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Ignatius Sancho, 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough

12 Black Britons who shaped history

Ignatius Sancho, 1768 by Thomas Gainsborough

Black British historical figures

Find out more about the lives of some of the most important Black Britons who broke race barriers, made history and left an indelible mark on the history of this country.

Ivory Bangle Lady (c4th Century AD)

Archaeological discovery that revised British cultural history

In 1901, the skeletal remains of a woman were uncovered in an ancient grave in York. Dated to the second half of the 4th century AD, the woman was found buried with ivory bracelets, earrings, pendants and other expensive possessions indicating that she held a high-ranking position within Roman York. She became known as the ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ and over a hundred years later modern analysis showed she had North African ancestry. The revelation suggests that early Britain may have been more ethnically diverse than previously believed.

Ignatius Sancho (c1729 – 1780)

Writer, composer and Britain’s first black voter

Born aboard a slave ship in the Atlantic Ocean, Ignatius Sancho would arrive on British in bondage. Sancho was an avid reader with a thirst for knowledge and during his lifetime he composed music and wrote a large number of letters – the latter were published two years after his death making him the first African prose writer to have work published in England. After gaining financial independent householder status, Sancho became eligible to vote in 1774, becoming the first Briton of African heritage to vote in parliamentary elections. To many, Sancho was a symbol of the humanity of Africans and the immorality of the slave trade.

Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797)

Best-selling African writer and abolitionist

Born in the Kingdom of Benin (modern southern Nigeria), Olaudah Equiano was forced into slavery as a young child. His first master, a Royal Navy officer renamed him 'Gustavus Vassa' and during their eight years together, Equiano learnt to read and write. After being traded two more times, Equiano had saved enough to finally buy his freedom. He then spent his life campaigning for the abolition of slavery, becoming a member of the Sons of Africa abolitionist group and publishing his autobiography in 1789, which depicted the horrors of slavery. The book became a best-seller, aiding the abolitionist cause.

A portrait of an unknown man previously identified as Ignatius Sancho
A portrait of an unknown man previously identified as Ignatius Sancho

William Cuffay (1788 – 1870)

Leading figure in the Chartist Movement

The son of a freed slave, William Cuffay became involved in politics when he was fired from his job as a tailor after taking part in the Tailors' Strike of 1834. Convinced that workers needed representation in Parliament, he became a leading figure in the Chartist movement, the first mass popular political movement in Britain. He was transported to Tasmania for allegedly planning an uprising against the British government. Despite a pardon three years later, Cuffay stayed in Tasmania and played an active role in politics there until he died in poverty in 1870.

John Edmonstone (1793 – 1822)

Ex-slave who taught Charles Darwin

John Edmonstone was born into slavery in British Guiana in the late 1700s but died a free man in Britain having taught and influenced one of the greatest men in the history of science, Charles Darwin. Having gained his freedom in 1817, John moved to Edinburgh to teach taxidermy at the university and it was there that he began teaching a 16-year-old Charles Darwin. During his historic voyage aboard the H.M.S Beagle in 1931, Darwin collected and preserved specimens using taxidermy, helping him form his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881)

Pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War

Born to a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican mother, Mary Seacole had to overcome many prejudices in her life. The War Office declined her request to be sent to the Crimea as a war nurse, so she funded her own way there and established the ‘British Hotel’ near Balaclava to help look after sick and wounded soldiers. Although her reputation at the time rivalled that of Florence Nightingale, her great work in nursing was mostly forgotten for almost a century after her death. Her autobiography, published in 1857, would be the first written by a black woman in Britain.

Mary Seacole
A photograph of Mary Seacole,circa 1850

Walter Tull (1888 – 1918)

Trailblazing footballer and WWI hero

Not only was Walter Tull the first professional black outfield footballer in Britain, but he was also the first known black officer in the British army. Having played for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, Tull enlisted at the start of WW1 and soon demonstrated exceptional leadership skills, bravery and calmness under pressure. Defying the ingrained bigotry of his time, Tull earned a commission as an officer in 1917 and led white soldiers into battle for the first time in the history of the British army. Walter died on the frontline in 1918.

Evelyn Dove (1902 – 1987)

First black singer on BBC radio

As the first Black singer on BBC radio, Evelyn Dove broke cultural barriers and opened doors for her successors in the entertainment industry. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, the incredibly talented Dove soon became aware of the prejudices within the classical music scene and decided to instead focus on jazz and cabaret shows. After touring Europe, her fame reached new heights in 1939 when she began performing on BBC Radio - one show of hers became so popular it was turned into a TV programme.

Claudia Jones (1915 – 1964)

Founder of the Notting Hill Carnival

Born in Trinidad, Jones spent over 30 years living in New York before being deported for being an active member of the American Communist part. After being given asylum in the UK in 1955, Jones began campaigning for equal opportunities for black people, founding Britain’s first major black newspaper, ‘The West Indian Gazette’. In 1959, she organised the first Notting Hill Carnival to showcase Caribbean culture and heritage, in response to recent race riots. The event has become Europe’s biggest street festival.

Margaret Busby (1944 – Present)

Britain’s first black female publisher

The Ghanaian born Busby became the UK’s youngest and first black female book publisher in the 1960s when she co-founded the London-based publishing house Allison and Busby. She compiled the ground-breaking anthology Daughters of Africa – a compilation of literature by more than 200 women from Africa and the African diaspora. Throughout her career, Busby has campaigned for greater diversity within the publishing and arts industries.

Olive Morris (1952 – 1979)

Community leader and activist

Morris would live for just 27 years but would achieve more in her short life than many do in an entire lifetime. She co-founded the Brixton Black Women’s Group, one of this country’s first networks for black women, as well as being a founding member of the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD). Fighting for racial, gender and social equality in the late 1960s and throughout the following decade, Olive Morris made her mark in Britain before passing away of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Diane Abbot (1953 - Present)

Britain’s first black female MP

After graduating from the University of Cambridge with an MA in history, Abbott worked as a civil servant and a reporter before deciding to run as Labour's candidate for the Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency in 1987. She won the vote making history in the process, becoming the first black woman to be elected to Parliament. She served as Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary from 2016-2020 and is currently the longest-serving black MP in the House of Commons.

For more articles about Black History, check out Sky HISTORY's Black History Month hub.