been dismissed for excessive drinking, and Joe, a teetotaller ( a person who does not drink alcohol), was recommended. With nine cooks, all white, in his charge he had never held such a responsible post. His fears that they wouldn’t obey his orders soon proved groundless. It was the navy and they were bound to follow his command….

Holy Joe claimed that the spirits of his parents saved him on numerous occasions from certain death. And for this reason he was a devout Christian. His godfearing ways, he believed, were responsible for his long life.”

As the story of Holy Joe demonstrates, life in Great Britain was not always easy for blacks. After WWII, many of those who had fought in the war hoped that their lives would improve. WWII was a war fought against racism and fascism, and so blacks living in Great Britain, and in Africa, thought that the war would bring an end to colonialism. In 1941, England did sign the Atlantic Charter [Click here to view the Atlantic Charter], which stated that all nations had the right to self-determination. In the 1960s, most African countries gained independence from British colonial rule.

Blacks in Britain after Colonialism

In recent history, blacks in Great Britain have had to confront racism and legislation that prevented other blacks from coming to the country. The Commonwealth Immigrants Bill of 1962 and the Immigration Acts of 1968 and 1971 restricted the entry of colonial subjects, including those from Africa. As they had in the past, peoples of African descent living in England responded to this situation by organizing cultural events that celebrated their African heritage and political groups that assisted them in gaining the freedoms they deserved. Today just under two million blacks live in Britain. The majority of this population are immigrants from the West Indies, but this population also includes a growing number of African born blacks. In spite of discrimination, people of African heritage contribute socially, culturally and economically to the vitality of Britain. Indeed, the most recent population census of Britain shows that the African population in Britain is more highly educated than the general white population. Twenty six percent of the black population has had at least some college education, compared thirteen percent of the white population in Britain.


Please complete the following questions and activities.


  1. When did Africans first come to live in Britain? How did Africans get to Britain?
  2. Why did descendants of ex-African slaves living in the West Indies migrate to Britain in the twentieth Century?
  3. What types of work have Africans living in Britain been engaged in? How have Africans in the Diaspora contributed to British society and economy?
  4. How has British society discriminated against Africans living in Britain? How have Africans responded to this discrimination?


Africans in the diaspora have made significant contributions to the culture and economy of the United Kingdom. Using the Web see if you can find sites that highlight these contributions.

Go to Activity Six or select from the other activities in this module: