A brief history of black British literature
People of African descent have lived in the British Isles since the Roman Empire, when Britannia was simply a dominion. However, the traces of these presences have become obscured in the dominance of the British Empire many centuries later. People, cultures and commerce circulated between Africa and Europe well before the systems of enslavement and colonisation. Literature plays a vital role in correcting this imbalance in historical representation.
At the end of each blog we’ll also share with you some recommendations of poetry, prose and drama for further reading.
Until the 18th century in Britain, black people were represented primarily through white (and in the majority male) writers’ works, and predominantly through the medium of plays. However, black characters were not played by black actors. Blackness was represented through prosthetics (black gloves, stockings, wigs) and the darkening of white performers’ skin. This continued into 20th-century film adaptations, for example Laurence Olivier (a white actor) played Shakespeare’s Othello on film in 1965.
In the Renaissance (the beginnings of England’s imperial expansion) the term ‘Moor’ was used to describe African, Chinese, Indian, Arab and non-Christian people. The most famous of these depictions in literature is the eponymous tragic hero of Othello (1604). Others include Niger in Ben Jonson’s Masque of Blackness (1605), Toto in Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West (1600–03?), and Zanche in John Webster’s The White Devil (1611).
One significant step in these white cultural representations of blackness is Restoration playwright Aphra Behn, the first English woman to earn her living as a writer, writing Oroonoko: or The Royal Slave, a True Story (1688). Albeit without challenging white Europeans’ assumption of racial superiority, Behn employs a female narrative voice in what was then a rare account of the horrors of British colonisation and enslavement.
The earliest known pre-20th-century writing by black people in Britain is found in works by 18th century figures such as Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, whose 1787 book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species called for the abolition of slavery and immediate emancipation of all slaves. Other notable works of the time include Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano depicting the horrors of slavery, which contributed to the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, abolishing slavery in the British Empire, and Ignatius Sancho.
Sancho’s collection of letters, The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, is one of the first accounts of African slavery written in English by a former enslaved person. He was also the first known person of African descent to have voted in a British general election and is now believed to be the subject of the c.1760 oil painting Portrait of an African which can be seen in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.
Key figures of the 19th century include Robert Wedderburn, Mary Prince, and Mary Seacole, whose biography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, was the first autobiography written by a black woman in Britain when it was published in 1857.