Seeing ourselves in British history

01 October 2020 Seeing

Jason Young ponders the lack of Black British characters in period drama – and finds hope that those stories will get told. #BlackHistoryMonth

On 21 December 1772, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw became the first black writer to be published in Britain. His book, A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, was published in the same year as Lord Mansfield made his celebrated judgement in the landmark case of Somerset v Stewart, which was widely understood to imply that as soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free. 

Gronniosaw’s book was a partial attempt to paint a picture of what life was like for Africans living in 18th-century England. The Gentleman’s Magazine of October 1764 estimated that there were 20,000 Africans living in London alone, congregating around places such as Soho, Haymarket and Covent Garden, after being discharged from the British Army at the end of the Seven Years War (1756–63). The London Chronicle listed some of them at a fashionable club in Fleet Street where they played violins and French horns, and entertained themselves with dancing, drinking and music. Black Londoners are also listed in Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a directory of sex workers. Perhaps the most famous black Londoner of the period, though, was another writer, Ignatius Sancho, who lived in Westminster and was possibly the first black man to vote in Britain. His posthumous Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African, published in 1782 (two years after his death), is presented in the style of the epistolary novel. 

Twenty thousand is a significant proportion of London’s population of some 750,000 at that time. And yet black Londoners hardly feature in significant roles in any British period drama on television and film, or indeed in historical fiction. 

There is one exception. In 1789, the African abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano, published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African. It was a bestseller that sold nine editions over five years and, perhaps as a result, Equiano has featured in a number of stage plays, TV documentaries, films and adaptations of his memoir. 


"... the tearing down of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol tells us that we need to hear the other side of the slave-trade story"


The director Alrick Riley, for instance, made a 28-minute documentary about Equiano in 1996, entitled Son of Africa and a BBC documentary called The Extraordinary Equiano was broadcast in 2005. A number of stage plays have been produced about his life, too, including African Snow (Riding Lights Theatre Company in collaboration with York Theatre Royal) and An African Cargo. David and Jessica Oyelowo, meanwhile, adapted the memoir for radio under the title Grace Unshackled: The Olaudah Equiano Story. Perhaps most visibly, Equiano appears in the 2007 film, Amazing Grace

But here’s the thing. In the 2007 feature, Equiano only appears as a bit-part player in the abolition campaign fronted by William Wilberforce. There is still no television adaptation or film featuring Equiano as the leading character. Gronniosaw is less visible still. 

I have tried to address this absence of black leading characters in my own work. In 2003 I wrote a short story about Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, which led to an animated adaptation of Gronniosaw’s book, The Most Remarkable Particulars. Gronniosaw’s slave narrative reads like a romantic tragedy – snatched away from his life in Africa and then ending up in poverty married to an Englishwoman in Kidderminster. The romantic element of the book where Ukawsaw falls in love with his future wife, Betty, lends itself to novelisation. This type of narrative allows black readers to see themselves in 18th-century England, with some sort of inner life that is believable. I also wrote a short documentary adaptation focusing on Equiano’s childhood, Equiano in Africa, directed a short animation telling the story of his life in Britain, and wrote a full-length film script, which is still waiting for the right partner. 

One of the things that the tearing down of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol tells us is that we need to hear the other side of the slave-trade story. Equiano experienced slavery, bought his own freedom from slavery and campaigned to abolish slavery. My aspiration to create a film about his life is born from a desire to change the way that people see British history and the place of black people in it. Black British history is British history with black people in it.


Equiano died on 31 March 1797. His daughter, Joanna Vassa, was a first-generation middle-class Englishwoman of African origin, having inherited £970 from her father’s estate as well as a silver watch (a sum roughly double the income of the Dashwood family in Sense and Sensibility and, incidentally, significantly more than the total income earned by Jane Austen from her novels in her lifetime). Joanna Vassa is a notable example of a woman of colour living in Jane Austen’s England, yet such characters are rare in novels or period dramas, and have never, to my knowledge, featured in leading roles. 

The closest that we have come was Amma Asante’s 2013 film, Belle, which was inspired by the portrait after Zoffany, in which Dido gazes back at the viewer as if to say that ‘I am here and I have a story to tell’. Amma Asante has said she made the film because there were not that many black people on screen when she was growing up and that the people who directed her as an actress on Grange Hill were white men in their forties. She wanted to see herself in British history – and when she discovered the Zoffany portrait in 2006 she saw Dido Belle gazing back at her boldly; it compelled her to tell the Belle story. 


"There was a place for women of colour in Jane Austen’s England, and there is surely a place for them in novels, dramas and feature films set in the period"


Dido Belle was the daughter of an enslaved African woman named Maria and a naval officer, Sir John Lindsay, and was brought up as a gentlewoman by her father’s uncle, Lord Mansfield – he of Somerset v Stewart. In 2006 I wrote a short period drama about Dido Belle’s life at Lord Mansfield’s house, Kenwood House – the idea being to present a woman of colour as a leading character in Jane Austen’s England, but with something of the drama of Jane Eyre and Rebecca

There was a place for women of colour in Jane Austen’s England, and there is surely a place for them in novels, dramas and feature films set in the period. Mansfield Park mentions slavery in relation to Tom Bertram’s estates in Antigua and how his wealth derives from the labour of enslaved Africans on the plantations. Emma has Mrs. Elton, the daughter of a Bristol slave trader, mention the slave trade in passing. And Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, has a mixed-heritage female character from the West Indies named Miss Lambe, who is called a half-mulatto. (The term was used for the child of white and black parents; Dido Belle’s great-great grandson, Harold Davinier, who died in South Africa in 1975, was classified as white.) 

There are so many stories that still need to be told. That said, I do see some grounds for optimism. Perhaps the most famous black woman and writer of the earlier part of the 19th century was Mary Seacole. She was born in 1805, and is chiefly known today for her role tending British officers in the Crimean War – a story that came to prominence long after Florence Nightingale’s. She published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, in 1857 and many books, short stories and stage plays have been written about her since (including by me). There has now been a feature film made about her, starring the British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who appeared as Dido Belle in Belle) in the title role. 

I hope that this is the beginning, that we will see more men and women of colour in British historical novels and period dramas – so that people will change how they understand British history, and so that new generations of Black British children will see themselves, and their history, reflected in the books they read and the films they watch. Dido Belle is the face of black people in British history, gazing out boldly from the shadows of selective history at Black British authors today and saying to them: tell our stories.

Jason Young published his first short story, ‘The Dark Angel’, in Writers’ Forum magazine in October 2002. He went on to publish a book about Mary Seacole as part of the 2005 bicentennial celebration of her birth. Jason presents British history from a black perspective and wants to make a feature film about Olaudah Equiano and his daughter, Joanna Vassa.

Art © laurafaraci / Adobe Stock