Archive: Tracing the History of Our Rainbow Nation; Birmingham Was Multi-Cultural Long before 1947 Thanks to International Trade, but How Much Longer Will We Sustain the Myth That the History of the British Isles Is Purely Caucasian? Chris Upton Reports

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Upton

Much has changed in historical thinking over the past 20 years or so. No longer is it necessary to be a prime minister, a general or a man to feature in the National Curriculum or in history books.

History has slid down the social scale to consider the lives of ordinary people, and has crossed the gender divide to look at the experiences of women. All positive developments, even if they make history considerably more difficult to research and to write.

But history has not yet become a single open-plan room; one party wall remains in place. The fact that Britain needs to hold (and has held for the last few years) a Black History Month indicates that one area of the nation's history is still under-represented and largely unappreciated. The UK is not the sole offender in this. For much of the last 2,000 years the shared opinion was that the history of the world was the history of Western Europe, and if you didn't happen to be in Western Europe, then your history began when someone from there discovered you.

The result was some bizarre educational experiences: children in Malawi learning Latin, Caribbean kids studying the Magna Carta, Indian boys and girls having lessons on William the Conqueror.

Now, of course, many children whose origins lie in the Caribbean, Africa or the Indian sub-continent are sitting in Birmingham classrooms, but their diet has not changed all that much. The Government tells them that to be good British citizens they need to understand their country's history, but makes precious little effort to help them embrace or feel part of it.

The contrary argument says that, like it or not, the history of the British Isles is Caucasian history. Julius Caesar was white and so was his wife. It was only in the post-war years that Britain could be called a rainbow nation, just when most school history is drawing to a close.

It doesn't take much research to show that there is more to it than that. Many of the soldiers who came over with the legions of Claudius in AD 43 originated from Africa or Asia Minor; Elizabethan London had a sizeable African community; and many aristocratic families in 18th century England had black servants. One of the best-known examples has an even more local connection. Samuel Johnson's black servant and companion, Frances Barber, opened a school in Lichfield with money that his master left him in his will.

One of the enduring legacies of this year's Black History Month in Birmingham is sure to be the beautifully illustrated book, Making Connections, edited by Ian Grosvenor, Rita McLean and Sian Roberts, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Birmingham City Council and Birmingham University. Here a group of writers, historians and artists reflect on Birmingham's black international history and, almost for the first time, all those scattered references to the city's earlier black residents are pulled together. If you wanted proof that Birmingham did not become multi-cultural until 1947, then here it is.

For example, there are records of the burial of two black individuals in St Martin's churchyard in the 1770s. Ann Pinnard and George Pitt Charry were probably freed slaves who had ended up, by routes unknown, in Birmingham. Another - a musician called Levi Baldwin - was baptised at St Martin's in 1821. …