African Lives in Northern England

by Bill Griffiths, Head of Programme and Collections

This month sees the publication of African Lives in Northern England, a project by the group of the same name. The group began in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the creation of the Culture Against Racism forum in the North East of England.

Wanting to do something to counter ignorance and racism, Beverley Prevatt Goldstein and Barbara Kentish brought together a group of interested individuals to produce a calendar exploring the presence of people of African descent in the North of England. The calendar was sold out even before it was printed. Spurred on by this success the group agreed to produce a booklet exploring a broader range of individuals’ lives, in greater depth.

A few years earlier I was asked by a member of our Communities Team if I would be willing to show members of the North East England African Community Association (NEEACA) around Arbeia Roman fort at South Shields, not least as they were interested in the multi-cultural aspects of the site’s history.

The Romans moved troops about the frontiers of their Empire. Units were named after the places where they were first raised (eg. the garrison at Chesters Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall—Ala II Asturum — raised in the Asturias region of Northern Spain), and increasingly evidence suggests that units may well have recruited new levies at least in part from their ‘homeland’. Indeed we believe that the final unit posted to Arbeia may well have originated from Iraq. This is not the only evidence for people born outside Britain living at the fort. Two of the finest tombstones in Roman Britain are from South Shields and demonstrate the presence of a Palmyrene (Syrian) Trader and a servant to a Cavalryman from Numidia (North West Africa).

A tombstone showing a man lounging, a servant is beneath him offering goods. The tombstone has latin inscription
The Victor Tombstone, on display at Arbeia, South Shields Roman Fort

As an archaeologist specialising in the Roman military I was long familiar with the tombstones and the multicultural nature of the population of Hadrian’s Wall in Roman times. But I have to say it was a revelation to see the tombstone of Victor (the cavalryman’s servant) through the eyes of the members of NEEACA. It was one of those moments you have working in museums when you see clearly the impact an object and its story has on people, as the group explored first-hand evidence for an African presence in this part of England almost two millennia ago.

Partly as a result of showing members of NEEACA I later found myself part of the group helping to develop the African Lives in Northern England project. The booklet is proof of the old adage ‘many hands make light work’ (although it must be acknowledged that the bulk of the work fell to Beverley as its editor) as different people took on different sections researching a select number of lives. It also revealed to me that another old adage, ‘seek and ye shall find’, was very true. In the course of researching the section on Romans I was made aware by Don O’Meara (Historic England) of a second tombstone of a Roman who originated from North Africa (in this case Algeria). We know of approximately 100 tombstones surviving from Hadrian’s Wall (which had a garrison estimated at around 15,000 soldiers for around 300 years), suggesting there were many more people of African origin in the area.

I am sure the project team would agree with me that this booklet is but scratching the surface, and there is much more hidden, or perhaps rather, overlooked, material in archives and museums across the region that can add ever more detail to the tapestry of African presence in the North. This is hinted at in the booklet with reference to baptism records that record the colour of the baptised, and therefore point to more hidden histories to be revealed. For myself it was a pleasure to learn about Mary Ann Macham — an enslaved woman who stowed away on a boat to England where she settled in North Shields. She married and on her death at the age of 91 was buried in her husband’s plot in Preston Cemetery North Shields. A recent project saw a memorial to her added to the grave. I was very pleased to be able to seek it out and pay my respects earlier in the year.

The booklet is also important for revealing the contributions people of African origin have made to the region, with sections on seamen, soldiers, engineers, doctors, writers, orators, actors, musicians and sportsmen, as well as political figures. The booklet also reminds us that there has been a series of projects designed to educate on the African presence in the North East. In fact the Hatton Gallery was the location for an exhibition entitled ‘Africans to Tyneside’, in 1943!

History is a tapestry woven from the threads of individual lives. Yet it is hard to see those threads, and people often only understand the broad image and do not notice the fine detail. This booklet reveals the detail of some of those threads and shows how they are an integral part of the rich tapestry of North East History.

The booklet is being launched at the Durham Book Festival on 17th October. Booklets can also be purchased from Caroline Afolabi-Deleu at caroline@s4a.org.uk at £5.00 with £2.00 for packaging and postage This is a limited edition and copies will be sent out on a first-come, first-serve basis as payments are received.

Further reading:

Africans on Hadrian’s wall World Heritage Site https://twmuseumsandarchives.medium.com/?p=7b3425f407ef

The Victor Tombstone:

https://twmuseumsandarchives.medium.com/?p=2f7d6b1cded3[BG1]

https://www.hadrianswallcountry.co.uk/media/news/celebrating-hidden-lgbtq-histories