Black people in Europe

Engraving of Olaudah Equiano

Engraving of abolition campaigner Olaudah Equiano from the 1793 edition of his autobiography (originally published in 1789)
Maritime archives and library reference 512.EQU/R

A few Africans had visited and lived in Europe, including Britain, since Roman times. From the 1450s the Portuguese transported thousands of enslaved Africans to Spain, Portugal and Italy to work as servants or in the fields. Lisbon, for instance, had a significant African population from the 16th century.

As the transatlantic trade developed, ships' captains and plantation owners brought Africans back to the countries of Northern Europe. They sold them to work, mainly as domestic servants. Many were children.

'Dear Mama, George Hanger has sent me a black boy eleven years old and very honest, but the Duke don't like me having a black.... if you like him instead of Michel I will send him, he will be a cheap servant and you will make a Christian of him and a good boy; if you don't like him they say Lady Rockingham wants one.'
Duchess of Devonshire to her mother, c1790

In Britain Queen Elizabeth was complaining about the number of 'blackamoores' as early as 1596. By the mid 18th century London had the largest Black population in Britain, made up of free and enslaved people, as well as many runaways. The total number may have been about 10,000.

It was regarded as fashionable amongst the upper classes to have a Black servant and they sometimes feature in paintings, such as 'The family of Sir William Young' by Zoffany. There were Black people in many other towns, such as Liverpool, Bristol, Bath and Lancaster. Smaller number of Black people were also found in rural areas throughout the country.

A number of Black people achieved prominence. Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) opened his own grocer's shop in Westminster. He wrote poetry and music and his friends included the novelist Laurence Sterne, David Garrick the actor and the Duke and Duchess of Montague. He is best known for his letters which were published after his death. Others such as Olaudah Equiano and Cuguano were active in the abolition campaigns.

The legal status of enslaved people in Europe was often unclear. In Britain it was not finally resolved until abolition in 1838, though after the famous Somerset case in 1772 enslaved people could not be sent back to the colonies against their will.