The presence of Africans in Britain can be traced to when North African soldiers guarded a Roman fort in Burgh-by-Sands. The North African troops were known as the Aurelian Moors because they were named after Emperor Marcus Aurelius, according to Cumbria County History.
They were believed to have been enlisted from the Berber people of Mauretania, which is present-day Morocco and West Algeria. Their duty was to guard a fort stationed on Hadrian’s Wall at Burgh-By-Sands which the Romans called Aballava.
Historians believe the African soldiers resided there and with time began raising families in the region. Some also passed away and were buried there. In 1934, a Roman altar was found in a cottage near Beaumont, dedicated to Jupiter by the soldiers’ commander, Caelius Vibianus. The discovery showed how instrumental the African regiment was. It also showed that people of African origin who were living in Roman Britain were not just slaves.
Hadrian’s Wall, which divided Scotland from England in the second half of the third century, had a diversity of people including soldiers and civilians who had a linkage with the Roman Empire. The diversity can be seen in the names of the units that garrisoned the forts and other key installations in the enclave. Archaeologists also found elements of North African culture at the Wall. They found casserole pots and flat dishes for use on a brazier in styles reminiscent of North Africa, according to history. There is a tombstone credited to one Victor, an ex-slave who came from the same area of North-west Africa as the unit at Burgh-by-Sands.
Today, St Michael’s Church in Burgh-by-Sands, near Carlisle, is on the site of the third century Roman fort of Aballava. In 2016, a plaque was unveiled in the churchyard, which reads: “The first recorded African community in Britain guarded a Roman fort on this site. 3rd century AD.”
“This celebration of the first black community known of in Britain is witness to our inclusive, multi-cultural past, present and future,” the Revd Tudor Boddam-Whetham, Priest-in-Charge of St Michael’s, said at the time.
“Here at St Michael’s Church, all can worship Jesus, our creator and eternal King, who was born as a Jew to save people from 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.”