Portsmouth Black History: Recovering untold stories for new generations

PUBLISHED : October 19, 2022

WORDS : Archive Team

Geographies of race and racism in Britain today are rooted in our understandings of race and racism in Britain yesterday, last year, last century and before.

Like many port cities, places of arrival and exchange, Portsmouth has a long Black history. Unlike cities such as Liverpool, Hull, Bristol and London, however, this is almost entirely absent from our museums, school programmes and outdoor public spaces. This project brings together local academics, community activists, curators, archivists and teachers in a collaborative project which seeks to (1) consolidate and enrich our knowledge about Portsmouth’s Black history (2) engage local communities in the co-production of this knowledge (3) produce teaching materials for local schools about local Black history, to embed it in every level of the curriculum (4) work with the local community to determine the most effective ways to permanently raise the visibility of Portsmouth’s Black history, thinking creatively about the artistic, educational and digital forms which this might take.

SS Mendi Memorial paying tribute to the South African sailors who died when the ship sank, 8 of whom are buried in Portsmouth

Bone analysis suggests that some of the sailors on Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, which sank in the Solent in July 1545, were probably of African heritage. In the mid 18th century, the first published African in Britain, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, a prince from modern-day Nigeria who had been enslaved and transported to America, was relieved to arrive in Portsmouth as a free man, but somewhat taken aback at the bad language of the locals. In the 19th century, nurse Mary Seacole came to fundraise in Portsmouth whilst Jamaican-born Fanny Eaton worked as a cook in a wine merchant’s house on the Isle of Wight – but is better known as a pre-Raphaelite artists’ model. Whilst troops from Britain’s colonial empire were recruited on a massive scale to fight in the First and Second World Wars, local Black men also served, such as Sydney Cornell, born in Portsmouth in 1914. Promoted to sergeant, Cornell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in recognition of his role in the D-Day campaign, and killed in action in 1945. The presence of all of these women and men pre-dates the arrival of the “Windrush generation” from 1948 onwards – often misleadingly presented as the “beginning” of the Black history of the UK. The later twentieth century brought Portsmouth FC footballer Lloyd Lindbergh “Lindy” Delapenha, Bajan dockyard worker Stan Rudder, and nurse and community activist, Nigerian-born Marie Costa, to our city.

Pioneering Nurse of the Crimean War Mary Seacole stayed in Portsmouth in 1870.

These are the “best known” names – most of which are, in fact, still little known. Beyond this, there are a whole range of archival traces and stories of Black lives in Portsmouth which are yet to be identified and collated. The historical and social importance of recovering and preserving these stories has long been recognised by local activists, for example, in the Portsmouth and South East Hampshire Multicultural Group and the Portsmouth African Women’s Forum. Portsmouth Archives also led an oral history project recording the life stories of Portsmouth women and men from the African and Caribbean, as well as Chinese and Bangladeshi, communities. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 have given a new impetus and urgency to this work, and also – crucially – promises of greater institutional support to enable this work to happen. In Portsmouth, both the Vice Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth, Graham Galbraith (June 2020) and a full meeting of the city council (July 2020) have formally acknowledged the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fact that they need to do much more in concrete measures to ensure that Black lives really do matter.

Fanny Eaton was recently the star of a ‘Google Doodle’. Artist of the Doodle, Sophie Diao, thanked Fanny for “for helping move artistic inclusion forward.”

Recognising and embedding Portsmouth’s Black history as an integral part of our local history, and British history more broadly, is a central strand of anti-racist work. A key part of understanding and challenging racial injustice today involves engaging with the history and legacies of slavery and colonialism. The acknowledgment of Black people’s achievements can no longer be limited to one month a year. Above all, though, through this project we seek to move away from limiting Black history to celebrating the “contribution” of Black men and women to Britain, an approach which often has good intentions, but which implicitly suggests that Black men and women’s inclusion in the British past and present is dependent on them having “prove” themselves as “worthy citizens”. Rather, this project builds upon Caroline Bressey’s[2] call to engage with the ordinariness of people’s experiences, uncovering the richness and diversity of Black life in Portsmouth as an integral part of the fabric of local life. This is us.

Second World War Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) recipient, Portsmouth-born Sidney Cornell.

Lindy Delpenha debuted for Portsmouth Football Club in 1948. He was the first Jamaican to play professional football in England. Credit: Pompey History Society / Portsmouth FC