Afro-Romans: “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here”

In 2016, Professor David Olusoga released his documentary series ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History.’ In episode one ‘First Encounters’, archaeologist Dr Richard Benjamin talks about how proud he is of the men that stood watch at Aballava.

hilst watching the first episode featuring Aballava, we must acknowledge that Olusoga and Benjamin were also not the first Black and Brown scholars to discuss Black history — from J. A Rogers and his work that combatted racist views of history, to Trinidadian Ron Ramdin on the working class, resulting in The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain (1987). A short breath after Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (1984). An argument could be made, though, is David Olusoga was the first to take it mainstream.

Anyone that was came through the British education system would have learnt about the Romans. Now, as a man, I know there have been Black people in this country since at least the third century (well, the recorded history), an idea that stands in opposition to the notion that there is no Black British history outside of transatlantic slavery and post-war migration. When you grow up being told your history is just enslavement and immigration, the presence of Black people in Romans times, or Afro-Romans (or The Moors, later Blackamoores), makes me question what we mean by Black British.

Ivory Bangle Lady was a Mixed-Race heritage African Roman woman living in York during the 4th century (Source: York Museum)

The revelation of Afro-Romans makes me think, were they having conversations about race in their communities in the third century in the same way we are having them now? Did they get to name themselves as Moors or were they given that title by the dominant homogenous population? In the same way Black and Brown people today criticise and welcome terms like BME and BAME, did the Black Roman populations get to name themselves? What about the connotations of the words and terms like blackamoore? Blackamoore means “Black black”, as “’Moor’ means ‘black’, so why add the word ‘black’ to it?’” (Nubia, 2019: 21). In his essay, talking about Renaissance-era Black populations in Britain, Onyeka Nubia discusses the connotations of the term. He argues that this could be an assertion of their own Blackness and could thus be seen as a statement of how they saw themselves, including concepts of identity, belonging and heritage.

We also know of a unit that included North African soldiers at Hadrian’s Wall, named Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum after Marcus Aurelius — near to what is today Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria. Additionally “one of the black soldiers in this unit presented a garland of cypress boughs to Emperor Severus” (Adi, 2019: 5) with archaeological finds dating back to 101AD — 300AD like pottery. North African-Roman head pots have also been found in Chester and Scotland. Furthermore, tombstones, and inscriptions. Finally, Adi tells us (from: Swan) of writings described as “neo-Punic script” and of “A Moorish freedman” at South Shields, “probably within the period c160–180/90.”

For decades, it has been known that there were Black people part of Roman Britain. For example, Libyan-Roman commander Septimius Severus was cremated in Britain. Also, originating from what is now Algeria, Quintus Lollius Urbicus was governor of Britain between from 139 to 142 CE. Historians past and present have known about a Black presence in Roman Britain for some time. When we think the Roman Empire, it would be arrogant to portray that story as an exclusively white space.

Both the British and Ottoman empires were diverse and that is picked up on in what little public consciousness there is. Why do we think about the Romans differently? An empire that spanned from Rome to North Africa, where there was Multiracial soldiers and their families. What these characters show us, is not only are the generalisations about Black British history wrong but it tells a story of Black agency outside of insurgency against racism.

Beachy Head Woman (Photograph Credit: Graham Huntley/BBC)

Despite modern ideas of empire, there were Black men in positions of power, just as there were in the Mali Empire. There were also Black and Brown people in positions of vulnerability. Black and Brown generals were also giving orders to white soldiers. In comparison, in the context of the First World War, we know from the Manual of Military Law (1914) that the British Army practiced a colour bar. In his 2016 series Black and British, Prof. David Olusoga has a conversation with author, historian, and Cambridge’s celebrity classics Professor Mary Beard about how the Romans may have percieved human racial differences in that period:

“The Romans certainly said nasty hateful things about foreigners. The Brits… the poor little Brits came in for quite a lot of stereotypical propaganda. And what the Romans weren’t, is racist in our terms. There is no sense that skin colour is really the thing that marks you out for your position.” — Prof. Mary Beard

In light of her comments, is it surprising that people like Septimius Severus existed back then? The idea of racial difference as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon and racism as a tool of violence in the Global North was popularised by colonisers and the societies that came afterwards (i.e the wartime colour bar). Race as we know it, is a new invention and I think despite the brutishness of the Romans, there’s a lot to learn from this period on how to view difference. Empire-building thugs, certainly, but according to Professor Beard, not racist, in the modern meaning of the word.

In closing, if we should take anything away, it’s that Roman Britain is one of the most-taught topics in schools and the fact heritage, geography and identity don’t play a role is an indictment on an establishment in denial of its past and its present.

Referencing

Adi, H. (2019) Introduction. In: Adi, H. (ed). Black British History: New Perspectives. London: ZED Books, pp.1–14.

Black and British (2016). First Encounters. Episode 1. [BBC iPlayer].

Nubia, O. (2019) Blackamoores Have Their Own Names. In: Adi, H (ed.) Black British History: New Perspectives. London: ZED Books, pp. 15–36.

Swan, V. G. (1992) Legio VI and its Men: African Legionaries in Britain. Journal of Roman Pottery Studies 5(5), pp.1–33;