Africans in Britain 2000 Years Ago

By Sherwood, Marika | New African, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Africans in Britain 2000 Years Ago


Sherwood, Marika, New African


The former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, declared some years ago that the English (or was it the British?) were all "homogenous Anglo-Saxons". Really? As Africans in Britain celebrate Black History Month this month (October), we put Mrs Thatcher's words to the test. Fully two thousand years ago, as the historian and academic Marika Sherwood shows in this piece, Africans in Roman Britain--who married native women and begat children--held senior posts both in the administration and in the military, and a number of Africans governed Britannia on behalf of the Roman Empire. These men rose to such heights not only in Britannia, but also elsewhere in the Roman Empire and in Rome itself. "Homogeneous Anglo-Saxons"? Sit back and enjoy our special Black History Month report.

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Many peoples from many parts of the world, not only Europe, have settled in what became known as "Britain"--for thousands of years. But while some might acknowledge Italian, or Spanish, or French ancestry, few will accept that their forefathers might have come from Africa and what used to be called Mesopotamia, and is now for reasons unknown, called the "Middle East".

So who were the early Britons? The earliest Roman historians did not ignore the many who had settled on this island: for example, Tacitus wrote of the "dark complexion of the Silures or Black Celts and [their] unusually curly hair". According to Herodotus, the ancestors of the Picts (in the north of the island) were a regiment of the African army of the Egyptian king, Sesostris II (1980-1935 BC), who had attempted to conquer West Asia. The regiment had settled near Colchis and became known by that name. Colchis is near the Black Sea.

Some recent research proves from archaeological and linguistic analyses that the Picts hailed from Scythia, the area between the Caspian and Black Seas--that is, near Colchis. A major trade route passes through this area, mixing the peoples of the East and West and the South and North. It is not surprising therefore that some of the Pict carvings in Scotland depict the great goddess of the Ossetes (in the Caucasus region), who is believed to be the same as the Indian goddess Lakshmi and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar.

One panel of a sarcophagus in St Andrews (Scotland) illustrates the story of Gilgamesh, an epic known from Mesopotamia in the east to the western reaches of the Mediterranean. The elephants on many Pict carvings sometimes depict the live animals and sometimes the skin of the animal worn in order for the wearer to take on the characteristics of the animal. This Asian custom was also practised in North Africa during Roman times.

Pliny, another Roman historian, described Britons of the second century AD as having "Ethiopian complexions". Did they acquire these dark skins from the Africans who came with the conquering Romans who first arrived in 55 BC? The incorporation of Britain into the Roman Empire dates from 43 AD by Emperor Claudius.

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The Romans in Britannia

Julius Caesar, after he had conquered Gaul, invaded Britannia in 54 BC, searching for gold and slaves. There was slavery in both the Roman Empire and on the British Isles, but it seems to have been relatively easy to acquire freedom. But there was little gold and it proved uneconomical to transport enslaved natives to Rome, especially as they did not fetch a very high price in the slave markets. According to Cicero, they were "dull-witted" and had "no fine hand in music, literature and the arts".

But the hunger for empire did not diminish, so about a hundred years later Emperor Claudius decided to reassert and entrench the Roman "ownership" of the colony of Britannia. The Romans had to protect their colony from the invading forces from the north of the island--the Caledonians, Brigantes, Celts and Picts. To stop further invasions in 122 AD, Emperor Hadrian, after visiting Britannia, ordered the building of a wall from coast to coast--117 km (from the Solway Firth on the east coast to the mouth of the River Tyne in the west)--across the northern frontier of the Roman Empire, which was eventually built by the Roman Africans brought there by Emperor Septimius Severus, an African emperor. …

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