Researching the African Diaspora in Great Britain and Canada

Head and shoulder view of a Black sailor in a blue jacket with yellow waistcoat and black tie, 1820. Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (Wikimedia Commons)


The HNS’s Statement on Inclusion and Diversity contains the phrase, “to honor the diversity of all people.”  To help novelists researching historical persons of African descent in British and Canadian contexts, here is a list of sources. A future article will focus on the U.S. context.

The list is intended as a place to start your research. Nearly every book on the list has footnotes and/or bibliographies that can lead you to other related sources not listed here.  I included ISBN numbers for easier ordering of books, if you want to purchase a title.  Your local library may be able to interlibrary loan these titles for you for free, if your pocketbook is pinched.

The websites below are also intended as places to start; I selected sites with moderately substantial digital content and avoided commercial sites. Please note that any lack of capitalization of the term “Black” is due to direct quotations from the resources.




 Black and British: A Forgotten History, by David Olusoga.  Macmillan, 2016.  9781447299738

This book accompanied the 2016 BBC TV documentary series of the same name.  The preface says “It is an attempt to see what new stories and approaches emerge if black British history is envisaged as a global history.”  The chapters are chronological, starting with Roman times and concluding with the 2012 London Olympic celebrations.  Wikipedia says that an updated edition of the book was published in 2021 that updates the material to include the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, but I have only examined the original edition, which is well-illustrated and has an extensive bibliography.

Black Britain: A Photographic History, by Paul Gilroy.  SAQI in association with Getty Images, 2007.  9780863565403

This is a great source of images that “document the process of postwar black settlement in Britain in the twentieth century”—preface.  The pictures are sourced from Getty Images and are in roughly chronological order, the most recent from 2006.  It includes a brief bibliography.  These might be story idea generators: p. 79 has a photo of a Jamaican immigrant reading a “Rooms to Let — No Coloured Men” sign on a lodging house door, and p.112 has a photo of a “Keep Britain White” rally in 1959.

Black Tudors: The Untold Story, by Miranda Kaufmann.  Oneworld, 2017. 9781786071842

The author presents 10 chapters profiling different Black individuals in the Tudor era: a trumpeter, a silk weaver, a porter, a salvage diver, etc.  She consulted parish registers, tax returns, household accounts, wills, and other documents from the era.  Ninety-three pages of notes and bibliography will provide researchers with many other paths to follow.

Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina.  Rutgers University Press, 2003.  0813532159

This collection of papers attempts to fill in gaps in the historical record on Black individuals in 19th-century Britain.  Examples:  Queen Victoria’s “daughter,” a circus proprietor, African envoys to Britain, and the Pan-African Conference of 1900.  Each paper includes a bibliography for further research.

Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins, by Onyeka.  Narrative Eye, 2013.  9780953318216

The author started his research by searching for Africans in parish records, and expounds in the introduction on the difficulties of researching this topic.  Very extensive notes and a lengthy bibliography will point researchers to further information.

Arthur Wharton, first Black professional in the Football League, ca.1896. Source:
Wikimedia Commons

Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain: From Roman Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century, edited by Jagdish S. Gundara and Ian Duffield.  Avebury, 1992.  1856282319

These are essays stemming from a conference on “History of Blacks” in Britain held in London in 1981.  Chapters include early African presence, Black individuals as depicted in William Hogarth, Black Americans in Britain, the Black press in the 1930s and 40s, and Black intellectuals.  As expected in academic papers, they include bibliographical notes which will be useful for further research.

London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race, by Kennetta Hammond Perry.  Oxford, 2015.  9780190240202

“This study considers the political voices and experiences of Afro-Caribbean migrants as they encountered anti-Black racism, confronted the state, and navigated the dynamics of being both Black and British in metropolitan Britain…”—introduction.  Thirty-five pages of notes and a bibliography will guide researchers to further sources on Black British history of the mid-20th century.

The Oxford Companion to Black British History, edited by David Dabydeen, John Gilmore, and Cecily Jones.  Oxford, 2008.  9780199238941

“Seeks to give coverage to nearly 2,000 years of black British history, from the presence of African soldiers defending Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD to contemporary issues relating to refugees and asylum-seekers”—introduction.  It is in dictionary format, with sections such as missionary societies, Pan-Africanism, reparations, and Black British English.  This would be a good place to start one’s basic research.  You could dip into it for story idea generators, such as Coree the Saldanian (d.1627), a forced immigrant, or John Edmonstone, who taught Darwin the art of taxidermy.

Staying Power: Black People in Britain since 1504, by Peter Fryer.  Humanities Press, 1984.  0391031678

This is considered an extremely important and influential work in the field.  Fryer includes “the contribution made by black slavery to the rise of British capitalism…[and] the effect English racism has had on the lives of black people living in this country”—preface.  The first chapter is about Black individuals in Tudor times, and the following chapters are chronological, ending with the early 1980s.  A bibliography and 140 pages of bibliographical notes will greatly aid researchers.

Basil Watson’s monument honoring the Windrush generation, in Waterloo Station in London. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips.  HarperCollins, 1998.  0006530397

This is the story of the Windrush generation, “Caribbean migrants who came [to Britain] in 1948 and the following years”—introduction.  The authors are journalists who interviewed people who emigrated to Britain during the Windrush movement, when the U.K. granted citizenship to people living in its colonies, who came in search of a better life.  There is no bibliography.


BLACK HISTORY (English Heritage)

English Heritage presents profiles of seven noted Black individuals in British history, plus a page on the Windrush Generation, post-WWII.


This article on the BBC News site from June 2020 presents six stories about little-known incidents in Black British history.


Historic England gives brief biographies of Black individuals from the 18th century.  Great for browsing if you are looking for someone to write about who hasn’t been featured over and over.

BLACK BRITISH HISTORY TIMELINE (International Black History Month U.K.)

The International Black History Month (U.K.) organization provides this handy timeline of Black British history.


This article by a historian on the University College London’s site talks about her research on 18th- and 19th-century Black women in Britain.

BLACK EDWARDIANS 1902 to 1920 (Haringey Borough)

The Haringey Borough website (part of greater London) profiles some Black Britons who were born in or visited the borough during Edwardian times.


A BBC News page about early Black residents of the Brick Lane area.


Poster of a meeting about the Elgin settlement, a haven for fugitive slaves in Ontario, 1859. Source: Wikimedia Commons



African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War, by Richard M. Reid.  Kent State University Press, 2014.  9781606352557

“Nearly 2,500 young black men from all across British North America” joined the U.S. Union forces to fight in the Civil War–introduction.  Many were in the army, but some also served in the navy and as doctors.  The last chapter discusses the veterans’ lives after the war.  It has an extensive bibliography and chapter notes.

Black Canadians: History, Experiences, Social Conditions, by Joseph Mensah.  Fernwood Publishing, 2002.  1552660907

The author takes a multidisciplinary approach to the condition of Black Canadians.  He addresses the myth that Canada is less racist than the U.S.  Chapters include profiles of Black individuals from Jamaica, Haiti, and Ghana; those in sport and the labor market, and employment equity.  Extensive chapter notes and a bibliography will help researchers.

The Blacks in Canada: A History, 2nd edition, by Robin W. Winks.  McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.  0773516328

“The chief purpose of this book is to examine the history of Negro life in Canada from 1628 to the 1960s, and by doing so to reveal something of the nature of prejudice in Canada.”—preface to first edition.  The author provided a new preface to this second edition but chose not to revise the text.  Chapter one starts with slavery in New France, 1628-1760, and the book ends with 1970.  Several chapters cover refugee slaves from the U.S. escaping to Canada.  Extensive footnotes and a chapter of notes on sources will help researchers.

Blacks in Deep Snow: Black Pioneers in Canada, by Colin A. Thomson.  J.M. Dent & Sons, 1979.  0460902806

“The emphasis in this book is on black settlement in Canada’s pioneer West”—preface.  The short volume lacks a bibliography, but it has an interesting timeline of Black history in Canada.  Several chapters profile particular individuals, and photos are included.

Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants Across the Eighteen-Century British Atlantic World, by Alexander X. Byrd.  Louisiana State University Press, 2008.  9780807133590

This work deals with Black migration, voluntary and non-voluntary, to other British colonies like Jamaica as well as Canada.  “It is possible to gain new purchase on the history of eighteenth-century transatlantic migration by examining free and forced migration together…”—introduction. Chapters 8-9 are about Black migrants to Nova Scotia.

My Brother’s Keeper: African Canadians and the American Civil War, by Bryan Prince.  Dundurn, 2015.  9781459705708

Tells the stories of individual Black Canadians who enlisted in the Union forces during the U.S. Civil War, some serving as chaplains, surgeons, or recruiters.  Footnotes and a bibliography will lead researchers to further sources.

North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955, by Sarah-Jane Mathieu.  University of North Carolina Press, 2010.  9780807871669

This book tells “how, thanks to the development of the Canadian railway industry and Canada’s aggressive immigration campaigns in the late nineteenth century, African Americans and West Indians fought their way into the dominion, circumventing laws and gatekeepers intent on keeping them out”—introduction.  Black Canadians still encountered forms of Jim Crow north of the border, such as being excluded from the railroad workers’ union.  A lengthy list of notes and sources will aid researchers.

Black Canadian boxer Sam Langford, ca.1910-1915, “The greatest fighter nobody knows”. Source: Library of Congress control number 2014692236

Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience, by Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze.  Umbrella Press, 1996.  1895642205

“Elucidates the story of the black struggle for fairness and justice in Canadian society”—preface.  Chapters include the effect of U.S. Civil War on Black individuals in Canada, resistance of whites to Black settlement in the prairie provinces, the Africville community in Halifax, Black individuals in Loyalist Canada, etc.  The book provides a useful timeline of Black Canadian history and a bibliography.


NOTEWORTHY FIGURES (Government of Canada)

Brief biographies of important Black Canadian figures in history.

BLACK HISTORY IN CANADA (Canadian Encyclopedia)

Information from the online Canadian Encyclopedia on Black history, including articles, study guides, quizzes, and image galleries.


An overview of the early history of slavery in Canada, from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.


An overview of Black Canadians serving in the military starting in the 18th century, from a Government of Canada website.


A 12-page overview of Black Canadian history produced for teachers by the Historica-Dominion Institute (which since changed its name to Historica Canada), a nonprofit organization promoting Canada’s history and citizenship.

BLACK LOYALISTS: OUR HISTORY, OUR PEOPLE (Canada’s Digital Collections Program)

“How Canada became the home of the first settlements of free blacks outside Africa.”  Has biographies of 18th century people and profiles of settlements of some of the 30,000 Black persons who escaped to British lines during the American Revolution.

RESOURCES RELATING TO BLACK HISTORY AT THE ARCHIVES OF ONTARIO (Ontario Ministry of Public and Business Service Delivery)

Offers several online exhibits and other resources on Black history in the Province of Ontario.


About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.


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