Many people think the history of London’s Caribbean community started with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, but that’s not entirely correct.
Black people from the Caribbean have been coming here since the days of slavery, often to campaign against it. Many had themselves been taken from Africa as children, and most would still back then have considered themselves African rather than Caribbean or West Indian. The African-born anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano, for example, who was a slave in the Caribbean and North America before buying his freedom and coming to London, calls himself (using his slave name) “Augustus Vassa the African” on his 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative. His fellow campaigner Ottobah Cugoano – also African-born and a slave in the Caribbean before settling in London – calls himself “A Native of Africa” on his 1787 tract, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. Slavery was not abolished in the British-controlled Caribbean until 1834.
By the early nineteenth-century, some 10,000 Londoners (about 1% of the population) were Black, although it’s not clear how many of those were from the Caribbean. One early nineteenth-century mixed-race Londoner with a Caribbean connection was the Chartist leader William Cuffay, whose father was from St Kitts. Deported to Tasmania in 1848 for trying to launch an armed Chartist uprising, Cuffay decided to stay there even after he and other political deportees were pardoned in 1856.
That year was also when the Jamaican-born nursing pioneer Mary Seacole moved to London, having first visited in 1821. After taking up nursing during an 1850 cholera epidemic in Jamaica, Seacole resolved to use her experience to tend wounded soldiers in the Crimean War, but was left to fund her own mission to get there, ending up nearly penniless as a result. Back in London after the war, she lived at several addresses, including Soho Square. Mary Seacole died in Paddington in 1881, and is buried in St Mary's Cemetery in Kensal Green. A statue of her now stands outside St Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth.
By the end of the nineteenth century, London was attracting other medical practitioners from the Caribbean too. Notable among them, Ernest Goffe, also from Jamaica (and known professionally by his third name, Leopold), was probably Britain’s first Black doctor when he qualified in 1899. In his spare time, Goffe was a keen cricketer, playing on a team made up largely of prominent writers – his team-mates included J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan), A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) and Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes).
Another Black sportsman of the day was footballer Walter Tull, who played for Spurs from 1909 to 1911. He wasn’t himself from the Caribbean – though partly brought up in an East End orphanage, he was originally from Folkestone in Kent – but his dad was Bajan, so he was a second-generation Caribbean immigrant. Enlisting in World War One, Tull rose to become the British army’s first Black officer, and died in action on the Western Front.
Other Caribbean war heroes in that conflict included George Arthur Roberts, who gained fame in the trenches for being able to lob the enemy’s shells back into their lines, a skill he apparently learned throwing coconuts as a boy in Trinidad. After the war he defended soldiers’ rights as a founder of the British Legion, and would later distinguish himself again, as a firefighter at New Cross during the Blitz. Plaques at New Cross fire station and on his old home in Camberwell commemorate him. After the war, more volunteers from the Caribbean, who’d served in the British army, the merchant navy or the munitions industry, then settled in Britain, where racism often made their lives very hard.
Among those who refused to take that sitting down was Jamaican-born doctor Harold Moody, who’d set up as a GP in Peckham after being refused various hospital positions because he was Black. In 1931, at a meeting in the Central YMCA – the world’s first “Y”, whose entrance was then on Tottenham Court Road (now in Great Russell Street) – he founded the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) to campaign for racial equality. Other members included George Arthur Roberts (see above), the Trinidadian Marxist historian C.L.R. James (who once chaired the Independent Labour Party’s Finchley branch, before residing in Brixton), the Jamaican feminist poet, writer and broadcaster Una Marson (who also lived for a time in London), and the Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta. One of Moody’s brothers was the sculptor Ronald Moody, whose bust of Harold is now in the National Portrait Gallery. The famous Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey lived his last years in London too (Barons Court in fact), although his influence was much greater in the Caribbean and the United States than it was here.
The roots of London’s Caribbean community, then, go back to the nineteenth and even the eighteenth century, and although not many people from the Caribbean lived in London back then, they produced some important figures over the years. The main contingent of our Caribbean community, however, did not arrive until after the Second World War.