GHG - Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina

  • 1995, Reissued 2022
  • John Murray Publishers
  • Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, iBook
Related media

Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History / Black London: Life Before Emancipation

Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History, is the updated 2022 edition of Gretchen Gerzina's 1995 book Black London: Life Before Emancipation, and features a new foreword by Zadie Smith.

The idea that Britain became a mixed-race country after 1945 is a common mistake. Georgian England had a large and distinctive Black community. Whether prosperous citizens or newly freed slaves, they all ran the risk of kidnap and sale to plantations. Black England tells their dramatic, often moving stories.

In the eighteenth century, Black people could be found in clubs and pubs, there were special churches, Black-only balls and organisations for helping Black people who were out of work or in trouble. Many were famous and respected: most notably Francis Barber, Doctor Johnson's beloved manservant; Ignatius Sancho, a correspondent of Laurence Sterne; Francis Williams, a Cambridge scholar, and Olaudah Equiano whose Interesting Narrative went into multiple editions. But far more were ill-paid and ill-treated servants or beggars, despite having served Britain in war and on the seas. For alongside the free world there was slavery, from which many of these Black Britons had escaped.

The triumphs and tortures of Black England, the Ambivalent relations between the races, sometimes tragic, sometimes heart-warming, are brought to life in this wonderfully readable history. Black England explores a fascinating chapter of our shared past, a chapter that has been ignored too long.


Listen as Gretchen speaks with BBC's De-Graft Mensah of the "If You Don't Know" podcast about Black England and Britain's Black history in November 2022.

Reviews and Praise for Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History

"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." Zadie Smith, The Guardian

"In the 1990s, an assistant in a London bookshop informed the African American historian Gretchen Gerzina that there 'were no black people in England before 1945.' Gerzina effectively disproved that assertion by going on to write the classic book on black people in Georgian London, Black England." David Olusoga, The Guardian

"Wonderfully vivid, multifaceted and engrossing . . . this book brings history alive." Bernardine Evaristo

"Black England taught me more history than I ever learned at school. This book helped me to understand the history that my generation are making now. To say that it is groundbreaking is stating the obvious. Black England is part of our canon. With books like this to guide us, we are unstoppable. Gretchen Gerzina tells it as it was, so we know how it is. Black England is a book that will be relevant for ever." Benjamin Zephaniah

"A classic that deserves to be read . . . indeed, needs to be read, Black England is deeply researched, lucidly written and utterly fascinating. If you ever thought Black British history began with Windrush, read this book—this is a story we should all know." Greg Jenner

"Gerzina brings the world of the Black Georgians to intriguing life, introducing us to the era's most fascinating individuals while placing them in the wider story of the struggle against enslavement. It is a treat to have a pioneer of the field bring together all the latest scholarship to tell this important part of British history for a wide audience." Miranda Kaufman, author of Black Tudors

"The admirable clarity of Black England should win it many admirers. Gerzina's book should take its rightful place alongside the work of her predecessors." Caryl Phillips

"Gerzina has written a fascinating account of London Blacks, focusing on the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Because of a paucity of sources from Blacks themselves, Gerzina had to rely primarily on glimpses through white eyes, especially those of antislavery advocate Granville Sharp. Gerzina is quite adept at culling evidence of a rich, complex Black life, with significant interaction (and intermarriage) with the white community. Although subjected to much discrimination, London Blacks never suffered as much as their American counterparts. The author rightly concludes that Blacks have played an important role in the life of London for much of its history. A very valuable work; highly recommended for major libraries." Anthony O. Edmonds, Ball State University, Muncie, IN, for Library Journal