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Black History? Best get the facts right


THE newspapers have been giving a survey quite a lot of publicity recently. It found that more than half of the British know so little about black history that they were unable to name a single black historical figure.

Writer Dalya Alberge claims that ‘people with dark skin’ came to Britain about 12,000 years ago, and the first known people to come from Africa ‘settled’ approximately 2,000 years ago. Yet more than a third of those surveyed believe that the first black people emigrated to Britain only in the last 200 years.

To remedy this, Bloomsbury Publishing UK, who commissioned the survey, published Brilliant Black British History, written by the award-winning Nigerian author Atinuke, and a follow-up exhibition is showing at the Black Cultural Archives in Windrush Square, Brixton.

Atinuke believes there have always been people with black and brown skin in Britain ‘from the Stone Age through every single era to the present day’. The government should therefore encourage more integration of black British history in schools and universities.

All children need positive role models, and for black children it is certainly inspirational and motivating to look up to successful individuals such as Valerie Amos, Benjamin Zephaniah and Linford Christie. But the catalogue of black Britons celebrated in, for example, Black History Month and the current exhibition need careful research and selection. Especially in view of Atinuke’s statement that she expected people to be able to name the ‘black governor of Roman Britain’.

Can you?

She is referring to Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who features prominently as one of those black Britons from 2,000 years ago in the exhibition, and is certainly a fascinating character. But who exactly was he?

Quintus Lollius Urbicus was a North African Berber and governor of the imperial Roman province of Britannia between the years 139 and 142 AD.  He was the son of Marcus Lollius Senecio, a Berber landowner, and his wife Grania Honorata. He did service as military tribune at Mogontiacum (now Mainz), and served as legatus in Asia, Vienna, Judaea, and as governor of Germania Inferior.

He was transferred to Britannia after the death of Emperor Hadrian to effect the re-conquest of lowland Scotland. There are coins commemorating his victory, having re-occupied southern Scotland with the aid of three legions and several auxiliary units. There are inscriptions recording his participation, with all three legions, in building the Antonine Wall which stretched from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. He probably campaigned against several British tribes, for example the Brigantes, as well as the Votadini and Selgovae in the Borders area, and the Damnonii of Stathclyde, and the Novantae in Galloway.  

Urbicus returned to Rome, and is believed to have held the position of Prefect of Rome in 146 AD. The historian Colin Wells states: ‘At no other period of history could the second or third son of a Berber landowner in a very small town enjoy a career which took him to Asia, Judaea and the Danube, the lower Rhine and Britain, culminating in a position of great power and honour in the capital of the empire to which these regions belonged.’

And who were the Berbers ? They were a diverse grouping of distinct ethnic groups indigenous to North Africa, notably in regions we now call Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. According to the Roman historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus, their forebears crossed from the Iberian peninsula. Numidia, the homeland of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, was an ancient Berber kingdom, later becoming a Roman province on the eastern border of modern Algeria.

So, ethnically, Quintus was descended from peoples at least partly originating in the land which is now Spain, and they could not be described as black. Furthermore, he was never a Briton. In fact he was the sworn enemy of the regional British tribes he subdued, no doubt ruthlessly, with his three legions, and vastly superior weaponry, tactical organisation and rigorous training. He spent only three years in Britannia, and it was in no small part due to his military successes that he went on to become Prefect of Rome.

At this time, Rome was at the height of its imperial expansion, and relied on ever greater military forces to keep its conquests in order. Britannia was at the end of the known world, a place of dreary weather, little wealth and fanatically turbulent tribes, repeatedly whipped up by their Druid priests against this mighty conqueror. Every Roman soldier’s short straw. Rome’s only real benefit from its British outpost was tin and silver, mined in the south of England. Perhaps the wine was also an attraction.

A Roman Governor was certainly no hero for the local inhabitants. Rosemary Sutcliffe, in her novel for young adults The Eagle of the Ninth,  and filmed as The Eagle, focused on the relationship between an enslaved Brigantian youth and a Roman centurion, son of the disgraced leader of the Ninth Spanish Legion who had lost their Eagle – symbol of Rome’s power and honour. Although the two become firm friends and Esca the slave is granted his freedom, the story depicts the essential animosity between the conquered and the conqueror. Esca hated everything that Rome stood for, but accepted his servitude as a debt of honour, having been rescued by Marcus from the gladiators’ arena.

But Esca started out as Marcus’s slave; and Quintus Lollius, as a conquering leader and subsequently governor of Roman Britannia, was most certainly a slave owner, in his military forces and his domestic and personal life.

Ms Atinuke and her Bloomsbury publishers need to acknowledge that in their desperate search for Brilliant Black Britons in 1st century AD Britain, Quintus Lollius Urbicus was not one of them. He was neither black nor British, and was a hated brutal conqueror and slave owner.  Some role model for black British children!

Get your facts right, Ms Atinuke. It’s always a mistake to meddle with history.

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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