Tag Archive | "Scotland"

As Good as Any Man: Scotland’s Black Tommy

Book Review by Marika Sherwood – BAASA

As good as any man - Scotlands black tiommyAs Good as Any Man: Scotland’s Black Tommy by Morag Miller, Roy Laycock, John Sadler, Rosie Serdiville, is in fact mainly by Arthur Roberts, the ‘Black Tommy’ . The manuscript was found some years ago and edited/contextualised by these four researchers from a museum. Roberts was on the Front line from 1917— and is an enthralling writer.

Morag Miller, Roy Laycock, John Sadler, Rosie Serdiville,
As Good as Any Man: Scotland’s Black Tommy (History Press, 190pp pbk, £9.99)

As Good as Any Man: Scotland’s Black Tommy

A box containing photographs, paintings, drawings and scripts was found in the attic of a house in

Glasgow in 2004. Thankfully one of the new owners was a university student who recognised the
possible value of the contents. So the box went to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers Association
Museum at Berwick-upon-Tweed, where researchers immediately began the work which is now this

Who was Arthur Roberts?

The ‘Black Tommy’ was Bristol-born Arthur Roberts, whose ‘Afro-Caribbean father worked as a ship’s
steward’. His mother, Laura Dann, was a ‘West Country lass’. At an unknown date the family moved
to Glasgow where Arthur went to school and then worked as a marine engineer until he volunteered
for the army in 1917, aged 20. The materials in the box are all about his first year in the army,
initially in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, then the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers.

The daily diary he kept formed the basis for the account Roberts then wrote of that year.
This book is a compilation of background, including historical materials, and explanations by the researchers and wonderful excerpts from both the diary and the detailed, almost mesmerising accounts, as well as copies of some of his photographs and paintings. We do not know why he only described his first
army year. Of course, it is possible that he did not keep his accounts of his other years – he was
demobbed in December 1919. But why would he have destroyed these? Or not written them?

As the researchers comment, Roberts says virtually nothing about his experiences as a Black man.
Even if he was fairly light-skinned – which the portraits show he was – he must have encountered
racism in the many forms then practised, including by the military. Sadly, as he died in 1982, we
cannot ask him. Nor are there any clues in the often very detailed descriptions of daily life in and out
of the trenches. Is it possible that he tried to get his book published, including his photographs and
paintings, but no publisher accepted a book by a Black man? As in his account he often addresses
‘dear reader’, this might be correct. It should certainly have been published!

So if you want an enthralling description of military life on the Western Front, read this brief book. It will acquaint you with the tiredness / exhaustion on the marches and the boredom when behind the
Lines; regular bombardments when on the Front Line, sometimes with bodies literally ‘littering’ the
trenches making it difficult to walk along without stepping on them; the frequent lack of suitable
clothing, of food, of dry places to sleep; the regular daily handouts of rum and the issue of
cigarettes; dances and concerts to entertain the men awaiting move to the Front Line; the
importance of letters and parcels from home; how fortnightly pay (often late) is spent in local
cinemas, cafes, etc when you awaiting being moved to the Front Line; then there are the gas attacks!

Roberts also mentions some friends in his Battalion.
There are many comments by Roberts on the social class differences – eg officers have servants, and
travel in coaches while the men in the ranks are piled into ‘animal trucks’ when being moved by rail.
In the trenches, there are special ‘dug-outs’ for them.

In his description of his demobilisation, Roberts writes,: ‘Best of all I was now as good as any officer
regimental sergeant major, or in fact any non-com that ever wore the king’s uniform’. Does this refer
to social class as well as racial issues?

The book ends with a summary of the little the researchers managed to find about Roberts’ post-war
life – the completion of his apprenticeship, his wife, his sister, his father who had returned to the
West Indies, the Care Home in which he died on 15 January 1982. Roberts was a gifted writer,
painter, photographer. The researchers do him justice. Do read this book, even though it tells us
nothing about how a Black soldier was treated by the Scottish military.

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Andrew Watson – Black Scottish Footballer


Andrew Watson was the perhaps, world’s first black international football player, capped three times for Scotland between 1881 and 1882 and considered as one of the top ten most important players of the 19th century.Andrew Watson (born May 1857, Demerara, British Guiana; died in Sydney, Australia, date unknown) was the world’s first black international football player, capped three times for Scotland between 1881 and 1882 and considered as one of the top ten most important players of the 19th century.

He was the son of a wealthy Scottish sugar planter Peter Miller and a local girl Rose Watson. At the age of 14, he was schooled at the exclusive King’s College London, where school records show he excelled at sports including football. He later studied philosophy, mathematics and engineering at University of Glasgow when he was 19, where his natural love of football blossomed.

After first playing for Maxwell F.C., in 1876 he signed for local side Parkgrove F.C. where he was additionally their match secretary, making Watson football’s first black administrator. After marrying in Glasgow, he soon signed for Queen’s Park F.C. – then Britain’s biggest football team – and later became their secretary. He led the team to several Scottish Cup wins, thus becoming the first black player to win a major competition.

Black Scottish Footballer

Soon Watson won three international caps for Scotland including captaining them to a 6-1 victory against England on March 12, 1881, making him the first black international player and captain.

In 1882, he was the first black player to play in the FA Cup when he turned out for London Swifts F.C.. In 1884 he was the first foreign player to be invited to join the most exclusive of football teams, a team that only allowed only 50 members of high elite to join – Corinthians F.C. – created to challenge the supremacy of Queen’s Park and the Scottish national side.

Andrew Watson - Scotland Footballer

Andrew Watson – Scotland Footballer

It had been maintained that the first black footballer was Arthur Wharton, until it was only recently noted that Watson pre-dates him by 11 years. One reasons is that when historians consider black footballers, they tend to concentrate on professionals and not amateurs such as Watson. Another is that there are no known written records or match reports that mention the colour of Watson’s skin. One match report is more interested in that Watson played in unusual brown boots rather than the customary black boots of that time.

The colour of his skin was of no significance to his peers and there is no historical record of racism on the part of the Scottish Football Association. As written in the minutes, before one match where Watson was injured and unable to play, an SFA vice-president said if Watson had been fit he would have happily drugged a fellow Scottish international to give Watson his place.

Watson’s entry in the Scottish Football Association Annual of 1880-81 reads as follows:

“Watson, Andrew: One of the very best backs we have; since joining Queen’s Park has made rapid strides to the front as a player; has great speed and tackles splendidly; powerful and sure kick; well worthy of a place in any representative team.”

There is almost no record of his later life; however, it is known that Watson later emigrated to Australia, as he died in Sydney and is buried there.


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Giles Heron – Footballer

Giles Heron

Giles Heron

Giles Heron became the first Afro-Caribbean player to play first team football for Celtic.

Heron scored on his debut, a 2-1 win against Morton during the 1951-52 season and was quickly bestowed the nicknames “Black Flash” and “Black Arrow”.

Giles Heron became the first Afro-Caribbean player to play first team football for Celtic.

Heron scored on his debut, a 2-1 win against Morton during the 1951-52 season and was quickly bestowed the nicknames “Black Flash” and “Black Arrow”.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1922, Heron played as centre forward for the Jamaican national team as well as playing for the American club side Detroit Corinthians. On a North American tour he was spotted by a Celtic scout and later signed for the Glasgow club in 1951.

At a time when Scottish football was notable for its physical nature, Heron soon struggled – as one local newspaper put it: “lacking resource when challenged.”

The writer Phil Vasili notes that Heron was criticised in Glasgow for “being unable to transfer his pugilistic tenacity” (Heron had previously been both an athlete and a boxer). He was released barely a year later and signed for Third Division Lanark.

Heron also played for Kidderminster Harriers before returning to play for his original club, the Detroit Corinthians, where his son, the acclaimed Jazz musician and poet Gil Scott Heron, was born in 1949.

Shortly before Giles Heron’s son visited Scotland to promote his new book “The Last Holiday,” a local journalist asked about his father’s experiences of playing football in Glasgow.

Despite Heron’s relatively brief spell at Celtic, it is apparent that Giles Heron Jnr still retains fond memories of his time in Scotland. “My father still keeps up with what Celtic are doing. You Scottish folk always mention that my Dad played for Celtic,” said Scott-Heron, “it’s a blessing from the spirits! Like that’s two things that Scottish folks love the most; music and football and they got one representative from each of those from my family!”

It has become a tradition of studious Gil Scott-Heron fans to show up at his Glasgow shows in the green and white hooped shirt of Celtic. “There you go again,” said Gil Scott-Heron jokingly, “once again overshadowed by a parent!”.

Mike Lee, November 2001



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Joseph Knight – Escaped Slave

Slave auction

Slave auction

Joseph Knight was  born in Africa, and taken as a slave to Jamaica.  He was sold to a Scottish landowner. He was taken to Scotland in 1769. Three years later a ruling in England (see Somersett’s Case) cast doubt on the legality of slavery under the common law. Assuming this applied to the rest of Britain he demanded wages from his owner, John Wedderburn of Ballendean, and ran away when this was refused. When Wedderburn had him arrested, Knight brought a case before the justices of the peace court in Perth.
When the justices of the peace found in favour of Wedderburn, Knight appealed to the Sheriff of Perth, who found that “the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof: That the regulations in Jamaica, concerning slaves, do not extend to this kingdom”.
In 1777 Wedderburn in turn appealed to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland’s supreme civil court, arguing that Knight still owed perpetual service, in the same manner as an indentured servant or an apprenticed artisan. The case was important enough that it was given a full panel of judges including Lord Kames the important legal and social historian.
The case for Knight was helped in preparation by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. Their argument was that ‘no man is by nature the property of another”.

Since there was no proof that Knight had given up his natural freedom, he should be set free.

Lord Kames said “we sit here to enforce right not to enforce wrong” and the court emphatically rejected Wedderburn’s appeal, ruling that “the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negros’ service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701, c.6. from being sent out of the country against his consent.”

In effect, slavery was not recognised by Scots law and runaway slaves (or perpetual servants) could be protected by the courts, if they wished to leave domestic service or were resisting attempts to return them to slavery in the colonies.
There is a novel based on Joseph Knight:
Robertson, James (2004). Joseph Knight. Fourth Estate Ltd. ISBN 0-00-715025-3.

Related Articles
Scottish Corpus – Joseph Knight
Search.com – Joseph Knight
Scotland Slavery – Joseph Knight

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