The Society's seal and three photographs

African Lives in Northern England

Aballava (Burgh by Sands)

A unit of Mauretanians (from present-day Morocco and Algeria) was stationed here for a period around AD 258, according to the inscription on an altar found nearby in 1934. The fifth-century Notitia Dignitatum, a list of senior officers throughout the Roman Empire, calls the local commander 'Prefect of Aurelius' Own Moors'. The fort's name means 'apple' but perhaps rather refers to an 'orchard' (Breeze, pp. 36 and 350-54).

Little of the fort is now visible. St Michael's Church is situated in the south-east corner, and is partly built of Roman stones. The village's other claim to fame is that Edward I died here in 1307, while waiting to cross the Solway Firth into Scotland. It was probably the fact that there was a feasible crossing here that led to the original siting of the fort.

The first episode of the 2016 TV programme, Black and British, began with an aerial camera-shot of Hadrian's Wall, highlighting the fact that there may well have been other similar units of whom we know nothing. This was followed by a small ceremony to instal the plaque featured on the January page of the calendar on the wall of the church. As Beverley Prevatt-Goldstein, one of the participants, put it in a recent article in our News Bulletin (September 2020, p 3),

We touched these stones with awe. Silenced by the momentousness of the occasion, we engaged only briefly with David Olusoga and the TV cameras. The phrase on our demonstrations ‘We are here because you were there’ could now be supplemented by ‘we have always been here’. No longer, at best, permanent guests, but part of this soil.  This powerful feeling was endorsed by one of our hosts who responded to the comment on how long her family had been in this village with ‘Your DNA has been here even longer’

Humphrey Welfare, Chair of the Hadrian's Wall World Heritage Site Partnership Board, explained the settlement that would have grown up around the fort with families of the African soldiers and local women. There was a solemn moment with the unveiling of a commemorative plaque.  But the abiding memory was of connection with our history, with a piece of English soil and with our wonderful hosts.

An additional link between Northern England and the African continent comes with the Libyan-born Emperor Septimius Severus, who spent three years campaigning on Hadrian's Wall in 208-10. According to the Historia Augusta, at a religious ceremony near Carlisle the emperor was mocked by an 'Ethiopian' soldier who had probably come with him to Britain. While the Historia is regarded by many scholars as 'fictional history', the respected Roman scholar Anthony Birley was inclined to accept the story (Fryer, 2018, p 1).


In the future, don’t forget your past