Fryer’s book is about the story of black people in Britain, the history of the slave trade and a discussion of racism, its development and its effects. It is a brave book, about British history and society itself.

Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto 2010), xii, 632pp.

Peter Fryer’s seminal book, Staying Power, has been reissued, with a new introduction by Paul Gilroy. First published a generation ago, in 1984, it has received high praise from C.L.R. James, Salman Rushdie and many others, and was, as Paul Gilroy says, ‘something of a phenomenon in its own right’. It is a brave book; Gilroy testifies to the harsh treatment the author received because he believed that black history was not the preserve of black historians but that it was equally part of the history of white people. Fryer remarked in his own preface that the history of black people in Britain had a very strong impact on British society: firstly, there was the effect of the slave trade on the economic development of the country, secondly the effect of racism on British people. The book therefore has three strands: one is the story of black people in Britain, the second the history of the slave trade and the third a discussion of racism, its development and its effects.

The early presence of black people is largely silent: those who took part in pageants in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and danced, sang, performed acrobatics and music seem to have been appreciated by their white audiences but we do not know how they themselves felt, as there are no records. In the later seventeenth century we hear of black servants, and they appear in paintings and on inn signs. It was in the seventeenth century that the taste for sugar developed – and so did the slave trade. When we do begin to hear the voices of black people in the eighteenth century – in a chapter Fryer entitles ‘Eighteenth Century Voices’ – they are the voices of slaves, or escaped or freed slaves, and they are raised against slavery and racism. He continues this history through the biographies of many of the most outstanding and talented people who have lived in Britain over the last two hundred years. Many of them played important parts in the abolition of slavery, in the fight against colonialism and imperialism and the independence of India, the West Indies and African countries. Many others earned their living more humbly; the point is that they were in Britain.

Fryer shows that although the Elizabethans may have had strange beliefs about the habits and the physiognomy of black people, there is a huge difference between the kind of suspicion engendered by ignorance, which after all is quickly dispelled on acquaintance and on the production of contrary evidence, and a calculated attempt to enslave a whole continent by denying that the inhabitants are human. This is what the promoters of the slave trade achieved, despite the fact that at first there were those who refused to accept their lies. But the importance of sugar as a product and the profitability of slavery in its production led to the growth in Britain’s wealth. The sadism of the eighteenth-century slave trade captains was justified by supposing slaves to be inhuman chattels. The horrors included the beating of babies to death and the throwing of ill people overboard: ‘only one captain from the port [of Bristol] did not deserve to be hanged’. The planters became enormously rich, had close connections with banks and local government and bought seats in Parliament. But the power and propaganda of the ruling class could still be exposed. Although Pitt may have adopted abolitionism to beat French trade and sugar may have become less profitable, the Quakers, for example, had already been protesting against slavery for a hundred years. The slogan of the anti-slavery campaign was ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’

This was the first modern efficient political campaign. It collected evidence and thousands of petition signatures, encouraged people to wear badges and to boycott sugar, arranged fund-raising performances, had a sympathetic MP to speak in Parliament. Many materials can be seen at the museum in Wisbech, the birthplace of one of the leading abolitionists, Thomas Clarkson. The campaign united black people with religious groups and radicals, and among its dedicated leaders was Olaudah Equiano, a man of genius whose life would make a far more exciting film than that of William Wilberforce. Fryer points out that black people ended slavery in Britain themselves by running away: the advertisements for runaway slaves, common in the mid-eighteenth century, gradually stopped, apparently due to the lack of result. Fryer does not say where these runaways hid, but it is difficult to see where it could have been unless with white working class people. In 1792, the newly industrialised town of Manchester secured 20,000 signatures against slavery from a population of less than 75,000. Many of the eminent black leaders, Equiano and Davidson included, had loving relationships with their white wives and close friends among the radicals. In the early nineteenth century, the working class chose black leaders such as the Spenceans, Thomas Wedderburn and Thomas Davidson, and the Chartist, William Cuffay.

This situation did not continue, however. The racism developed by the ruling class to justify slavery outlived the abolition to be used to justify colonialism and imperialism. Fryer’s discussion of racism is an integral part of the book. By 1920, there were race riots in Cardiff and Liverpool and in the 1950s they were happening again. Racism still infects Britain today.

Race riots, however, do not come from nowhere. In 1920, the main rioters were ex-soldiers, many of whom were out of work. Rioters did not attack blacks in 1914, however, but those suspected to be German. Fryer shows that the 1950s Notting Hill riots were influenced by Nazis, who were building on a discontent many felt about their living conditions. The government conformed to racist ideology by imposing immigration controls which have grown more stringent and punitive since, and in times of crisis the ruling class will always play the race card. There is both hope and a warning from the eighteenth century, therefore: a strong anti-racist movement can be built but if it is relaxed after the immediate battle is won, racism can be resorted to once more.