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Long Before Windrush: London’s Black Community Has Been Here For Centuries

For decades, London has been seen as the ‘hub’ of black British society and a focal point for activism. Although it’s widely believed that black people first arrived in the UK on the Empire Windrush, London has had a long black presence. People from the African diaspora have been coming to the UK since Roman times, although Empire led to a dramatic increase in numbers. While evidence of black people has been found all over the country, London had the biggest black population: during the eighteenth century it was thought to be around 20,000 people. ‘From the sixteenth century onwards,’ says historian and TV presenter David Olusoga in the Guardian, ‘Britain exploded like a supernova, radiating its power and influence across the world. Black people were placed at the centre of that revolution. Our history is global, transnational… and much of it is still to be written.’ 

Records show a black presence in London as early as 1501, when Catherine of Aragon brought a number of black servants with her when she arrived in Deptford. There were black musicians and entertainers in the Tudor Courts, such as the trumpeter John Blanke. ‘But the real change,’ says historian Michael Wood, ‘came in Elizabeth I’s reign, when, through the records, we can pick up ordinary, working, black people, especially in London.’ By 1600, numbers had become an issue for the state, causing the Queen to write an open letter to the mayor of London stating her concerns: ‘Her Majesty understanding that several blackamoors have lately been brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already too many here… her Majesty's pleasure therefore is that those kind of people should be expelled from the land.’ A sentiment we are sadly all too familiar with, over four hundred years later.