October is Black History month which always provides a useful reminder of the need for inclusive history teaching. As always, however, using black history month runs the risk of isolating black history and taking it out of our mainstream history teaching. Black history highlights the achievements and contributions of black people and attests to a black presence throughout British history. Black history should also show how through, for example, slavery and colonialism the history and experience of black people was central to and indivisible from the development of British society and its history. Black history is also more than the story of migration and settlement to Britain it is also an entry point to global history which sets it within an international context spanning continents.
Amongst the excellent range of resources on Black History provided by English Heritage is an example of one such window on global history. In 1796 over 1,400 black or mixed-race prisoners of war were held at Portchester Castle. These were mainly formerly enslaved individuals who had following the capture of the British colony of St Lucia by French revolutionary forces, who had abolished slavery on the island, had joined the French army against the British. Documents show the cruel conditions they endured in Portchester and the campaign to improve their treatment. Following their imprisonment in Portchester the prisoners either joined the British army or navy although most were sent to France, exchanged for British prisoners of war. Many were to return to the Caribbean where they were to die fighting for freedom against the French who had reinstated slavery.
The study of the Portchester prisoners allows us to see black history in its global context. It takes us into the world of the Caribbean in the 18th century, the transatlantic slave trade, the French revolution and the revolutionary wars and the fight by black people for their freedom from the European powers. Black history can, and should, provide for a global study of history which connects with and contributes to the events which have shaped our world.
ENGLISH HERITAGE – www.english-heritage.org.uk/black-history