Sarah Reviews… Black and British: A Short, Essential History by David Olusoga

Good afternoon! It’s been a little while since I last shared a review here on SWB, I’ve not been doing huge amounts of reading but I have really appreciated the ones I have actually managed to read. Including, or especially, this one…

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Title: Black and British: A Short, Essential History

Author: David Olusoga

Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books

Publication Date: 1st October 2020

Format: Paperback

About The Book…

A short, essential introduction to Black British history.

When did Africans first come to Britain?

Who are the well-dressed black children in Georgian paintings?

Why did the American Civil War disrupt the Industrial Revolution?

These and many other questions are answered in this essential introduction to 1800 years of the Black British history: from the Roman Africans who guarded Hadrian’s Wall right up to the present day.

This new children’s version of the bestseller Black and British by award-winning historian and broadcaster David Olusoga is Illustrated with maps, photos and portraits

Macmillan Children’s Books will donate 50p from every copy sold to The Black Curriculum.

When I was at school there was no Black history. None of the Black people from the past who we know about today were ever mentioned by my teachers, and my textbooks contained nothing about the role Black people have played in the story of Britain. So what I presumed was that there must not have been any Black people in British history

Black and British: A short, essential history by David Olusoga

Let’s start off with a little bit of my history to put this review into some context. I’m mixed race, with a White mother and a Black British father. I grew up in semi-rural Devon in the 90s, multi cultural it was not, but my dad was part of the far South West Black Networking Group and I remember going to Black family days and exhibitions. Most of my knowledge comes from things my dad taught and exposed me too, rather than anything I was taught during school. What little Black history we did look at during my time at school was limited to the American Civil Rights Movement. I guess it was much easier to look at the things that happened in America and learn about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr than it would be to reflect on the part our own country played in that history.

Some bits of history included within the book I was already familiar with, the idea that there were Black people in Britain during the Roman period and in Tudor times. I also had some knowledge about Britain’s role in the ending of the slave trade, particularly that it wasn’t quite as heroic as some people would perhaps like you to believe, and that when it was finally over it was the slave owners rather than the people who had had their freedom ripped away that were compensated. Other things I was less familiar with, I knew my great grandfather had fought for the Empire during the Second World War and had received an honour for it, I hadn’t quite appreciated the general attitude from the British Government towards all these people who willingly put their lives on the line for this country, so many miles across the ocean from the land they called home. Although really, I probably shouldn’t be so surprised…

I’m not going to lie some of the things in this book were pretty hard for me to read. My paternal grandparents are originally from Barbados and moved over to Britain some time after the war, they were here by the time my dad was born in the early 60s. While logically I knew if you went back enough generations my ancestors would have been slaves, and at some point, would have been taken across the Atlantic on slave ships. What I hadn’t realised was that Barbados was where slavery as we know it really began. That it was the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 that introduced the laws that meant and enslaved person would be a slave for life, not just a period of time, and that any children they had would automatically become slaves. I’d seen depictions of slave ships before, but I don’t think seeing the cramped conditions and reading about the treatment of the people being transported will ever become ‘easy’. The idea that ill, but living people were thrown overboard in the hope that they would get an insurance payout that wouldn’t come if they had succumbed to their disease should never be easy to read.

One of the other things that surprised me was despite knowing a fair amount about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I had no idea about the boycott that happened less than a decade later here in Bristol. I find it so strange that at school I learnt about things that happened thousands of miles away but nothing about the event that happened less than 100 miles up the road from where I grew up. I guess it doesn’t really fit in with the general narrative of how good Britain is for ending the Atlantic Slave trade, and the idea that we are far more progressive and fairer than the other side of the Atlantic.

Final Thoughts…

I picked this up knowing I didn’t know everything but thinking I had a pretty solid basis from which to build. I knew there had been Black people in Britain in Roman times, and I knew a bit about our part in the slave trade and that many of our major cities owe a lot of their wealth to it. Turns out there was still an awful lot I didn’t know! While this is aimed primarily at middle grade children it’s such a wonderful introduction to a massive part of British history that is sorely lacking from the national curriculum. I think it’s important to appreciate that just because Britain didn’t have the formal segregation that we might associate with the United States or South Africa doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of history that lead to the Britain we currently live in. The racism may not be as overt as it appears in other countries but that doesn’t mean that it is not an issue in Britain. It isn’t an easy read, and nor should it be, but it really should be a must read for everybody!

More David Olusoga on Goodreads

About The Author…

David Olusoga is a British-Nigerian historian, author, presenter and BAFTA winning film-maker. He is Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, the author of several books and a columnist for the Observer, The Voice and BBC History Magazine, also writing forthe Guardian and the New Statesman. Hepresents the long-running BBC history series A House Through Time and wrote and presented the multi-award winning BBC series Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. He is a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Black British History and in 2019 was awarded an OBE for services to history and community integration. Black and British was longlisted for the Orwell Prize, shortlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize and won the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize. A children’s edition, Black and British: A Short, Essential History was published in 2020.

Connect With David


Want To Buy It?

Note: the link is is an affiliate link. If you purchase something using this, I’ll get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

As always if you’ve read the book let me know what you thought! If you’ve not read it yet will my review convince you to pick it up?

2 thoughts on “Sarah Reviews… Black and British: A Short, Essential History by David Olusoga

  1. Pingback: SWB’s February In Books – Sarah Withers Blogs

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