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Roman Cumbria and the First Recorded African Community

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

The cover photo shows Elena Njoabuzia Onwochei-Garcia’s painting of Septimius Severus

on display at Corbridge Roman Town, Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland. Photo credit: English Heritage.

This week for black history month we bring you the story of the first black people to settle in Cumbria.

Many people believe that the first major settlement of black Britons was those of the Windrush generation who on June 21st, 1948 disembarked from a ship called the Emperor Windrush at Tilbury docks.

The British troopship HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks, Essex, late on 21st June 1948.

Passengers disembarked the following day on 22nd June 1948. Photo credit: The Guardian.

However it is now known that there have been people of African descent living in the UK since Roman times.

A remarkable discovery was made in 1953 when an ancient skeleton was discovered in East Sussex, Beachy Head. It wasn’t until 2014 that they confirmed that it was in fact a black woman that had lived around 200-250 AD.

This meant the woman was born just after Hadrians wall had been built and was of sub-Saharan African ancestry making her the first black Briton known to us.

The face of the ‘Beachy Head Lady’ believed to be more than 1,700 years old was reconstructed

and is on display at the Eastbourne Museum in East Sussex, England. Photo credit: Graham Huntley.

David Olusoga, who will be a keynote speaker at Anti Racist Cumbria’s Summit this year, has a docuseries called ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’.

Episode 1 of the series looked at the first known encounters of black British people. David revealed that 1800 years ago, North African troops guarded a Roman fort that once stood in Burgh-by-Sands - situated near the Solway firth.

A plaque was erected to commemorate the first recorded African community in Britain that

guarded a Roman fort in Burgh-BySands as part of the BBC history project. Photo credit: BBC.

The inscription, along with a list of high ranking Roman troops, referred to the “Aurelian Moors” soldiers collected from the Roman province of Mauretania in North Africa now known to be modern Morocco who had previously stationed the fort in the 3rd century.

What really adds some depth to the story of these African soldiers is that they were most likely troops that had been assembled by the Libyan born Roman Emperor Septimus Severus, Rome’s first African emperor.

A depiction of what Septimus Severus looked like. Photo credit: Adam Eastland.

It is known that for a brief period from 208 AD, the entire Roman Empire was ruled from Britain when Severus came to campaign north of Hadrian’s wall and during his reign he strengthened and rebuilt the wall and fortifications in many areas.

During Severus and his son Carcalla’s reign other African born Romans held positions in the army, with some holding high levels of command in Britain.

Many of these soldiers settled in the UK - more specifically settling in Cumbria and bordering counties like Northumberland that Hadrian’s wall is built across.

This made them what could be considered as Britain's first diaspora people from Africa.

The Severan Tondo (200 AD) is one of the few preserved examples of panel painting from Classical

Antiquity, depicting the imperial family. Clockwise from top left: Julia Domna, Septimius

Severus, Caracalla and Geta (whose face has been erased). Photo credit: Adam Eastland.

Now after learning this it is interesting that in 2017, Classicist Mary Beard faced a "torrent of aggressive insults" after she came to the defence of a BBC educational cartoon that depicted a black Roman soldier.

Mary argued that recent evidence does suggest Roman Britain was far more diverse than what we’ve previously believed.

Beard provided evidence of a real-life person whom the BBC could’ve based the father off, Quietus Lollius Urbicus, an indigenous Algerian man who became the governor of Roman Britain.

The 2017 educational cartoon depicting a roman family who Mary Beard believed

the father could be based off - Quietus Lollius Urbicus. Photo credit: BBC.

“It’s very important for us to understand that the concept of ‘Race’ did not exist in the Roman Empire at all.

"The concept was created by White Europeans in order to categorise people within boundaries that allowed the colonisation of countries and ultimately to attempt to justify their brutal enslavement of Black Africans.”

They concluded: “Modern-day anthropologists and geneticists have proven that racial classifications are not in any way based on scientific evidence, and in fact much of the ‘science’ that has even filtered through into today’s stereotypes can be linked back to propaganda that began in this period.”

We hoped you learned something new today about Cumbria’s black history. If you missed last week’s Black History Month article on 'John Kent: UK & Cumbria's First Black Police Officer', you can read it here.

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