Zadie Smith on discovering the secret history of Black England: ‘Into my ignorance poured these remarkable facts’ | Books

Zadie Smith on discovering the secret history of Black England: ‘Into my ignorance poured these remarkable facts’ | Books

I can say precisely where and when I first read Black England because I made a note of it on the flyleaf: Zadie Smith NW2 ’99.
I was in the habit back then of using the books I bought as a record of the places and times of my life. Can’t remember what I hoped to gain by it – but I am grateful now to recall that I must have been back in my mum’s flat in Willesden Green, north-west London, and finishing my first novel. And if I was doing that, I must have bought Black England in Willesden Bookshop (now defunct) with a song in my heart. In order to write White Teeth, I was having to try to convince myself day after day, in what felt like a vacuum, that such an entity as “Black England” or “Black and Brown England” actually existed – and was worth writing a comic novel about. It’s incredible to think of now, but by 1999 I’d gone through 15 years of formal education, including a three-year English degree, without ever being given a book to study that made any reference whatsoever to the presence of individuals like me in the country in which I was born. Not a novel, not a history book. Nothing. Anything I read in that direction I had to either find myself, or rely on my enterprising mother to find. It was usually easier for both of us to work by analogy, and read things about our American diaspora cousins. So we generally did that. But here it was: Black England! And not a novel! History!

Into my perfect ignorance poured all these remarkable facts. Some were just delicious because I could hardly believe they were true: “By 1596 there were so many black people in England that Queen Elizabeth I issued an edict demanding that they leave.”

Really? Amazing! And Gretchen Gerzina: did you just tell me that there was an “all-black brothel” in London, in the 1770s? More than one? For real?

Other facts struck me personally, and bestowed – at this relatively late date in my life – that essential quality many children seek from their parents, ie confirmation of one’s own existence. But seeking existential support from history is a risky enterprise. My heart lifted to read of Francis Williams, the 18th-century Jamaican classicist and poet, educated at Cambridge. It sank to hear of how cruel he was to the folks back home, how superior and contemptuous. Then hurt a little more to read David Hume’s opinion of him: “They talk of one Negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments.” Better to take oneself out of the equation and try to listen without prejudice or desire to the recounting of realities beyond your ken. And it was all beyond my ken. I can remember very clearly reading the striking account, early in the book, of Joshua Reynolds’ black servant, who had his pocket cut open by a white thief and his loose change stolen. The black servant reported it, the case went to court – the white thief received a death sentence. In the 18th century. I read that and thought: I know nothing.

One of the responsibilities of being an adult is to be able to hold more than one reality in your head at the same time

Other anecdotes were more familiar. A 1764 article about “negroe servants”, taken from the pages of the Gentleman’s Magazine, did not surprise me: “The main objections to their importation is, that they cease to consider themselves as slaves in this free country, nor will they put up with an inequality of treatment, nor more willingly perform the laborious offices of servitude than our own people, and if put to do it, are generally sullen, spiteful, treacherous, and revengeful.”

And there was something very familiar in the particular brand of aristocratic sociopathy enshrined in this letter of the Duchess of Devonshire, explaining why her husband, the Duke, wanted rid of his black page: “It was more original to have a Chinese page than to have a black one; everybody had a black one.”

But then, moments later, you are surprised again: “In 1780, the year [Ignatius] Sancho died, two black footmen duelled with pistols behind Montague House, and were seconded by two white footmen.”

Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History by Gretchen Gerzina

Reading Black England forced me to concede that the past is like the present in certain key ways. The “future” is always unevenly distributed, and every age is frequently in contradiction with itself. This was hard for me to understand as a young person, but one of the intellectual and moral responsibilities of being an adult, as I see it, is to be able to hold more than one reality in your head at the same time. Black England is a book for adults, in that it describes a world in which it was possible for a black man to prosecute a white man in court, a world in which white women were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, and a world in which these realities existed alongside the hellscape of Mary Prince, slave to a mistress who would “strip me naked – to hang me up by the wrists and lay my flesh open with the cow-skin, was an ordinary punishment for even a slight offence”. Contradictions abound. Jonathan Strong was beaten so violently on the head with a pistol that the pistol’s lock and barrel broke away from the stock. Strong’s case was the foundation of Granville Sharp’s groundbreaking campaign against slavery. Sharp dreaded the permanent presence of black people in England because he feared it would result in “unavoidable intercourse with their white neighbours”, ie mixed-race children.

It did not surprise me to hear that the 1786 plan to “resettle” London’s black population in Sierra Leone ended in death and misery, but I was astonished to discover that a group of working-class white women, mostly prostitutes and beggars, were plied with drink by government agents, put on the boat, and married off to the black men on board. At the time, I was more familiar with American popular histories of the diaspora – things like the TV show Roots – which tended to interpret the institution of slavery, and the racialised systems that surrounded it, as the product of an ancient and mysteriously elemental racial animus, rather than a modern political and economic system concerned primarily with the exploitation of human beings for profit. But it was always about the money:

“It seemed that everyone from the most prosperous banker to the lowliest clerk had an investment in some aspect of it, whether it be in the products created by black labour or in black people themselves. Another tier of commerce thrived on supporting the slave trade from ships’ chandlers to insurance agents. No one was ready to give up a trade that had flooded Liverpool with wealth, which invigorated every industry, provided the capital for docks, enriched and employed the mills of Lancashire, and afforded the means for opening out new and ever new lines of trade.”

Which is not to say that many people did not nurse a sociopathic hatred for the people they thus exploited. Black England is not short of examples. Take Joseph Williams, the commander on the slaver Little Pearl, who “appeared to enjoy a particular Pleasure in flogging and tormenting” his black cook and “often amused himself with making the Man swallow Cockroaches alive, on pain of being most severely flogged, and having Beer Brine rubbed into his Wounds”. Alongside such cruelties ran the necessary propaganda which then obscured the brutal reality of the business from the stockholder, the clerk, the lady who liked sugar in her tea:

“Against the torrent of humanitarian evidence presented by the Abolition Committee and others, supporters of slavery and the trade presented calm and indeed cheerful assessments of the enslaved’s lives and conditions. Robert Bisset published The History of the Negro Slave Trade, in Its Connection with the Commerce and Prosperity of the West Indies in 1805, including chapters on the necessity of blacks to the plantation system, ‘Negro capacity, ascertained by experience’, ‘Frequency of famine in Africa’, ‘Cheerfulness of Negroes during the crop season’, and ‘Joy of West India Negroes at the arrival of African Negroes’.”

It is easy to take the ethical measure of sociopathic cruelty, distortion, manipulation, propaganda and other criminal lies. It is harder to comprehend that one does not have to be morally perfect or even morally consistent to effect great change. Even harder to face the fact that what you consider a great contribution to progress in your own time may well come to be considered barely sufficient a hundred years later. But here, in Black England, the complex achievements and failures of men like Sharp are understood within the complex context of their time:

“He was a great man; like Clarkson and Wilberforce he devoted his career, his time and his money to attacking slavery and the slave trade. To the formerly enslaved living in Britain he was a god. The modern mistake is assuming that such compassion and devotion to a just cause naturally equated to an egalitarian view, especially in a world where egalitarianism led to wars in France and America.”

Zadie Smith photographed in Willesden, northwest London, March 2022, the neighbourhood where she grew up.Zadie Smith photographed in Willesden, northwest London, March 2022, the neighbourhood where she grew up. Photograph: Manuel Vazquez

Reading this book is a bracing experience. Some of the first-person accounts are so out of keeping with our hazy, generalised sense of the period that we almost don’t know what to do with them. Take the ex-slave Harriet Jacobs’ trip to England. She claimed she never saw even “the slightest symptom of prejudice against colour. Indeed, I entirely forgot it, till the time came for us to return to America.” Never mind the fact that Frederick Douglass, the statesman, orator and author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, reported a similar experience. Can it be true?

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When she arrived in London, she stayed in the Adelaide hotel where “for the first time in my life I was in a place where I was treated according to my deportment, without reference to my complexion. I felt as if a great millstone had been lifted from my breast. Ensconced in a pleasant room, with my dear little charge, I laid my head on my pillow, for the first time, with the delightful consciousness of pure, unadulterated freedom.”

Some readers will accuse Harriet of false consciousness. Some will say it was written for a white audience and worded to flatter them. Perhaps both are partially true. But when this black woman – who endured such unspeakable torture in her life – tries to tell me something over a chasm of centuries, I feel a responsibility at least to listen, and to try to accept the reality of many simultaneous realities, all of them real to the people who lived within them. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Many in England are fond of quoting that old LP Hartley line. What I like about it is that it reminds me that the past is not our plaything. The past has its own sovereignty and psychogeography, its own suffering, its own ideas about suffering’s alleviation. The people who lived and died in that strange land deserve, at the very least, our close attention and respect, both for what they went through and for how they themselves conceptualised it. When it comes to our interpretations of their lives, it is by now a truism to say that we usually go searching for what we wish to find. And perfect objectivity is, of course, impossible. But degrees of manipulation and distortion exist, and the aim is surely to mitigate against the most egregious forms of both. We want to know, to the best of our judgment, “what really happened”. We can never know for sure. All we have is evidence, documents, records, memories.

The past is not to be played with – but who can resist using it as a tool? We bend history to our will, for purposes as much personal as political. In 1999, for example, I wanted to know – for reasons of my own self-esteem – that the history of the African diaspora was not solely one of invisible, silent suffering. I wanted to hear about agency, heroism, revolt. I received all of that from Black England but also something that has proved far more important to me, over time, namely, a sense of the precariousness of “progress”. It does not move in one direction. Nor are we, in the present, perfected versions of the people of the past. It is very important that we understand the various hypocrisies and contradictions of the abolitionists. But the significance of this knowledge is not solely that we get to feel superior to them. As cathartic as it is to prosecute dead people, after the fact – in that popular courtroom called “The Right Side of History” – when we hold up a mirror to the past, what we should see most clearly is our own reflection. The judgment goes both ways. Why didn’t every man, woman and child in Georgian England drop everything and dedicate their lives to the abolishment of slavery? Good question. I like to imagine the students of the future asking similar questions about us. Why did we buy iPhones when we knew the cobalt inside them could have been mined by children for subsistence wages? Why did we love cheap clothes when we knew yet more children made them? Why did we buy plastic water bottles, every day, for decades, when we knew they were environmentally disastrous? Now, as it was then, a minority of people do indeed dedicate their lives – and risk their livelihoods – to confront these things “too big to be seen”. Whatever the ideological imperfections of such people, they are at least doing what the great majority of people don’t do, which is, something. To realise that olden-timey people were self-contradictory hypocrites is like realising that bears shit in woods. As Samuel Johnson noted, we will find many “yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes”. We will also find many black overseers. (Though to accuse such men of collaboration is to profoundly misunderstand the nature of the plantations. As Primo Levi argued ‘we tend to simplify history’, and his account of the obscene, individual corruption that occurred within concentration camps, The Grey Zone, is an instructive example of what history looks like when it is told by the afflicted themselves, on their own terms.)

Good historians enter the country of the past continually alive to the possibility of the unexpected, the unimagined and even the undesired

Truly revolutionary individuals, like Douglass, are always rare. They are at least as hard to find in the 21st century as they were in the 18th or 19th. One role of the historian is surely to keep the names and memories of such anomalous individuals as a present concern, to remind us of what is possible, politically and personally, on this benighted planet. But I confess I am also moved and inspired by less perfected lives. By half-baked pressure groups and misguided ladies’ societies. By sanitised “slave narratives”, calculated to move sentiment in a progressive direction. By nationwide sugar boycotts – even if the poor women refusing to eat that sugar would not have let a person like me into their kitchens. By William Davidson’s failed Cato Street conspiracy, and Robert Wedderburn’s calls to violent rebellion against both slavery and the British government. By the kinds of working-class radicals who were as inspired by the socialist land reformer Thomas Spence as they were by the Jubilee of Leviticus. I am moved by the afflicted who have the “wrong” language for their own suffering – or who may have had no language at all. Now, none of these people or movements are the equal, in my own mind, of the political commitment and personal heroism of a man like Sharp. And all the well-meaning, frequently misguided lady abolitionists of history pale in comparison to the ethical clarity of the Leicester radical Elizabeth Heyrick, author of Immediate, Not Gradual, Abolition; or, an inquiry into the shortest, safest and most effective means of getting rid of West Indian Slavery.

But my high regard is not what the dead need or require, because they don’t need anything from me: they are dead. What I need from the dead, by contrast, is to try to comprehend how they lived and why, in the hope it might bring some insight into how we live and why. It’s perfectly obvious to me that white lady abolitionists were often paternalistic, that William Wilberforce’s Christian liberation theology considered negroes childlike innocents in need of protection, and that Harriet Jacobs seems to have mistaken British politeness and relative tolerance for equality before the law and full civil rights. It’s less obvious to me that my own subjectivity is so perfectly enlightened that my only attitude towards such people should be teleological pity or self-righteous contempt.

To read Black England is to discover that many imperfect and blinkered people, black and white, enslaved and free, with all kinds of dubious or complex motivations, struggled for hundreds of years to end a global system of capital so large that no element of English life was not in some mode driven by it. They did it. Heaven on Earth did not immediately follow – but one version of hell did end. Others replaced it. Whenever I am tempted to forget how momentously difficult such struggles against capital, vested interest and personal apathy really are, I walk into any shop in my country and look at the rows and rows of plastic bottles in the fridge – the plastic everywhere – and remember.

The present is blinding – and distorting. But good historians enter the country of the past with their minds as open and alert as possible, particularly attentive to the forgotten and the silenced, yes; suspicious of the official narrative, of course – but also continually alive to the possibility of the unexpected, the unimagined and even the undesired. When considering the history of the African diaspora I always feel we are very lucky to be able to draw on an epistemological principle born of that same diaspora, specifically from the Akan peoples of Ghana: the Sankofa. Se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenkyiri. Literal translation: “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” Gerzina takes that principle seriously, bringing back to us what we are always perilously close to losing, through ignorance, neglect, amnesia, wilful manipulation and, yes, taboo.

Black England: A Forgotten History by Gretchen Gerzina is published by John Murray at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Black History Month: Do our children need more Black history lessons? Join Joseph Harker, Jeffrey Boakye, Lavinya Stennett and Desta Haile as they question how our children are taught about Black people’s contribution to Britain. The event takes place on 24 October from 8–9pm BST; book tickets at

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