Expelled: The medieval roots of British antisemitism
There are records of Jewish people living in England going back to around 1066, after William the Conqueror invaded and seized power in England. Jewish merchants from Rouen, Normandy — in modern-day France — were invited to live in England by the king to bring financial skills and capital to the country, as well as to provide money lending services, which Christians were not allowed to do.
Jewish people were considered servants of the king and while they did not have the same rights as Christian people, they enjoyed the protection of the monarch well into the late 12th century, when Henry II was king. But as Jews grew wealthier, antisemitism was also growing. In the mid-12th century, “blood libel” — false allegations that Jewish people were killing Christian children for use in religious rituals — emerged, making antisemitism worse.
As the historian Geraldine Heng writes, “English church and state laws produced surveillance, tagging, herding, incarceration, legal murder, and finally, the expulsion of English Jews.” There were several massacres of the Jewish population, and in 1290, under King Edward I, Jews were expelled from England altogether.
Gervase Phillips:Principal Lecturer in History, Manchester Metropolitan University
“There is a legacy from the Medieval period to modern antisemitism. There was a sense of an essence passed from generation to generation, a proto-racial idea. Much of the stereotyping, the iconography and even the way that Jews are portrayed — there seems to be a direct link to the pre-modern treatment of Jews to modern antisemitism.”
“You don’t even need a physical presence — there wasn’t a physical Jewish presence in England after the expulsion until Oliver Cromwell’s reign in the 17th century. They were also expelled from Spain in the 1400s and yet prejudice lingered even when there were no Jews there.”
“Antisemitism isn’t really about what actual Jews do — it’s a rhetorical strategy, a useful device to sort of express your hatred and frustration to something. It is a weapon that fulfils all purposes even if they are not there.”
Queen Elizabeth I uses racist language to talk about Black people
Letters from Queen Elizabeth I provide some of the world’s oldest written examples of the use of racist language against Black people. They were written as a merchant from Lübeck in Germany, named Casper van Senden, tried to convince the Queen to order the deportation of dozens of Black people from England in exchange for English prisoners of the Anglo-Spanish war. Van Senden had already brought back 89 English prisoners from Spain and ultimately requested that 89 Black people be sent to Spain in return, possibly for his own personal financial or political gain.
It’s not clear if the Queen ever actually deported any Black people from the country — a proclamation of hers giving such an order appears to have remained in draft form — but in 1596 she wrote to the lord mayor of London, complaining that there were too many Black people in the country.
“Her Majestie understanding that there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie,” she wrote, adding that Black people had taken jobs from her own “liege” people.
In a later letter to the lord mayor and other officials, she asked that 89 Black people be given up by their “masters” in what she said would be a "very good exchange,” seeing as Black people were ”so populous” in the country.
And in 1601, she wrote a draft proclamation in which she complained there were a “great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which … are crept into this realm,” adding that they were “infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel.”
The Queen had earlier, in the 1560s, sponsored the sea journeys of the British slave trader John Hawkins, who established a particularly brutal and violent practice of capturing Africans to be sold as slaves.
She provided Hawkins ships and supplies, including guns, and awarded him a coat of arms bearing the image of a bound slave.
Emily C. Bartels:Professor of English at Rutgers University
“This word blackmoores is kind of a combination of two distinct groups of people, and the words that are used to describe distinctive African communities are getting layered over with a kind of color coding, which is insidious.”
“What else is so insidious about this, is that even though this starts out as a local prisoner exchange, look at how quickly it lays the ground to something that sounds like what you would call institutionalized racism. These are already racist, or racially loaded acts. Why is it that you were deporting Black subjects? Why are you not exchanging Spanish prisoners for the English? Why is it you believe you can target that population for deportation and not another?”
“It’s probably because Black people are in some form of service to the English. So there's an economics going on here. You see other instances, not just coming from Queen Elizabeth, but when things look tough economically, you target a foreign population. It's the argument that these folks are taking our jobs.”
“And once you feed institutional racism by producing vocabulary that validates racism — in the way Queen Elizabeth distinguished blackmoores from her own ‘liege’ people — you've drawn a line between people, and the ways racism manifests itself, verbally in particular, start changing.”
Barbados Slave Code: A British colony becomes the first to codify slavery
In 1661, parliament in the British colony of Barbados passed two separate labor acts. One was called the “Act for the Good Governing of Servants, and Ordering the Rights Between Masters and Servants,” which generally applied to White workers, primarily indentured Irish servants. The other was called the “Act for the Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes,” now more commonly known as the Barbados Slave Code.
The legislation made it legal for employers to treat enslaved Africans as chattel, or the personal property of their “masters.” Most slaves were employed in the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean island, carrying out manual labor or domestic work. The laws sought to quell rebellion and to institutionalize a racial hierarchy that made clear Black slaves were inferior. It also sought to divide communities of Irish and Black people, who sometimes united in uprisings. The codes were used as a model for many other slavery laws around the world, particularly in the Americas.
Edward Rugemer:Associate Professor of African American Studies & History at Yale University
“These differing labor codes are an early expression of racial difference. It's really one of the first iterations of racial difference in law, which becomes important to the shaping of the British Empire. Because this slave code becomes the model for others in the rest of the British Caribbean, as well as in North America.”
“There is a process of legal borrowing here from colony to colony, as each establishes the practice of enslaving Africans, as part of that racial ideology — the assertion of White superiority, the assertion that Black people are somehow inferior — all those ideas that are very much still with us are codified during this process.”
“White plantation owners and the British elite certainly saw Black people as inferior, and as a society, we haven't gotten rid of that sentiment at all. I don't think it's as widely held, but there’s certainly many people who believe in White supremacy, both in the UK and in the United States. And we see how institutionalized racism continues today.”
1801 - 1900
The so-called ‘golden age’ of the expanding British Empire
Britain had been building its empire in earnest since the 16th century, but it was in the 19th century that it rapidly expanded and eventually became the largest in the world. In Asia, it added Singapore, Burma (Myanmar) and Hong Kong to its empire, and in Africa, it added Sierra Leone, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Egypt and British East Africa (Kenya). Britain also consolidated its powers in older colonies, like India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. This time, mostly during the reign of Queen Victoria, is still referred to by some historians as the “golden age” of the British Empire. It was said that “the sun never sets” on the empire, because it spanned so much of the world.
Pride associated with empire is deeply entrenched in the collective British psyche. It was a time that is still celebrated by some as an example of British excellence and superiority, but there is a growing acknowledgement that it was also a time of deep racism, exploitation and abuse.
Deadly conflict almost always came with the British invasion of new lands.
Aboriginal people had lived in Australia for more than 65,000 years when the British invaded in 1788. They shot dead groups of Indigenous people who approached them, dispossessed much of their land and introduced new diseases, like smallpox. As a result, the Indigenous population of around 750,000 people was reduced by an estimated 90% in the 10 years after.
Today’s Australian states began as individual British colonies, and by the mid-1800s, Aboriginal children were being systematically removed from their families and placed into Christian schools, with the state claiming their custody. Many were forced to work on farms and as domestic servants from a young age. The government-sanctioned practice continued after federation in 1901 into the 1970s, leaving behind what became known as the Stolen Generations.
Indigenous groups in the country today continue to suffer ongoing inequalities, including in terms of incarceration and deaths in custody, and in health, education and employment levels.
Slavery is abolished, but it’s not former slaves who get compensated
The British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, outlawing slavery in most of its colonies around 270 years after it entered the transatlantic slave trade. It “freed” hundreds of thousands of African slaves in the Caribbean and South Africa, and a small number in Canada. But many former slaves continued to work as indentured servants or in “apprenticeship” schemes for low pay and under very poor conditions.
There were a lot of factors that led to the abolition of slavery. Owners of sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where many slaves worked, were worried about continued uprisings. They were also struggling to compete economically with other plantation nations, like Brazil and Cuba.
Abolitionists had been arguing against slavery since the late 18th century. Most genuinely opposed it, but some plantation owners and slaveholders joined the cause, understanding that ending slavery would line their pockets with compensation. And that’s exactly what happened. In 1837, the British government made £20 million in compensation available to slave owners. It may not sound like much in today’s terms, but it was the equivalent of 40% of the national budget and required one of the largest loans in history. The former slaves themselves got nothing.
In 2018, the UK’s Treasury posted on Twitter an image of slaves in yokes, tied together with ropes, bragging that British taxpayers had helped end slavery by paying off the enormous loan, using the hashtag #FridayFact. The Treasury quickly deleted the post after drawing anger and outrage from many users, some of whose ancestors had been slaves.
Olivette Otele:Distinguished Professor of the Legacies and Memory of Slavery at SOAS, University of London
“A lot has been said about the abolition, but not about the compensation — and this is quite crucial. Because you see a few former slave traders and people who owned plantations rallying to the abolitionist cause, little by little, as time went by. It was the case simply because they knew they were managing to convince parliament to compensate them. In 1837, you have the Compensation Act, and by that time, they knew that no matter what happens, they will receive an enormous amount of money.”
“You have a number of people who receive compensation, many of whom set up and are involved in setting up institutions. A lot of them were thinking about investing in infrastructure with that money. With the UCL Database, you can see where the money went, you can see that sometimes the money went even in North America, in setting up institutions, universities, from the British to America. Until probably the mid-19th century, even after, there was no shame about this. It wasn't a hidden history. A lot of them were also very proud of that money. They saw it as a sign of the entrepreneurial skills of their forefathers, and they saw no problem investing that money elsewhere.“
“People have made several calculations, and some have suggested that the 20 million pounds that were given to plantation owners altogether would be the equivalent in today's money of 17 billion pounds. It's a lot.”
The potato famine triggers a wave of Irish migration. And a backlash.
Ireland was formally part of the United Kingdom during the potato famine, an event that left around 1 million Irish people dead and displaced an estimated 1 million more, about a quarter of the entire population in total, many of whom fled to England, Scotland and Wales.
The role of Britain in the famine has been the subject of much debate. Many scholars argue it was the direct result of British colonialism, as the British introduced the potato crop to peasant areas and forced them into becoming capitalist, plantation-based economies highly dependent on the potato for subsistence. The British government was also accused of acting too slowly to respond to the famine. In 1997, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed regret over the role of leaders in London at the time, though he stopped short of making a full apology.
Prejudice against Irish people was widespread in the United Kingdom at this time, and sectarian violence grew. Discrimination was common — people with Irish accents or Irish names were often barred from jobs, public houses and employment opportunities. Historians say this tension only gave more fuel to the Irish independence movement.
Irish people in this period were often stereotyped as violent or as alcoholics. There were claims that Irish people were evolutionarily inferior to Anglo-Saxons and some English illustrators depicted ape-like images of Irish people.
Enda Delaney:Professor of Modern History at the University of Edinburgh
“In the 19th Century, there was a sense the English working class were being debased by all these Irish people, and therefore, this idea that we have to be careful about the effects of Irish immigration on society. And that view lingers on. The Irish are seen as a sort of unfortunate legacy of Britain's colonial relationship with Ireland.