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Migration Stories - ‘We are here because you were there’

This is a popular phrase that people have quoted over the years in response to negative views about immigration into the UK. But what does it really mean? In this post I summarise how it is that people from the African diaspora came to find themselves in the UK. I begin by using my own country of origin as a case Study, Belize (formally known as British Honduras), which became independent in 1981 after formally taking its case for self determination to the United Nations. Note to those who say that colonialism was such a long time ago, I am under the age of 50 and was born in a British Colony.

What did the British pirates find when they first got to Belize? They found indigenous peoples with a long proud History. Its important that we talk about the people already in the colonies when Britain conquered their regions as some people today still do not understand the effects of colonisation on First Nations. There seems to be an indifference to these people and their lands when colonies are discussed in academic circles and media alike, leading to ignorance and support for the view that the British Empire was a benevolent force ‘civilising the barbaric natives’. Our investigation includes the context of the Mayans in order to understand the devastating impact of colonialism and to remind us that people around the world have their own History with its own value.

Mayans had a range of languages, cities, rulers, a sophisticated irrigation and farming system and calendar that recorded future Millenia using a variety of units. Their religion and detailed understanding of astronomy were linked and their large urban centres held huge sporting grounds and ceremonial temples. Maya cities were large with as many as 60,000 people in each leading some historians to wonder if their population which may have swelled to as much as 2 million across the peninsula contributed to the decline in the Maya civilisations. By the time the Spaniards arrived in Belize in 1519 there were no centralised Mayan rulers, but the large population were still able to temporarily keep out the Spanish who wanted to enslave them. However eventually they were weakened by European diseases which wiped out about 80% of people making it easier for the Spanish to conquer Belize and enslave the people. It is estimated by the Historian and Scholar Nigel Boland that as many as half a million Mayans were enslaved and shipped out of central America by the Spanish.

So how did Belize come to be British Honduras? The first European settler recorded in Belize from 1511 was a Spanish sailor who was shipwrecked, and the first recorded settlement was in 1638, created by Scottish and English pirates using Belize as a hiding place. After the capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655 disbanded soldiers and sailors continued to swell the settlements in Belize, engaging in wood log cutting whilst spending the next 150 years fighting off incursions from the Spanish who claimed most of the ‘New World’ for themselves. In 1871 British Honduras was formally declared a British Colony but didn’t gain its independence until 1981.

The British like other European nations with colonies used forced labour to expand their wood cutting in ‘British Honduras’. Whilst Britain didn’t start slavery it became the largest slave trading nation in the world, gaining the most amount of profit. The first recorded enslaved Black people there were recorded in 1724, recorded by Spanish missionaries. They were thought to have been imported from Jamaica, Bermuda and Africa and from 1765 there were reports of resistance from enslaved people. Treatment was brutal with severe punishments for disobedience, children being taken away from mothers and women were routinely raped.

The slave owners in Belize like elsewhere were against the abolition movement for a number of reasons. They saw their slaves as animals there to provide free labour who could be treated in a subhuman way. Was this only about racism? People often ask which came first, racism or trade. To enslave another human being, white slave owners could never have seen Black people as their equal, however sources reveal that they were aware that there actions were in contradiction with their Christian beliefs and they knew that if they admitted to the humanity of Black people they would have to look at themselves. But more than everything it is important to note that racist ideology developed as a way of justifying this horrific trade in human beings and was refined as ideologies like social Darwinism grew out of pseudo-science and became a way of justifying conquest and empire.

A carrot that helped the abolition movement was the payment of compensation to slave owners. The Bill eventually passed when the British government agreed to pay £20 million in government bonds to slave owners as compensation for losing their slaves. This was equal to approximately £40 of the national budget at the time and is equivalent to 1.34 billion pounds today. The British government finished paying off the debt in 2015 meaning all of our taxes have gone to financing the compensation of slave owners, whilst enslaved people got nothing but further hardship. Slavery was abolished in 1834 subject to a period of ‘apprenticeship’ meaning that Black people continued to work for their masters to ‘learn’ how to be ‘free’. But hardships continued with abuse and brutality towards black people enforced even more to keep people under control. Apprenticeships were from between 6 and 8 years for a minimum of 45 hours a week, enforced by a magistrate. Fortunately Emancipation came early in 1838 due to this continued harsh treatment, however laws were passed to keep black people dependent and to maintain power with the white population.

People often wonder why after emancipation Black people struggled to progress. Here is an example of why from Belize – something duplicated in all the former slave owning colonies around the world with some being even more severe, details of which I go into in another course of mine.

So how did Black people come to be here? Black people in Britain came from different backgrounds. Some were traders, sailors, soldiers, servants, pages, slaves, students, tradespersons, wealthy princes, composers, musicians and labourers among other things. Black people came to our islands from Roman times through the Roman empire as soldiers with their families and other merchants and workers rich and poor. Later in Medieval times African traders mostly came through Spain who were being ruled by the Moors during the Middle ages. African communities in Britain during Tudor times saw people in various positions in British society, from poor to wealthy. Towards the end of the 18th C there were an estimated 15,000 black people here in Britain who were British born, free and former enslaved peoples from Africa and Britain’s colonies. Many fought in the Napoleonic and subsequent wars.

Later in the 20th century many Black people came here to help Britain win both its wars. Just over 500 Belizeans volunteered to join the armed forces in WW1. However, they like other Black and Brown people from the British Empire were unprepared for the racism they received from other British soldiers. They had been taught in schools to believe they were part of a big happy family and that they would be welcomed to join the cause. They were however subjected to racist abuse, segregation and assault. They were given menial tasks to complete and not allowed to fight.

In WW2 things began to change. Almost 6,000 Caribbean people served in the Royal Air Force (RAF), 350 were employed to work in munitions factories, and around 700 lumberjacks from British Honduras (modern-day Belize) were recruited to work in the forests in Scotland. Over 370,000 Africans also fought for Britain. They were drawn from West and East Africa and served in several theatres during the Second World War. Large numbers of troops from both East and West Africa served as part of the South East Asia Command (SEAC) fighting the Japanese. In addition, there were over two and a half million Indian citizens in uniform during the war. So why did things start to change? The colour bar in the British armed forces represented a direct contradiction as it enshrined the very racism that they were fighting against. So the Army Order Act of 1938 which restricted entry into the British Army to men of European descent was relaxed to ensure Britain couldn’t be accused of being racist like its enemies. This also greatly assisted in allowing additional skill and man power that was much needed as the war dragged on and more people were killed. It was not lost on those in the colonies that there were similarities between the concept of Empire and superiority of being white and the ideology of Nazism which said Germans were the Aryan superior race. After all racist Nazi ideologies had their roots in eugenics which was developed as part of a pseudo-science that justified enslaving black people and conquering their lands.

Many hoped that their contributions would prove that to their colonial masters they were capable and deserved independence for their contributions. In reality Britain was forced to let go of its colonies after the second world war more as a response to its economic losses which made it very difficult to hold on to and maintain an empire, especially one with people willing to fight for their freedoms. Britain simply didn’t have the manpower after fighting in the second world war to fight those wanting freedom.

At the end of the war some 900 forest workers from Belize were allowed to stay in Scotland where they had served in the war effort along with other workers who had come to England to work as engineers, electricians, nurses and in other fields. In all approximately 20,000 Black people already lived in Britain after the War. Those who returned to the Caribbean found there was little work and because Britain had to find a way to rebuild its economy, cities and pay back its debt to America, officials from Britain went to its colonies to recruit workers.

When HMS Windrush arrived in 1948 from Jamaica it marked the beginning of increased migration from the West Indian islands and other British colonies around the world. Unfortunately when they came they were unable to work in the professions they were qualified to work in and faced more racism and discrimination than during the war leading to them working in menial roles and having to fight to gain equal rights. Something I go into in more detail in my other course. The steady stream of migration that occurred after the second WW and the subsequent generations of Black people born here mean that the current population of Black people in Britain represents around 3% of the population.

With the exception of Romans and Medieval Traders, we can say that the vast majority of migration of the those from the African diaspora to the UK has occurred because of Britain’s expansion and conquest of other people’s lands and the transportation of African people’s to the Americas as enslaved People. Everyone who was part of Britain’s empire had the status of British subjects who could like me come to the ‘Mother Land’ to work and settle as a citizen by law. So the next time someone asks you or someone you know ‘why are you here’ or says ‘go back to where you come from’, you will be better equipped to explain to them why Black people are here – if you so desire of course..

I invite you to research this further and to look deeper at the contributions Black people have made to British society. Here are some people you could find out more about:

· John Blanke

· Ottobah Cugoano

· Samuel Coleridge

· Ignatious Santio

· Mary Seacole

· Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE

· Professor Clifford Johnson

· Roy Hackett and Paul Stephenson

· Dame Doreen Lawrence

And of course, there are so many more… I welcome your comments and contributions on what you find out about from your own further research.

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