Beyond the SS Empire Windrush: London’s Black History in the Archives

An invaluable London resource for reconsidering black British history, explored by Charlotte Taylor (KCL).

Earlier this year I, along with my fellow classmates on Dr Alana Harris’ module Society and Culture in Twentieth Century London, visited the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Officially established in 1981, the archive hosts not only records from (mainly) the twentieth century, but it also operates as a ‘living archive’ actively taking in (or generating through oral history interviews) records every week. The historian Laura Miller describes archives as ‘cultural touchstones to the past’, and this statement holds particular resonance for this archive – without it, a significant proportion of black British history may well have been forgotten amongst the vast sources for white British history.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

When considering black British history, the popular narrative marking the 1948 Windrush voyage from the Caribbean to England as the beginning of a collective and definitive black British presence in Britain seems to dominate. However, the records at the BCA provide resources for the scripting of a different narrative – for example, the original photo of Amy Barbour-Jones that we examined (alongside others of her mother) contradicts this typical chronology by demonstrating a young, black toddler in a photograph reminiscent of those we saw in our visit to the London Metropolitan Archives to view the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition. The Barbour-Jones family were a middle-class black family from Guyana who settled in London around 1904, whilst still conducting business abroad through imperial connections, and who increasingly became involved in black British affairs. For example, the pictured Amy went on to become Secretary of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1942, an organisation which aimed to promote racial equality and black achievements.

Excavating the stories of individuals such as Amy is incredibly important as it complicates seemingly settled histories: the Barbour-Jones family defy the typical assumptions of an early twentieth-century black British family both through their class and wealth, but also through their pre-1960s political engagement. This theme of activism fits perfectly into the ethos of the BCA itself – its origins lie in a grassroots movement to create and maintain a distinct Black British history. Throughout our exploration of other archival materials, we discovered rich resources for writing about black presence and activism in 20th century London, such as the black women’s movements of the 1970s, and collectives such as the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD).

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

OWAAD, the organisation set up by Stella Dadzie, was an organisation aiming to promote equality and protest specific issues for African and Asian women. One particularly prominent instance was their ‘Ban the Jab’ campaign in which they rallied against the testing of the Depo Provera contraceptive jab on African and Asian women.  Some examples included women being unwittingly given the jab immediately after giving birth, being too exhausted to properly give consent. OWAAD in their 1979 Conference highlighted the pressure placed on African and Asian women to take contraception, contrasting it to the reluctance that doctors had providing birth control to white women. Such targeted, racialist practise seems abhorrent (and almost inconceivable) now, but OWAAD also identified key issues that sadly remain all too relevant to today.  For example, the pressure on black women to meet beauty standards that equate whiteness with beauty, and the structural exclusion of black and Asian children from the best standard of education. When reading these original conference papers held within the archive, it seemed astounding to us all that issues so hotly debated in 2016 were already being aired back in 1979.

The Black Cultural Archive is an invaluable (and highly accessible) institution which is crucial to the development and maintenance of black British histories. Its records demonstrate the narrowness of many ‘British history’ narratives which neglect the importance and contribution of black British individuals and organisations as black history is often still relegated to the position of a recent, and sometimes contentious side note within the wider narrative. All of the records we examined on our fieldtrip explored themes we were familiar with from our module, however this visit complimented and complicated these perspectives through allowing us to interrogate fascinating primary sources – such as Stella Dadzie’s satirical feminist board game, Womanpoly, devised as a humorous consciousness-raising tool as well as a rallying call to action. Our immersion in primary source materials relating to Black Edwardians and Black (and Asian) feminists allowed us to ensure that race and ethnicity, alongside gender, class and locality, remain central in the histories we will write about 20th century London.

Studying Nazi Germany

By Adam Wolinsky, history undergraduate student (2012-2015).

I chose to write a Free Standing Long Essay in order to take advantage of the unique opportunity to select a topic of interest to me and explore it in great depth. Nazi Germany is a period of history that has always been of interest to me; unsurprisingly it is also one of the periods of modern history most hotly debated amongst academics. I chose specifically to focus on the pre-war period, which allowed me to explore the creation of the racial Volksgemeinschaft (‘national community). Through gathering source material I was able to analyse the impact that the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich had on the everyday life of ‘ordinary Germans’ (the use of this phrase was a nod to Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, a favourite book on the topic).

My approach to the project was to collect as many personal testimonies as possible, and attempt to identify patterns of how attitudes amongst Germans varied with location, age, gender and class. Many of my primary sources were gathered from the extensive archives of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. However, I was also afforded the incredible opportunity to create my own oral history; through the Holocaust Survivors Centre in Hendon, London, I was introduced to several German-born Jews who had fled Germany before the war and emigrated to the UK. These remarkable individuals kindly allowed me to interview them, and shared fascinating tales of their experiences as Jewish children in pre-war Nazi Germany.

Although this was a topic that I had studied for several years prior to the project, many of the testimonies and much of the source material I encountered surprised me, adding several layers of nuance to my understanding of the period. It led me to form the overarching argument that many ordinary Germans displayed an official hostility towards ‘the Jew’, whilst reserving a personal tolerance for individual Jews they knew and interacted with. One of the biggest challenges of the dealing with the topic matter was attempting to grapple with this seemingly contradictory dichotomous behaviour.

Leading the Exploration of the West African Past

The History department is currently without question the best equipped department in the country – and one of the best in the whole Anglo-American academic world – for the teaching and study of the history of West Africa. The department currently has 5 historians specialising in the history of different aspects of the West African past, a situation that is almost unique in British academic history.

Current staff members include Bronwen Everill (Abolition and Humanitarianism in Liberia and Sierra Leone; Consumer cultures in West Africa and the Atlantic World); Toby Green (Precolonial West Africa; Atlantic slavery; oral history; economic history); Vincent Hiribarren (space and borders in Africa; the history of Borno in northern Nigeria; archives); Tim Livsey (Universities in West Africa and their role in creation of colonial and postcolonial subjects); and Sarah Stockwell (British colonialism in twentieth-century Africa, especially in relation to the history of colonial development and welfare, end of empire). Dr Hiribarren has just been appointed as Lecturer in Modern African History (from July 1st 2015), alongside Dr Green (Lecturer in Lusophone African History and Culture) and Dr Stockwell (Senior Lecturer in Imperial & Commonwealth History) as a permanent staff member, and so the department offers a real research strength in West African history from the distant past to the present day.

Toby Green said: “The current strength in West African history is a great feature of the current History department, and a unique opportunity for students to learn more about a region of the world which is becoming of increasing geopolitical significance, but remains very poorly studied and understood. It’s a real privilege to teach in a department where students can learn about everything from the Historical Origins of Economic Underdevelopment in Africa, through abolition and imperialism and their impacts in West Africa, to the history of colonial and postcolonial Nigeria. I find that students are very keen to learn about something about which they often know very little beforehand, and the chance to learn from specialists and with the latest research is something that they seize with both hands. This is also filtering through to a thriving research culture and the development of new areas of wider impact in the public sphere.”

One of these is the new OCR A Level option in Precolonial African Kingdoms, currently being developed by the OCR in collaboration with Dr Green. This is the first time that precolonial African history has been offered at A Level in British schools, and will also see for the first time an OCR-KCL prize in Precolonial African history being offered for the best A level student essay in the area.

OCR Interview with Dr Toby Green

More information can be found in this OCR opinion piece and this sample exam script.

Dr Hiribarren added:

“Quite strikingly, our students know that Africa has a very long history but they have never studied it before. Archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, geographers and historians have now gathered so much material that it has become difficult to choose which aspect of African History to study! The continent is often depicted in rather pessimist terms but there is so much more to say about one billion of Africans. Our modules at King’s College London clearly show the wealth of Africa but also link Africa to the rest of the planet. We believe this is the strength of our teaching at Kings as we can relate the history of specific countries such as Nigeria to wider themes relevant in other parts of the world.”

Historical Film as a Learning Tool: Pirates of the Caribbean

Rebecca Simon, PhD Student

The inevitable question that comes up in every PhD student’s conversation is, ‘What is the topic you’re researching?’  Or some variant of that inquiry.  In response, we have all developed our ‘elevator answer’ – a quick, one-sentence summary of three or four years of painstakingly detailed original research.  Mine is, ‘Pirate executions and the transference of British law to the American colonies during the early modern period.’  I don’t want to sound immodest, but I have to admit that this is a great way to introduce myself at parties.  My elevator answer is always greeted with a look of excited interest followed by an enthusiastic, ‘You research pirates?  You must love those Pirates of the Caribbean films!’

I have been researching public responses to piracy in print during the early modern period since I started my Master’s degree in 2008.  If I had been given a pound every time I heard that quip, I would never need to apply for any form of funding again.  As someone with a passion for historical film, I have come to embrace the association my research topic has with the Disney franchise.  In fact, I would like to argue that one could use Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in a university module of Atlantic or maritime history.

As a seminar tutor for the first-year module, The Worlds of the British Empire, I recommend films that tie into every lecture topic and I welcome students to suggest others that I have missed.  I am a firm believer that popular film can and should be used as a resource to study history to put the information in context.  I did this with success when I taught history at the secondary level and if I taught a module on early modern Atlantic history, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film would be an essential introduction.  Although the film is fantasy-genre and based on the popular ride at the Disney parks in the United States (which is in turn loosely based on the novel, Treasure Island), there are numerous thematic elements one can glean from this film: English colonisation in the Caribbean, the rise of the Royal Navy’s authority in the Caribbean and, of course, the history of early modern Atlantic piracy.  These are all important themes in the film, but one I’d like to focus on is the element of maritime culture that sets the tone for the entire story.  To be specific, the Pirate’s Code.

To recap the film, Elizabeth Swann, daughter of the governor of Port Royal, Jamaica (Navy stronghold of the Caribbean and former pirate-haven) finds herself about to be taken by pirates in her own home, because unbeknownst to her she is wearing a necklace of a piece of cursed Aztec gold that she’s mistaken as a pirate medallion. Before they capture her, she invokes the code of parley:  ‘I invoke the right of parley.  According to the Code of the Brethren set down by the pirates Morgan and Bartholomew, you have to take me to your captain…If an adversary demands parley, you can do them no harm until the parley is complete.’  The pirates’ honour dictate that they cannot break the code so they take her to their captain, Barbarossa, and thus the adventure of the film commences.

I’m sure you know the rest of the film’s plot, so forgive me if I choose now to break into a bit of actual history.  The mention of and adherence to the Code is a solid piece of maritime and pirate history from the early modern period.  All merchants and sailors had laws of behaviour to follow in order to maintain order and decorum on a ship.  It may surprise you to find out that pirates had a similar code.  The pirates Elizabeth refers to are likely Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Portugues, men who were actually privateers (legally-sanctioned to rob enemy ships) and active in the late 1660s Caribbean.  There are very few surviving pieces of their own documents, but Alexander Exquemelin, author of The History of the Buccaneers of America (1684 English translation) claimed that Henry Morgan had a code of conduct and honour for his men to adhere.  It has been claimed that pirates were men bound together by a common struggle for survival as seamen and then as outlaws.  As such, they attempted to construct a world where people were justly dealt with. To maintain an egalitarian order, they had to establish sets of rules for all men to obey.

Throughout the film, the pirates are told to ‘keep to the code’ if something goes wrong.  In this case, the particular code they refer to is to leave any man who falls behind.  This is an example of a pirate code that comes from legend; I have never been able to find a specific mention of this in my primary or secondary research.  But the pirate codes that existed were there to maintain order and civility on all pirate ships.  In A General History of the Pyrates, one of the key primary sources historians consult when researching piracy, the pirates’ Code of Honour is listed for the readers’ benefit.  The code was a list of ten articles that promised men equal food and drink provisions and forbid stealing, gambling, whoring, desertion and fighting.  The code established a curfew, allowed rest on the Sabbath and promised monetary compensation for all illness and injuries incurred while on the ships.  The pirate Edward Low, active in the early 1720s, had a similar code of conducts for his pirates, which forbid fighting amongst crew members, thievery and drunkenness, which was printed in the 1 August 1723 edition of the Boston News-Letter for all to read.

Egalitarian order and inspirations from the Pirate Code are present throughout Pirates of the Caribbean.  Former Captain Jack Sparrow was marooned from The Black Pearl by his first mate, Barbarossa who then took over the ship as captain.  Although mutinies were of the worst crimes and betrayals to commit at sea, Barbarossa had been unanimously supported in his mutiny and thus continued to rule the ship even under the curse of living death.  Pirates on The Black Pearl had their specific role and station.  When Jack Sparrow commandeers his own ship, he assembles a crew with the agreement that he is captain, but the men have a choice to serve under him – including Will Turner, who harbours a hatred for pirates.  Another theme present throughout the film is the maritime superstition that women on ships were bad luck.  I could go on for ages as to why women were seen as bad luck, but this superstition comes from the Code: ‘No boy or woman to be allowed among [the pirates]. If any man were found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to the sea to be disguised, he was to suffer Death.’ Elizabeth is sequestered away on The Black Pearl and Jack Sparrow’s first mate, Gibbs, warns him against bringing a female pirate, Anamaria, on board their ship (who is disguised as a man) numerous times.  Of course, women in the film did not cause shipboard bad luck and by the nineteenth century women were no longer seen as maritime curses.

Although Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is largely a fantasy/adventure film, it is one of the most memorable and recognizable movies about pirates in film history; it contains historical relevance that should not be discounted by teachers and professors.  Past the swashbuckling and ‘savvying’ there are numerous themes concerning Atlantic history context about the history of piracy, the Navy and maritime culture and superstition that make the movie a valid resource for students.  Case in point: when people ask me to clarify which pirates I research, I respond, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean pirates’ and they immediately know what I’m talking about.