The very first humans to reach Britain tens of thousands of years ago were the descendants of African people. Britain took a leading part in the slave trade from the 16th century until slavery was finally abolished in 1833. Many Africans were brought to London against their will to serve the wealthy and were amongst those who campaigned to end slavery. The British Empire included parts of West Africa and inhabitants of these countries came to London in search of work during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today south London is home to a large community of West Africans, while East Africans have sought refuge from civil war in countries like Somalia and Ethiopia.
The first human remains in London were found in Swanscombe and are 400,000 years old. These humans were the descendants of people who migrated from Africa about one million years ago and arrived in Britain around 300,000 years later.
The next wave of migration from Africa dates back about 100,000 years. These people were anatomically modern humans. They reached Britain about 40,000 years ago during a cold period when the seas between Britain and the rest of Europe had frozen over.
There is some evidence of an African presence in Britain during Roman times. A regiment of soldiers from North Africa was stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. London archaeologists have found a spoon and a lamp representing people of African appearance.
The earliest recorded image of an African in London is a Black trumpeter depicted on the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511. Probably from North Africa, this musician was employed by both Henry VII and Henry VIII.
Henry VIII’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I also had Black servants. Nonetheless in 1601, when the country had been suffering from poor harvests, she issued a proclamation that ‘the great number of Negroes and blackamoores’ should leave Britain.
From the 1570s some Africans were brought to London as a result of Britain's role in the slave trade, although most were taken to the West Indies. Ships left ports like London filled with goods bound for the west coast of Africa.
There, the goods were traded for enslaved people whom the ships then carried to the West Indies to work on sugar and tobacco plantations. The final leg of the voyage transported sugar, tobacco and cotton from the plantations back to Britain. This made enormous profits for British manufacturers, slave traders and plantation owners.
An infrastructure of banks and insurance agencies grew up around the slave trade, some of which still exist, like Barclays bank.
During the 17th and 18th centuries it was fashionable for wealthy Londoners to own African slaves or servants. Some of these owners brought enslaved people with them from plantations in the Caribbean. Contemporary newspapers carry advertisements offering enslaved people for sale, or attempting to trace runaways.
The law was unclear on the status of enslaved people in England and many ran away from their employers to obtain freedom.
Several Black people, such as Olaudah Equiano, actively campaigned against slavery, which virtually ended in Britain by the 1790s. In 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed.
This was followed in 1833 by the Slavery Abolition Act, outlawing slavery throughout the British Empire. After this date fewer Black people came to London.
By the mid 18th century there was a significant free Black population. These people worked as servants, labourers, sailors and soldiers.
Ignatius Sancho distinguished himself as a writer and composer. Bill Richmond and Tom Molineux were noted prize fighters.
The Black population declined in the 19th century. The majority was men, some of whom married White women, so that their children had only partial Black ancestry. Today, thousands of British people will find one or more Black ancestors in their family tree.
Some Black Americans also arrived in London. These included fugitive slaves, enslaved people who had gained their freedom by fighting on the British side during the American War of Independence, and entertainers.
The period from the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign until the end of World War II saw the British Empire at its height.
From the 1880s European nations rushed to colonise Africa and exploit its resources. Within 20 years the continent was carved up between the imperial powers of Europe, which included Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Large parts of Africa fell under British rule.
These included present day Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria in Western Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Somalia in Eastern Africa, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa and Egypt and Sudan in Northern Africa.
People from many of these lands became British subjects and were able to enter Britain freely. Some came to London as visitors and students, and others stayed permanently.
A Black sailor community was located in Canning Town, and a Coloured Men's Institute established there in 1926. Many of today's Londoners can trace their ancestry to Africa directly because of their exploitation by Britain at this period.
A number of prominent Black figures emerged in public life. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a notable composer working at the turn of the 20th century.
John Archer pioneered African and Caribbean involvement in local politics when he became Mayor of Battersea in 1913. In 1931 Dr Harold Moody founded the League of Coloured Peoples, the first Black pressure group.
From the 1930s African students in London such as Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah, were influential. They were central figures in the struggle for African independence, later becoming the respective presidents of Kenya and Ghana.
During World Wars I and II, several thousand Africans fought on the allied side in Africa, while those in Britain aided the war effort as seamen or through essential work.
During the postwar period London experienced a labour shortage. The 1948 British Nationality Act gave British citizenship to all people living in Commonwealth countries, and full rights of entry and settlement in Britain. A few thousand migrants arrived from Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa to work in London.
The settlement of people with different languages, customs and skin colour fuelled the prejudices of others and led to calls to restrict immigration. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act greatly slowed down non-European immigration.
From the 1980s, increased numbers of people emigrated to London from West Africa. Today, many people from Nigeria and Ghana live in and around Southwark and Peckham in south London and Tottenham and Dalston in north London.
African textiles and foodstuffs can be purchased from shops along Peckham High Street and stalls in Ridley Road market in Dalston.
Peckham hit the headlines when ten year old Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor was tragically murdered there in 2000.
Evangelical and pentecostal churches have sprung up to cater to devout congregations drawn from these groups. Nearly 70% of Africans in Britain are Christians, while 20% are Muslims.
During the 1970s and 1990s, Somalians and Ethiopians fled civil war in East Africa, as did Congolese people from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa in the 1990s. Many migrants from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan settled in North Kensington.
The total number of people resident in London who identified themselves as ‘Black or Black British: African’ in the 2001 census was over 380,000. Over three-quarters of Africans living in Britain dwell in London.
Well-known Londoners of African descent include several people with Ghanaian parents: the fashion designer Joe Casely-Hayford, the first Black cabinet minister Paul Boateng, and Ekow Eshun, journalist, broadcaster and current Director of the ICA. The Asian author and broadcaster Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was born in Uganda.