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A painting of Severus and family on a Roman plate and a picture of Mary Seacole

Black British History: A Timeline

A portrait of African Emperor Severus who visited Britain in 220AD and a photo of British Jamaican nurse, Mary Seacole | Image Credit: (Background)

From the Romans to the modern-day, discover a timeline of black British history through the stories of trailblazing individuals and era-defining events.

Roman Times

AD 43 – Emperor Claudius begins his conquest of Britain after installing the first governor of Roman Britain.

AD 128 – After the completion of Hadrian’s Wall (a defensive fortification running along the Roman Empire’s northernmost region, close to what is now the Scottish and English border), a unit of soldiers drawn from North Africa defend the new fortification. Known as the Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum (‘Aurelian Moors’), the division is up to 500 strong.

AD 139 – Quietus Lollius Urbicus, a Berber from modern-day Algeria, becomes governor of Roman Britain.

AD 193 - 217 Under the reigns of Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla (two Roman emperors with African heritage), African-born Romans hold positions within the army, with some holding differing levels of command in the legions stationed in Britain.

AD 200 - 250 – The first black Briton known to us, the Beachy Head Lady, is living in southeast England. Her skeletal remains were uncovered in 1953 at the East Sussex beauty spot of Beachy Head. She died in her early twenties and had sub-Saharan African ancestry. Her discovery suggests that people from beyond the North African Roman border were also present in Britain at this time.

AD 350 – The wealthy Ivory Bangle Lady was alive in Roman Britain. Her skeleton is discovered in York in 1901 and dated to the second half of the 4th century­. 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. Modern forensics suggest she had North African ancestry.

Middles Ages

668 – North African scholar Hadrian twice declines the Pope’s offer to become Archbishop of Canterbury, instead taking on the role of Abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.

1241 An abbreviated version of the Domesday Book used to collect taxes depicts the first known image of a black Briton.

Tudor Period

1507 – John Blanke, the most well-known black Briton from Tudor England, becomes one of the court trumpeters for Henry VII. He performs at both Henry VII’s funeral and Henry VIII’s coronation in 1509.

1527 – African salvage diver Jacques Francis is born. He went on to lead the expedition to salvage King Henry VIII's guns from the Mary Rose which sinks in 1545. He also became the first African to give evidence in 1548 before a British court.

1562 – Briton enters the Atlantic slave trade as John Hawkins leads the first slaving expedition to Sierra Leone. Over three million Africans are transported to British colonies over the next two centuries.

1577 – Mary Fillis is born in Morocco before moving to London as a young girl. She was a servant in the household of a merchant tailor, rather than being bound by slavery. Mary became a powerful, independent, and skilled seamstress.

1589 Just after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, a growing number of Africans are documented as arriving in England.

The Stuart Period

1623 – Britain establishes its first colony on the island of St Kitts, signalling the beginning of British dominance in the Caribbean.

1672 – The Royal African Company is established in England to manage Britain's ever-increasing involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.

Georgian Britain

1729 – Ignatius Sancho is born aboard a slave ship in the Atlantic Ocean. Sancho was the first African prose writer to have their work published in England. He also gained the right to vote in 1774, becoming the first Briton of African heritage to vote in parliamentary elections.

1745 – Olaudah Equiano is born in the Kingdom of Benin and is quickly forced into slavery. Equiano learns to read and write and eventually saves enough to buy his freedom, after which he dedicates his life to campaigning for the abolition of slavery. He became a member of the Sons of Africa abolitionist group and published his autobiography in 1789, depicting the horrors of slavery. The book was a best-seller and aided the abolitionist cause.

1761 – Dido Elizabeth Belle is born. She is the daughter of a young British naval officer called John Lindsay and an African woman named Maria Belle. Dido was Britain's first black aristocrat.

1781 – 132 sick Africans are thrown off the British slaving ship, Zong. Their murder is authorised by the ship’s captain, Luke Collingwood, to claim insurance money. The event sparks the movement against the slave trade.

1788 – William Cuffay, the son of a freed slave is born. He was a leading figure in the Chartist movement - the first mass popular political movement in Britain.

1805 – Fighting under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar are black men drawn from the West Indies and Africa. A third of the crew on board the Victory, Nelson’s flagship, were recruited from outside of England.

1807 – The Slave Trade Act is passed by Parliament, ending the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

1822 – John Edmonstone passes away. John was an ex-slave who taught Charles Darwin the art of taxidermy, a skill that later helped Darwin form his theory of evolution by natural selection.

1833 – The Slavery Abolition Act expands the jurisdiction of the 1807 Slave Trade Act, making the purchasing or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire.

Victorian Britain

1857 – Mary Seacole publishes her autobiography, the first written by a black woman in Britain. During the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), Mary established the ‘British Hotel’ near Balaclava to help look after sick and wounded soldiers. Her reputation at the time rivalled that of Florence Nightingale.

20th Century

1913 – John Archer is elected the Mayor of Battersea, becoming the first black mayor in London.

1914 - 1918 – During the First World War, many black Britons courageously serve their country. Notable examples include Walter Tull, the first professional black outfield footballer in Britain as well as the first known black officer in the British army, along with Robbie Clarke, the first black pilot to fly for Britain.

1939 – Evelyn Dove performs on BBC Radio, becoming the station's first black singer.

1939 - 1945 – The Second World War sees thousands of black men and women, many from the Caribbean and West Africa, volunteer to fight for Britain. Lilian Bader became one of the first black women in the RAF after joining the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941, whilst Ulric Cross flew 80 missions for the RAF over Germany and occupied Europe, the most decorated Caribbean airman of WWII.

1948 – A ship hailing from Jamaica called the Empire Windrush docks at Tilbury, Essex, carrying 802 people from across the Caribbean. The arrival of this vessel changed the United Kingdom forever as hundreds of Caribbean people began a new life in the country, kick-starting the era of multiculturalism.

1959 – Trinidadian human rights activist Claudia Jones is credited with the first ideas for the Notting Hill Carnival, hosting an indoor ‘Caribbean Carnival’ at St Pancras Town Hall in 1959.

Early 1960s Large numbers of people from all over the Caribbean continue to come to the UK to work in a variety of jobs. Widespread racial discrimination leads to increasing tensions and riots. The 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott draws national attention after a Bristol-based company refuses to employ black or Asian bus crews.

Mid-late 1960s – Race Relations Act of 1965 passes becoming the first legislation in the UK to address racial discrimination. Protections are further extended in 1968, 1976, and 2000. This period also witnesses Britain’s first black female publisher in Margaret Busby as well as the establishment of one of the country’s first networks for black women - the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD) co-founded by community leader and activist Olive Morris.

1978 – Viv Anderson becomes England’s first full international black footballer.

1987 – Diane Abbott is elected as Britain’s first black female MP.

21st Century

2000s – Several 'firsts' occur in the 2000s including Paul Boateng being made chief secretary to the Treasury, becoming the first black cabinet minister, as well as John Sentamu becoming the first black Archbishop of York.

2020 – After the unlawful killing of George Floyd by a white policeman in America, the Black Lives Matter movement shakes the world and sparks protests in multiple countries, including the United Kingdom.