The historic maritime city of Portsmouth has an enduring Black history, much like many British ports that for centuries have been busy travel and trade hubs.
However, this crucial part of Portsmouth’s story remains largely untold, unlike in cities such as Liverpool, Hull, Bristol and London. Compared to these other historic ports, it is almost entirely absent from the City’s museums, school programmes and outdoor public spaces.
A new initiative launching this month in Portsmouth sets out to change that, and will bring together local academics, community activists, curators, archivists and teachers in a collaborative project. The initiative, which is a partnership between the University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth City Museum, Portsmouth History Centre, Portsmouth BLM, Portsmouth Educational Trust, the Thinking Academy Trust and the National Museum of the Royal Navy, will seek to consolidate and enrich our knowledge about Portsmouth’s Black history.
Dr Melanie Bassett, Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth, explains why this initiative is so important: "Focus on Black History should not be limited to one month a year, but a more integral part of Britain's rich local and national history. Through this project we aim to move away from limiting Black history as 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.”
Instead of highlighting “stand out moments”, this initiative builds on Dr Caroline Bressey’s call to engage with the ordinariness of people’s experiences. The academic from University College London writes about the historical presence of Black people in Victorian Britain. It is hoped this new study in Portsmouth will uncover the richness and diversity of Black life in the city as an integral part of the fabric of local life.
There are no shortage of fascinating examples of Black lives that have helped shape Portsmouth’s history.
- 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, famed nurse of the Crimean War Mary Seacole came to fundraise in Portsmouth while 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.
- 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.
Dr Bassett says: “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. We are looking forward to working with our local partners to uncover these.”
Professor Sherria Hoskins, Civic Lead at the University of Portsmouth says: “This is a fantastic initiative that supports many of our key civic and equality priorities. We will be working with our local community to gather, understand and showcase our rich and unique regional history, ensuring that it is inclusive, and in doing so, move forward with a regional identity that celebrates our diversity.”
Marie Costa, Community representative says: “I am very pleased to be part of the Portsmouth Black History group which has come into being. This group that includes African and Caribbean Community members, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth City Council, Portsmouth schools, National Museum of the Royal Navy, Black Lives Matter group amongst others, will hopefully plug the gap that exists in historical facts and produce a more inclusive British history that shows the intertwined relationship between British, African and Caribbean people, that spans several centuries, forming true British history.
“This I hope, will enlighten our children of the part played by all, which has helped to enrichen our Portsmouth society.”
The project starts this month and anyone with an interest is encouraged to get involved. The team is keen to engage local communities in the gathering of this knowledge. They are also looking for help to produce teaching materials for schools about local Black history, and to work with the community to determine the most effective ways to permanently raise the visibility of Portsmouth’s Black history.