Black History Month: Inspiration from past lives

    Published: 16 September 2021

    I was lucky enough during last year’s Black History Month, to have had some really interesting conversations with colleagues at Herts for Learning about our experiences of Black History Months in schools over the years. At the time they started me thinking: what would I want to do if I were in school now? And the answer came that I’d want to go back a bit further in time than I’d done before. I remember I avoided this before, thinking our primary-aged children would ‘relate more easily’ to more recent historical figures or to contemporary personalities.

    I think I was wrong. I think I underestimated them. Children have a remarkable capacity to be interested in a whole range of things outside of their own experiences – we just have to open the door for them.

    So I started to google, and goodness, it was fascinating. Fitting this in between school visits and other work, we were nearly at the end of 2020’s Black History Month by the time I’d written this up, but the following is knowledge that I knew would stay with me beyond October 2020 – and that’s why we’re sharing this blog now – ahead of Black History Month 2021.

    Here are three people that I now feel I know the tiniest bit about, but I’d like to know more.

     

    Ignatius Sancho

     

    The first is Ignatius Sancho (the October 1st 2020 ‘google doodle’). Enslaved as a baby, he worked as a child slave both in Grenada and England. He was a writer of plays and poetry, a composer. He is thought to have been the first African Briton to have voted in a general election. He was an anti-slavery campaigner and the author of a collection of letters that proved so popular they were reprinted four times in twelve years. And he had a grocery shop – and five daughters and two sons. In a letter that speaks directly to us across three hundred years he says, ‘I am Sir, an Affrican – with two ffs – if you please.’

    My children would have been riveted.

    You can listen to some of his music and see one of the pieces played on guitar.

    Now we’re no longer locked down, I’ll be heading to King Charles Street in the City of Westminster to see for myself the plaque above commemorating the site of his shop.

    The second one I’m rather ashamed I didn’t know about. You see, I’d always sort of known that there had been black British men and women involved in the abolitionist movement in the eighteenth century – but I didn’t know their names. And names matter. Now I know three of them, Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, and Mary Prince.

    Mary Prince had endured dreadful experiences as a slave in British Colonial Antigua. Once in England, and having escaped the family that brought her to this country, she became part of the anti-slavery movement. She was the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament. She was the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography (transcribed by Susannah Strickland) detailing her life as a slave.

    Here’s a short extract from: The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian slave:

    ‘We followed my mother to the market-place. At length the vendue master, who was to offer us for sale like sheep or cattle, arrived, and asked my mother, which was the eldest. She said nothing, but pointed to me. He took me by the hand, and led me out into the middle of the street, and, turning me slowly round, exposed me to the view of those who attended the vendue. I was soon surrounded by strange men, who examined and handled me in the same manner that a butcher would a calf or a lamb he was about to purchase. The bidding started at a few pounds, and gradually rose to 57. The people who stood by said that I had fetched a great sum for so young a slave. It then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners. When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging us to keep a good heart. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another…

    Four years after the book was published, the Act of Parliament, abolishing slavery in the Colonies was finally passed. Is it too much of a stretch to think that the publication of this woman’s experiences opened some people’s eyes in 1831? People who just didn’t ‘know’ before? I don’t think so. The book sold out three printings in one year. Keep opening eyes – it’s an important message to share with children, and one still very relevant today.

    The third person was Pablo Fanque. Born in Norwich, he was apprenticed at the age of 11 to a travelling circus owner. Over the next few years, he learnt to walk the tightrope, to control 12 horses at a time on a leading rope, to ride standing up, and to rope dance (whatever that might be). Eventually he started his own circus, becoming very successful, and described in the Illustrated London News as ‘an artiste of colour’ with ‘extraordinary horse training skills’.

     

    Pablo Fanque

     

    You can see what a BBC Schools programme for KS2 has to say about him. Again, my children would have been enthralled and I can imagine how we would have pored over images of the circus bills advertising the other performers who worked for him. Our own Greatest Showman.

    I enjoyed finding out a little about the histories of three new-to-me black Britons last October and determined not to leave it until the next ‘Black History Month’.

    Out of the things that I browsed during the last couple of terms, mention of the Royal Navy West Africa Squadron caught my attention. I’d not heard of it before (again, to my shame), but learned that it had been formed in 1808, a year after the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had been passed, and it was established with the intention of patrolling the West Coast of Africa in order to try and suppress the Atlantic slave trade. That’s a lot of coast line(!) and they started with only two ships, although that had risen to six by 1818.

    I learned about Joseph Denman, commanding ships in the West Africa Squadron during the 1830s, and described as a ‘passionate abolitionist’. I know I would be considering with my class: ‘Isn’t it interesting – his family were abolitionists too.’ And speculating (with no hope of proof), ‘I wonder if he/they read Mary Prince’s book?’ Because there’s a lot to unpick about how change happens through nurture, example and discussion, and the actions of individuals. Read more information about him

    I also learned that they think up to a third of navy personnel in the squadron were of African ancestry. Not being rescued, but rescuing. And something I would really have wanted my children to know. Read more about it.

    This is a scrimshaw carved by one of the sailors, Jim Freeman – whose real name we sadly don’t know.

     

    Scrimshaw

     

    And finally (at least so far), I edged back another couple of hundred years. I already knew that the crew of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545, had been quite ethnically diverse, and with sailing ships that’s not altogether surprising. But it is something to flag with your children if you’re studying the Tudors. That made me want to then delve into: Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann, to explore what other evidence there was of people from a range of ethnicities, living and working in Britain five hundred years ago.

    But … a new school year is ahead of us, and for me, that will have to wait for now.

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