THE LIVERPOOL-BORN BLACK COMMUNITY
The history of The Liverpool Black Community seems to have been strangely ignored in the dialogue on asylum seekers and immigration by government pundits.
The Liverpool Black Community is distinguished from others by its continuity, some black Liverpudlians being able to trace their roots in Liverpool for as many as ten generations. This community dates back to even before the American War of Independence, which caused numbers of free Black Loyalists to settle in London and the growing township. Early settlers ranged from freed slaves and black servants to the student sons and daughters of African rulers, who had visited the port from at least the 1730s.
Liverpool’s Black community is some three centuries old, but, incredibly, still faces difficulties of identification. Although not all of the Liverpool Black Community is of dual heritage, the majority of those born in Liverpool are. Much of the difficulty of identification of the Liverpool Black Community lies in the fact that, from its beginnings, the Liverpool Black population has, indeed, been a mixed race community, the result of more male settlers than female; freed Black American soldiers arriving in 1782 after the American War of Independence, to be followed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by African and West Indian sailors, soldiers and workers.
The very definition of a “mixed-race” society is fraught with difficulty, and this is one of the problems of acknowledgement, even in Liverpool. All the current terms are inadequate: The term “half-caste” has long been discredited, but even newer terms; “mixed-race” and “dual heritage” have their own problems. “Dual heritage” suggests a child living with the supposed ‘dilemma’ of each parent having a different culture or background. This may not be the case in many Liverpool children with both European and African genes, as any intermarriage may have taken place generations ago. Thus, a child who appears to have 50/50 genes may not have one black and one white parent, but could be the product of a community which became a distinct multi-racial community literally centuries ago, just as Mexicans and many Central and South Americans have now evolved from being considered half Native American (or ‘Indian’, as they were wrongly called) and half Spanish to distinct ethnic identities.
The Liverpool Black Community remains invisible because of lack of knowledge of the history of how this unique community, the oldest black community in Europe, came about and the many peoples who have contributed to it. Those who do know of the existence of this invisible people might suppose that their presence, though vaguely ‘old’, is not more than a generation or so, in common with other black settlements in Britain following the two World Wars. The presence of an almost homogenous people, derived from many nations, eking out their existence as a secret under-culture in a state of suppression for over two and a half centuries – comes as a surprise to many.
The Liverpool Black Community would appear to have been continually added to since its beginning, an additional problem in identification, as newer black settlers and visitors, each with their own language, culture and religion has been thrown into the melting pot that is the present-day Black Community.
School approaches to dealing with issues of race have not helped the identification of the needs of the Liverpool Black child, often with no ill intention. Very often, the route to understanding people of different races has been through studying what are essentially purified national identities – a Nigerian family, life in a Chinese town, an Indian village, the Bedouin tent. The problem is that some black children in Liverpool do not fit neatly into these categories, being not only of dual racial ancestry, but triple – African, Chinese and English (or often Irish). To those teachers and others, the question might arise: Surely children of this sort of – for want of a better term – ‘dual heritage’ must occur in many parts of Britain as individuals and can hardly be considered to be a people in their own right requiring appropriate attention in the school curriculum? Or are they, as a large distinct group in Liverpool, precisely that – a distinct people?
This question can be answered by the recent data of the racial composition of Liverpool’s school population collected by the Liverpool Education Authority which has shown that the “mixed-race” Liverpool-born Black Community is, in fact, the second largest group in the City, the largest being UK White. The response to this challenge has been the excellent LEA’s Black Achievement Project, but this remains as a pilot initiative and, to date, this data, only recently available to the Liverpool Education Authority, but long known to the Black Community, has not been responded to by mainstream schools or the City fathers who often have difficulty in identifying exactly who and what the Black Community is. Are they immigrants, illegal even, or perhaps asylum seekers? Often the response to the Black Community has been to deal with the needs of each of its constituent national sections individually, because issues of language, religion and culture are easier to identify and deal with. By implication, this has meant that Liverpool authorities have been inclined to think of the Black Community as a collection of recent immigrants. What this means is that the largest section of the Liverpool Black Community, the Liverpool-born, who may have dealt with all those issues generations ago, has remained misunderstood and at worst avoided. This should not be considered as introducing a divisive note into the Black Community (if it does not already exist). It is simply that Liverpool, or, indeed, Britain, cannot afford to have any particular section of a community within a community ignored forever, a situation which has pertained for at least two and a half centuries, the first black children being born in Liverpool in the 1750s.
More children were born to Black American Loyalists in Liverpool after 1782. One such Black Loyalist to establish a Liverpool-born Black family was originally known as Cato or James Cato, a slave name. After running away to sea as a child and actually serving on ships involved in the Slave Trade, he joined the Royal Navy and changed his name to James Brown, serving upon no less than Lord Nelson’s flagship ‘Victory’ at the time of the battle of Trafalgar in 1804.
James Clarke was a black Liverpudlian distinguished by being a black man in Liverpool with a street named after him. Born around 1886, Jim’s great gift was swimming and he often saved people from drowning. After saving about 9 or 10 children from the local canal, he decided to do something about it. He started going along to the local swimming baths to teach them to swim.
John Richard Archer (1863-1932) was Mayor of Battersea in 1913, Britain’s first black mayor, in fact, and the first British-born Black to act as his country’s representative abroad at an international conference (the Pan African). John’s father, Richard was a Barbadian ship’s steward whilst his mother, Mary Theresa Burns, was Irish-born, a frequent union in Liverpool.
Negative attitudes towards racial intermarriage has a history dating back many centuries in Britain. The following extract from BLACK LIVERPOOL demonstrates prevalent thinking on mixed marriages nearly a century ago:-
“Addressing the first meeting of the Liverpool Board of the Eugenics Society, under its new title “The Liverpool Hereditary Society” in 1920, the Rev. James Hamilton expressed his belief in the eminence of the British nation over others by virtue of inherited powers and “…its own great, common blood-stream, always differing more or less from all others”. He believed that if the British Empire was the product of national characteristics, then the source of that power should be kept free (direct speech)…
“…as far as possible from pollution, and, especially from certain foreign admixtures… if, for example, the policy of keeping an open door for every foreigner, and especially allowing such alien and inferior breeds as Negroes, Chinese, and Japanese to enter, marry and settle down in great numbers, while young people of pure British blood emigrate to other lands, this country will in a few generations have so much foreign and undesirable blood in the national veins as cannot fail to have a deleterious effect on the national character, and, as a consequence, on all those national ideals, endeavours, and achievements which we value so highly in the present day.”
One would, of course, expect attitudes to have mellowed over the following decades, but as recently as the 1970s, an article in the Listener magazine based on a BBC programme repeated a description of the Liverpool Black Community by the Liverpool police as being composed of “half-castes” who were given as being the product of “liaisons between black seamen and white prostitutes in Liverpool 8, the red light district”. The Black Community was understandably infuriated.
More than any other black group within the larger Black group, Liverpool-born Black people have fostered the cause of a generic black community, tagging themselves on to whichever ‘pure’ national group they happen to have descended from, a factor that has led to the needs of this large group being side-lined. This paper suggests that the old Liverpool-born community cannot afford to continue to hide its own needs in this way, as whilst it might be possible to find a black doctor, lawyer, architect or any other higher professional in the city, amongst the Liverpool-born section, these occupations are virtually unknown. The present situation in Liverpool presents a scenario in which it is easy for business and other institutions to massage staff quotients by using, often unknowingly, black employees who have not been the product of the local education system, having been educated at someone else’s expense, either from overseas or other parts of Britain. Two decades ago, the Swann Commission, investigating the needs of the school population, discovered that Asian children do appreciably better than other minority groups. That was not the end of the story, however. It was discovered that Bangladeshi pupils, a subgroup of the larger Asian group, did not do well at all, not only within the greater group, but in comparison with other racial groups. This situation, in other walks of life; housing, employment and career prospects, could well be the case amongst Liverpool-born Black people. Are they a neglected sub-group within the wider Black Community?
It is as though the Liverpool-born Black community, the largest racial group other than UK White in the city, does not exist, an invisibility that has had many negative outcomes to add to already high levels of poverty, including the loss of grants, funding implications, and moves to implement equal opportunity programmes, as it has often remained unrecognised owing to its antiquity – many Liverpool-born Black people being undifferentiated from the greater population in terms of language, religion or culture.
This a serious setback to racial integration as it perpetuates two myths; one being that black immigration is a recent phenomenon, and that assimilation and acculturation can cure all of society’s problems of racism, a view supported in governmental circles, who seem to think that the key to integration lies in immigrants learning English and knowing about British culture. The old Liverpool-born Black community is a case of a population who, having stripped away all the supposed causes of disadvantage – language, religious and cultural differences – are left with racism and, at best, ignorance.
The Liverpool-born Black community is here to stay. It is about time that its image as an underprivileged community is properly addressed. The first step needs to be recognition of the community’s long history and work towards meeting its specific needs….
By Dr Ray Costello