More than half of Britons know so little about Black British history that they cannot name a single historical figure, a survey has revealed.
The researchers found that the UK knows “shockingly little” about Black British history. While 75% of British adults surveyed acknowledged that they did not know “very much” or “anything at all” about the subject, more than half (53%) could not recall any Black British historical figures and only 7% could name more than four.
Although people with dark skin first came to Britain about 12,000 years ago, with the first known people to come directly from Africa settling approximately 2,000 years ago, more than a third (36%) of Britons surveyed believed that the first Black people migrated to Britain only in the past 200 years, with a further 29% not sure. One in four (25%) believed that it was within the past 100 years and only 9% thought that it was more than 1,500 years ago.
Most people also underestimated the scale of Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. More than half (53%) did not know how many people were taken from Africa by the British. Around half believed the number was 250,000 or fewer and only 12% of Britons thought that more than 1 million people were taken, “despite the true figure being more than three times that amount”, the report found.
Bloomsbury Publishing (UK), which commissioned the survey, recently published an acclaimed book, Brilliant Black British History, celebrating the people who helped build Britain in the fields of science, sport, literature and law.
Atinuke, the book’s award-winning Nigerian-born author, said of the survey’s findings: “Half of UK adults cannot name a single Black historical figure and only 7% can name more than four … I think disbelief is really the only word.”
Award-winning Nigerian-born children’s author Atinuke Photograph: Paul Musso
She would have expected people to name figures such as Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who became governor of Roman Britain; the formerly enslaved Olaudah Equiano, who became an abolitionist and writer; Mary Seacole, who provided sustenance and care for British soldiers during the Crimean war, and the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
She said: “There have always been people with black and brown skin in Britain – from the stone age, through every single era, to the present day. More than that, the forced contribution of millions of Black people before and during the Georgian era changed the course of British history – helping Britain to become the first industrialised nation in the world, and a superpower.”
She called for the government to drive more integration of Black British history in schools and universities, noting that, “as our world becomes more polarised and divided, increased inclusivity is needed now more than ever. All British history needs to be taught as one history. It’s all our history.”
Rebecca McNally, publishing director and editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Children’s Books, said: “We believe it is important for all of us to play a role in shining a light on Black British history, not just in Black History Month but every day. The results of this survey demonstrate an urgent need for books … that spotlight integral parts of our history that have been pushed to one side for far too long.”
The survey was conducted by YouGov UK and split between two polls, the first between 26 and 27 September and the second between 2 and 3 October, with respective sample sizes of 2,268 adults and 2,506.
The Brilliant Black British History exhibition, inspired by Atinuke’s book, is at the Black Cultural Archives, 1 Windrush Square, Brixton SW2 until 28 January.