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5 Fascinating Black People from Wales

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

In this week’s Wales blog, we look to the past but also to the present. In light of the current protests against police brutality across the US since the unlawful death of George Floyd, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, this week we are looking at the black population of Wales and the significant contributions that they’ve made over the years, both at home and abroad. Similar protests have occurred in Wales as well in recent days, with major demonstrations taking place in central Swansea, Cardiff's Bute Park and in front of the Senedd in Cardiff Bay.

As of the most recent national census, 0.6% of the Welsh population is black. That figure is unsurprisingly higher in the capital city of Cardiff due to his longer history of diverse immigration during industrial times, being 2.4%. Somewhat surprisingly, that figure is still quite low in the second biggest city, Swansea, where the percentage is only 0.3%. Wales has the smallest demographics of people of African or Caribbean heritage of any region of Britain. That percentage is far higher in England (3.5%), and in Scotland it is slightly higher than Wales at almost 1%.

Wales, and especially Cardiff, has a long tradition of black and ethnic minority communities going back to the 1800s. When Cardiff was one of the leading ports of the UK and the biggest coal-exporting port in the world, it was a haven of diverse communities and one of the most multi-ethnic areas of the UK. Due to the prevalence of jobs and opportunities in Cardiff at the time, working in shipyards, on railways, on canals, and on trading ships, people flooded into Cardiff from around the world, from Ireland, Norway (hence the Norweigian Church, of course), southern Europe, even the Middle East and Somalia, and settled in the Tiger Bay area (now Cardiff Bay). By the First World War there were people from over 50 different countries living fairly harmoniously in Tiger Bay. Descendants of these immigrant communities remain in Cardiff today, and the city is believed to have the biggest population of Somalia-descended people in the whole of the UK, with 10,000.

People from the Caribbean had been brought to Cardiff to work from as early as the 1880s already, and thousands more also made their way to Britain in the First World War to fight, with many entering work in the merchant navy or war industries, and again due to the Second World War. The Windrush generation is also responsible for a sizable proportion of Wales’ Afro-Caribbean community; those that had been born British subjects that arrived in the UK before 1973, (so named after the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants to the UK in 1948).

Wales’ black population has made huge contributions to society across the country. We have had politicians and diplomats of African and Caribbean descent, our national rugby and football teams have had black captains, and many have become leaders in areas such as education, entertainment and athletics. So, as usual, in no particular order, here are five influential or famous black Welsh people, who have either played sizeable roles in the country in some way, or made unique developments in their given field, and also have interesting stories. Unsurprisingly, Cardiff dominates among those mentioned...

1. John Ystumllyn

We start with one of the first black people to have lived in Wales, a man named John Ystumllyn, also known as Jac Du and Jack Black. He was brought to Wales back in the eighteenth century, and is believed to have been the first black person to have married a local woman.

As a boy of eight years of age, he was believed to have been captured in West Africa while playing by a stream, potentially in what is now Sierra Leone, which was a prominent location for slave-traders at the time. Alternatively, the young boy could have arrived in Wales from the West Indies, as the word India appears on the headstone of his grave, which is a listed monument today at St Cynhaearn's Church, Ynyscynhaiarn.

Following his abduction in the 1740s, he was brought to Ynyscynhaiarn, in Gwynedd, north Wales. He was taken to Plas Ystumllyn, to the home of the Wynne family and became a servant to the family, while still unable to speak a word of Welsh or English at the time. However, he would later learn to speak both languages and mainly worked as a gardener for the family, and additionally as a craftsman. He was even baptized by the Wynne family, either at Ynyscynhaiarn or the church at Criccieth.