Hadrian's Wall church is site of first UK Africans

29 July 2016

BBC

Proud: a representative from the North East of England African Community Association with the new plaque at St Michael’s church

Proud: a representative from the North East of England African Community Association with the new plaque at St Michael’s church

THE home of the first Africans to live in Britain was on the site of what is now a church, a new documentary series will reveal.

St Michael’s, Burgh-by-Sands, in northern Cumbria, stands on the site of a third-century Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall. Writing on a stone discovered in 1934 in a nearby village records that soldiers from north Africa were part of the fort’s garrison, which makes theirs the earliest recorded African settlement in Britain.

The discovery will feature in a BBC TV series called A Black History of Britain, presented by the historian David Olusoga, who, last year, also presented an acclaimed documentary that explored the archives of Britain’s slave-owners.

A film crew visited St Michael’s last week to record the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the history of the site.

The Priest-in-Charge of St Michael’s, the Revd Tudor Boddam-Whetham, said: “This celebration of the first black community known of in Britain is witness to our inclusive multicultural past, present, and future.”

Representatives of the North East of England African Community Association, local schoolchildren, and residents all attended the unveiling ceremony. The pupils brought along artwork they had created, which imagined what their village would have looked like during the third century.

The Roman fort, known as Aballava, straddles Hadrian’s Wall and was built during the Roman occupation of Britain to guard two nearby fords on the Solway, which were popular with border raiders from the north. St Michael’s was built later, probably during the 12th century, from stones taken from the Wall, as a fortified church with battlements and arrow slits in its tower.

While modern-day Cumbria no longer experiences battles between marauding raiders and polyglot Roman regiments, Mr Boddam-Whetham said there were still strands of continuity that reached down to the present day.

“Here at St Michael’s, all can worship Jesus, our creator and eternal King, who was born as a Jew to save people of all nations. So it is very fitting that here, where soldiers from many nations were stationed, we continue to warmly welcome thousands of visitors each year from all around the world, and this plaque and the publicity around it will, we hope, bring even more to enjoy that history and the church’s welcome.”

But despite St Michael’s pioneering history, the district of Carlisle, of which the church and village are part, is today one of the least ethnically diverse parts of the UK. The most recent census, in 2011, showed that of the 108,000 people living in the area, 98.1 per cent or 105,000, were white. Just 107 people gave their ethnic group as African.

A Black History of Britain will be broadcast in November on BBC Two, and will include the unveiling of 19 other plaques across the UK, in former colonies and in the Commonwealth, which mark and celebrate pivotal moments in the history of Britain’s black communities.

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