In celebration of October’s Black History Month James Rayner talks about some of the discoveries he made for his recent book
From as far back as the Roman period, people of African origin have played an important part in British history. Every corner of the country has its own unique story of how black and mixed-race people have made their mark – and the Solent is no exception.
Starting in the Tudor period, we can find evidence of individuals of African origin, from a West African diver, investigating Solent shipwrecks in the 1540s, to freed black slaves being disembarked on the Isle of Wight in the 1570s. Recent research proves that at least one crew member of the Mary Rose originated from Morocco or Algeria.
By the 17th century, North African pirates were often visiting the waters of the Solent, and during the Georgian period numerous black servants worked in the grand houses of the gentry. Black soldiers were not uncommon too, and records for the Isle of Wight show black and mixed-race men from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Barbados serving in British regiments.
In 1796, over 2,000 black and mixed-race Caribbean prisoners of war who had been fighting for the French, were brought to be held at Porchester Castle. Some were eventually sent to France in exchange for British prisoners but others enlisted in the British Army and remained longer. For example, in 1804 one of the former prisoners, a mixed-race Haitian soldier called Toussainte Ruppian, was stationed at Parkhurst Barracks on the Isle of Wight.
My research for The Isle of Wight’s Missing Chapter focused on the Island’s black history, and has uncovered over 100 men and women of African origin who were either born on the Island, lived there, or just visited – all before the Second World War. Some of the visitors were very well-known people like King Cetshwayo of the Zulus, Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, the black British circus owner Pablo Fanque and the Jamaican model Fanny Eaton. I also discovered Islanders of African or Caribbean heritage being born as far back as the Georgian period along with newspaper reports of black men and women settling on the island throughout the 19th century.
There’s sure to be similar discoveries to be made in Portsmouth. Did the dockyard employ any skilled black shipwrights? Were there any Caribbean lady’s maids working for the well-to-do of Southsea? And did any black actors make their debut appearance at the New Theatre Royal? There’s certainly much more black British history still to uncover, and it’s up to all of us to bring these stories to light.
James Rayner was born on the Isle of Wight. He has written various articles for print and online magazines. The Isle Of Wight’s Missing Chapter, is his first book, published by The Book Guild Ltd, £9.99 www.bookguild.co.uk