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Majority of Brits can't name a single Black British historical figure. Here's how we change that

Some three quarters of British adults admit that they do not know “very much” or “anything at all” about Black history, a YouGov poll has found

The statue of Mary Seacole outside St Thomas's Hospital in London is the first statue of a named Black woman in Britain. Image:

Black people have helped define and redefine Britain for millennia – but most people in the UK would fail to name a single Black British figure from history, shameful new research has found.

From pioneering nurse Mary Seacole to Ancient Roman governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus to the millions of Africans kidnapped in the transatlantic slave trade, Black stories are an integral part of British history. Yet most of us are shockingly ignorant on the subject.

Some three quarters of British adults admit that they do not know “very much” or “anything at all” about Black history, fresh YouGov polling shows. Of the 2,268 adults who participated in the survey, more than half (52%) could not recall any Black British historical figures, while only 7% could name more than four.

This knowledge gap is “distressing but not surprising,” award-winning British-Nigerian author Atinuke has urged. Bloomsbury – who commissioned the polling – recently published Atinuke’s Brilliant Black British History, a children’s book celebrating thousands of years of Black people in Britain.

The government needs to “overhaul” the curriculum to tell all British stories, the author has urged.

“You cannot truthfully tell British history without including Black people,” she adds. “We need One History – all British histories being told and taught together, in every school and university in the UK. Otherwise, racist myths about British history will persist.”

What do British people know about Black British history?

Black British history goes back thousands of years. The first homo sapiens to settle permanently in Britain – a migration that took place about 12,000 years ago – had dark skin. The first migrants from Africa settled here around 2,000 years ago.

Yet more than a third of survey respondents believed that Black people first arrived in Britain just two centuries ago. A mere 9% of respondents thought they arrived more than 1,500 years ago.

“There’s a mistaken narrative that Britain was a white country until relatively recently, and that people with Black and brown skin are newcomers,” Atinuke explains. “A lot of racism is based on this idea, the idea that Britain was a white country and should stay a white country.”

Respondents also underestimated Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. The British forcibly took more than 3.1 million people from Africa – yet more than half of Britons (53%) ‘didn’t know’ how many people were taken. Of those who did think they knew, around half believed the human toll was 250,000 or fewer. Just 12% of Britons thought that more than a million people were taken.

Atinuke, award-winning children’s author. Credit: Paul Musso

This “deeply painful” part of British history must be highlighted on school curriculums, Atinuke urges.

“Without addressing it, you can’t have the whole truth about how the British empire conquered a quarter of the world,” she says. “That was made possible through enormous wealth that came from trafficking people, and then literally working them to death.”

Atinuke moved to the UK from Nigeria when she was ten years old. She was inspired to write her latest book on Black history after trying – and failing – to find similar materials for young people.

“I couldn’t believe it. In 2020, there was not a single book that focused on Black British history for children,” she recalls. “I felt disbelief, and then shock, and then realisation of how naive I had been, and how I had underestimated the problem.”

The author has called on the government to integrate Black British history in schools and universities, rather than teaching it as a siloed separate subject. The world wars – a staple of British history curricula – are a good example, she says.

“Millions of global majority people fought for Britain and her allies in those World Wars,” she says. “I mean, Britain only just won the Second World War. So it’s quite likely that without the contribution of millions of global majority people that Britain could have lost, and Hitler could have won.”

The same approach applies for all ‘marginalised’ histories, she claims.

“You can’t teach British history and leave out Black British history, Asian British history, Scottish history, Welsh history, Irish history,” she says. “You can’t leave those things out and still be telling the truth.”

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