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The history of black Britain: Roman Africans

A painting of a black Roman and a photo of Hadrian's Wall that was garrisoned by North African troops

70 years ago this year, hundreds of men and women from the Caribbean boarded a ship called the Emperor Windrush and set sail for British shores. Many still believe that this event marked the first arrival of a black population to the UK but in fact, there have been people of African descent living in this country since Roman times. 

October in the UK is Black History Month, a month dedicated to remembering the contributions of those people from African and Caribbean heritage to our country’s history. So let's go back nearly two thousand years and discover a time that bears witness to the first known black presence in Britain.

The Roman Empire was the largest empire of the ancient world and lasted some 500 years. At its peak its territories stretched far and wide from north-western Europe, to North Africa and into the Near East. Although a gradual process, the conquest of Britain effectively begun in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius, when he installed the first governor of Roman Britain. 

By the 3rd century AD, there is evidence of the first African people making their way to Britain.

By its very design, the Roman Empire was multicultural. Through trade, logistical or military movements, civilian migrations both voluntary and forced, people travelled within the Empire, and by the 3rd century AD, there is evidence of the first African people making their way to Britain.

In 1953, an ancient skeleton was discovered in the East Sussex beauty spot of Beachy Head. It wasn’t until 2014 though that her identity was revealed. Through modern forensic techniques including isotope analysis, radiocarbon dating and facial reconstruction, it was concluded that this lady had lived around 200-250 AD, was from a Roman area in the south-east of England, had died in her early twenties and had sub-Saharan African ancestry. Not only is she the first black Briton known to us, her discovery suggests that people from beyond the North African Roman border were also present in Britain at this time. 

The assumption that any African person living in Britain at this time would have most likely been a slave is contradicted by the next discovery. In 1901 in York, a skeleton, who would later be called the “Ivory Bangle Lady”,  was discovered and subsequently dated to the second half of the 4th century AD. Buried in a stone coffin her remains were found with ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants and other expensive possessions indicating that she held a high ranking position within Roman York. Isotope analysis showed she had spent her early years in a warmer climate whilst her skull shape suggested she had some North African ancestry. 

DNA analysis on a group of Roman Londoners also revealed two with North African ancestry.

Other excavations at York conducted in the 50s discovered the largest number of human skeletons from Roman Britain ever exhumed. Dating from the 3rd century AD, several of the people were of African origin and made up various levels of society from soldiers to slaves. Society in Roman York could well have been more diverse that we previously believed.

Other archaeological discoveries have also shown an African presence in Roman Britain. The University of Leicester found 83 skeletons in a Roman graveyard. Some dated back to as early as the 2nd century AD and six of the skeletons were found to have African cranial features, with two of them appearing to have been born in England. DNA analysis on a group of Roman Londoners also revealed two with North African ancestry.

What about the written evidence? Are there any that document the presence of Africans in Britain at this time? Well, we know the Romans harvested men from their conquered territories to join the army and help fight or build infrastructures for the Roman cause. One such construction was Hadrian’s Wall, a defensive fortification that ran along the Empire’s northernmost region, close to what is now the Scotland and England border. The wall was completed in 128 AD and for as long as the Romans were present in Britain, they garrisoned the wall with troops from across the empire, including North Africa.

We know this from a 4th century AD inscription discovered at Burgh-by-Sands, close to a fort along the western end of the wall. This inscription along with another piece of evidence, a list of Roman dignitaries, both refer to a unit of “Aurelian Moors”, soldiers collected from the Roman province of Mauretania in North Africa, modern Morocco, who had previously garrisoned the fort in the 3rd century. The unit was named in honour of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius of Gladiator fame and could well have been up to 500 strong. 

It’s most likely those troops were mustered by the Emperor Septimus Severus, who himself was born in Roman Libya and became Rome’s first African emperor. For a brief period from 208 AD, the entire Roman Empire was ruled from Britain when Severus came to campaign north of Hadrian’s Wall. During his reign, he strengthened and rebuilt the wall and its fortifications in many areas. One story documented in the Historia Augusta, speaks of an event that occurred after Severus returned from inspecting the wall one day. The story adds further written evidence of African soldiers in Britain. It reads:

'...an Ethiopian soldier, who was famous among buffoons and always a notable jester, met him with a garland of cypress-boughs. And when Severus in a rage ordered that the man be removed from his sight, troubled as he was by the man’s ominous colour and the ominous nature of the garland.'

Troops from North Africa were garrisoned in Hadrian's Wall

Believing the omen predicted his own imminent death, Severus ordered sacrifices be made to appease the gods. In fact, he wouldn’t die for a further three years later after which his son, Lucius Septimus Bassianus, commonly known as Caracalla, would succeed him and become the second emperor of Rome with African heritage. During the reigns of Severus and Caracalla, other African born Romans held positions within the army, with some holding differing levels of command in the legions stationed in Britain. There is a high chance that at least a few might have remained in Britain and settled down, becoming what could be considered as Britain’s first diaspora people from Africa. 

Whilst the evidence of an African presence in Roman Britain has now been well documented, the relative size of that population is still up for historical debate. Last year a BBC schools video was published online about a typical Roman family in Britain. The head of the family was a high-ranking black soldier. Vehement and all too often abusive opposition to this video swept across social media, with people claiming the BBC was 'blackwashing' history and altering the facts.

Classicist Mary Beard faced the majority of the online abuse after she came to the defence of the BBC video, arguing that recent evidence does suggest Roman Britain was far more diverse than what we’ve previously believed. She even provided a real-life person upon whom the BBC could have based their father of the family. Quietus Lollius Urbicus, a Berber from modern-day Algeria who did become governor of Roman Britain. 

'We have written sources. We have archaeological sources. Now we have genetic sources, but no source speaks for itself.’

Sceptics claimed that the lack of genetic evidence of African heritage in modern-day Brit’s was the magic bullet in proving their argument right. Whilst it is true that a major study conducted by the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford did show very little African DNA in modern Brits, it did also show very little Norman, Roman and Viking DNA in today’s mainland population. No one is disputing their presences on these shores just because the DNA doesn’t add up. 

Arguments have been provided to explain the lack of African genetic legacy; population migrations over the subsequent years could have caused genetic drift, it is unknown whether the Africans in Britain left any descendants within the native population, have the right people been sampled yet?  As Patrick Geary, a historian at Princeton’s Institute for Advance Study states, ‘We have written sources. We have archaeological sources. Now we have genetic sources, but no source speaks for itself.’ 

To get as near as possible to the complete picture of a historical period in time, all the sources must be taken together as a collective group, not singularly highlighted as individuals. Applying that logic, the archaeological evidence and forensic results reinforce the written historical records that we have, indicating that Africans from both above and below the Sahara have called Britain home since the Roman times.