As a cub reporter on the Daily Worker Peter Fryer covered the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock in 1948 carrying “five hundred pairs of willing hands” from the Caribbean. It was this and a follow-up piece about how the new migrants were settling in that would ultimately inspire his 1984 book Staying Power, a history of black Britain that opens with the immortal line: “There were black people in Britain before the English came here”.
At the time, Fryer was best known for his eye-witness account of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, which caused his expulsion from the Communist party for its denunciation of the Soviet Union. Staying Power was not without its controversy either. Although fulsomely praised by the likes of CLR James and Salman Rushdie as a breakthrough work of scholarship, others openly questioned whether Fryer, a white Englishman, should, or could, write about black history. Fryer himself had remarked on the dilemma in the book’s preface, before quoting the West African proverb, “knowledge is like the baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot encompass it”. He also pointed out that a book about black history is also for white readers since it involved them too.
Staying Power has now been republished and, despite the emergence of black historians like David Olusoga with their own worthy contributions to the field, it remains a standard reference point, thanks to its sheer breadth of detail and range of subject matter encompassing some 500 years of history.
Writing in the accessible style of a seasoned journalist and the passion of a political thinker, Fryer begins his 400-plus page tome with the story of the Roman Imperial Army’s ‘division of Moors’ based at Carlisle before throwing in the little known fact that records of the first British-born black people appeared in 1505, long before the slave trade got underway. He then takes us on a grand narrative tour down the centuries via slavery, colonialism and settlement, all the while detailing the lives of the remarkable men and women who have been either ignored or forgotten in their quest for freedom and dignity.
In keeping with the campaigning politics of the day, Fryer uses the term ‘black’ to also include Asians, who share a common history on these shores, particularly during the anti-colonial struggle and were also among the black pageant performers and servants of 17th and 18th century London.
Slavery not only gave Britain an economic head start but also left a woeful legacy of racism. The “persistent bullying” of black people found new and fertile ground in the post-war era, eventually sparking the inner-city rebellions of 1981, seismic events that prompted Fryer to begin researching his book. By the mid-1970s two out of every five black people were born in Britain, he says, and it was members of this generation who took to the streets with taunts of ‘get back to where you belong’ echoing in their ears. “With remarkable historical symmetry, this burst of youthful rage began, and proved to be most powerful and sustained, in the very cities which had once been this country’s chief slave ports, Bristol, London and Liverpool,” he writes, putting the riots firmly in their political context.
The book ends here, petering out almost as an after-note. Fryer who died in 2006 aged 79, sadly never extended his work, perhaps burnt by the hostile initial reception of the book in some quarters. However, he had achieved his mission to excavate history buried deep in the past, revealing a rich seam that now routinely underpins Black History Month.
A foreword and introduction by Gary Younge and Paul Gilroy respectively give Staying Power all due credit, with Gilroy describing it “as something of a historical phenomenon in itself”.
Don’t be put off by the unattractive front cover, nor by the great volume of information contained within. Either read as a whole or in part via its various sub-sections, it remains a source of both knowledge and inspiration and is an antidote to the identity politics currently running the show.
Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer is published by Pluto Press
This article appeared in the Review section of the Journal group of newspapers in February 2019