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The Oxford Companion to Black British History.

The Oxford Companion to Black British History David Dabydeen, John Gilmore and Cecily Jones (eds.)

Oxford University Press 562 pp 30 [pounds sterling] ISBN 978 0 19 280439 6


ESSENTIAL--YET INFURIATING--IS THIS COMPENDIUM, which embraces, broadly speaking, the connection of Africa and its diaspora with the United Kingdom, drawing over 100 contributors, five advisory editors and the three main editors from the University of Warwick's Centre for Caribbean Studies.

Another reviewer has already expressed her frustration at the inadequacy of the indexing. Sat-Nav for the next edition please, as this valuable book must continue to be published, updated and improved.

As a reference book, the impression is rather that of a cracked, tessellated Roman mosaic which has lately emerged from the earth, a metaphor appropriate, both in that Africans came here with the Romans (one governed Britain in the second century AD) centuries before the first English landed, and that the African connection with these islands has been, rather like women's studies, 'hidden from history'. Though many of those Romans might have been North Africans, 'Moors' were many-shaded in complexion, and skeletal remains and other indications found in the vicinity of Hadrian's Wall point to some buried legionaries having had sub-Saharan origins.

So Africans have been in Britain for around 2,000 years. Some estimates claim hundreds of thousands of apparently white persons with an African ancestor, centuries before the Empire Windrush brought the first expectant Caribbean immigrants to our shores in 1948. Yet there is plenty of evidence, not only from DNA (early this year, Mark Jobling of Leicester University found exclusively West African Ychromosomes in persons bearing a 'rare' Yorkshire surname, and these probably entered their lineage some 250 years ago), but from what we know of particular persons, products of happy unions between black and white.

This book also reveals, in an unsystematic way--we should perhaps be grateful for its lack of politically correct orchestration--the paradox of close relations between white and black: even with the slave trade and slavery at its height in the Caribbean, there were Africans like Sancho who dined with Garrick (he wrote music and poetry and ran a high-class grocer's shop in Charles St, Mayfair) and whose portrait was painted by Gainsborough. Julius Soubise, born a slave in St Kitts, an accomplished fencer and ornament of fashionable society in the London of the 1770s, and, very possibly, the lover of the Duchess of Queensberry, was another. His and others, often dressed in the height of fashion, are among around 2,000 images of black people in eighteenth-century Britain held by the National Portrait Gallery (this Companion is not illustrated).

Also from St Kitts was Nathaniel Wells, the son of a plantation owner from his African slave mother, described (says the Companion) as 'a West Indian of large fortune, a man of very gentlemanly manners, but so much a man of colour as to be little removed from a Negro'. He was, in Monmouthshire, a JP, and in 1818 was Sheriff, an officer in the Yeomanry and Deputy Lieutenant for the County. His wife was white: a grandson became a brigadiergeneral.

Many, perhaps most, of the individual entries are of men, woman and organizations who fought valiantly against racialism in Britain, and expressed, as artists and as expounders, the validity of African--mainly West African--and West Indian culture and experience. Only those dead are given full entries, though the living are mentioned often enough en passant, for example in sections on music. Oddly, with the latter, as with other general topics, some subcategories are given separate alphabetical entry: for example Funk and Reggae are included, whilst others (Calypso) are not. Whites, blacks, and an occasional other ethnic, all get entries. J.A. Froude, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford in 1892, who should be exhumed and hung in chains there for his noxiously racist book The English in the West Indies, is given a surprisingly gentle short entry. Splendidly, however, his contemporary, the Trinidadian J.J. Thomas, who replied wittily with his book Froudacity, has a full page. The selection can be curious: Elizabeth I is given an extended going-over for her attempt to expel 'Blackamoors', which failed. Yet there is no entry for Queen Victoria, who condemned 'sheer racial prejudice', had a black goddaughter, received African delegations sympathetically, and did her best for Prince Dajazmach Alamayahu, the unhappy orphaned son of the emperor of Ethiopia-and, when he died at the age of eighteen, had him laid to rest in St George's Chapel, Windsor.

As a book both of old and contemporary history still unfolding, the Companion is a fascinating volume to dip into: with perseverance, it will also answer many a question.
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Author:Norton, Graham Gendall
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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