The idea that black people only inhabit urban areas, and that the English countryside has always been white, is a myth. Yes, many black and brown people who came to the UK settled in our larger cities, but not exclusively – there are a multitude of rural histories which are yet to be heard.
The postcard image of the south west of England, with its rolling hills and coastline, evokes for some a nostalgic representation of Englishness, or rather, whiteness.
Yet, as I discovered years ago, black history is rich within the land of this place; in spite of commonly held misconceptions, the region has numerous connections with Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. As a black British woman of English and Ghanaian heritage who has lived in the south west for most of my life, I had no idea about this history – locally or nationally – until one afternoon at university, while studying racism and migration, I heard there was a grave in Devon of a black 18th-century person.
This knowledge sparked a curiosity in me, and since then I have carried out various research exploring the presence of BAME people in the south west.
This history is important – for people of colour who live in the region to see themselves reflected in local heritage; for the local white majority to understand that we belong, we are nothing new; and for those in urban spaces to understand that being black doesn’t equal urban. We have lived all over Britain for thousands of years. Local black history helps us all understand that as humans we are connected, and migration is not a contemporary phenomenon.
The West Country has been home to people of colour for centuries. They came as slaves or servants, sailors, teachers, writers, visiting royalty, boxers, students, and entertainers. The two world wars brought soldiers, prisoners-of-war and refugees.
Some of these people simply passed through, leaving traces of themselves behind (and in some cases, children). Others settled in the region. Numbers may be lower than in cities, but their stories matter: here are just a handful.