THIS weekend sees the launch of Wales Black History Month - a celebratory programme of events which engages, educates and empowers individuals, community groups and Wales-wide communities in acknowledging and recognising the contributions that the African Diaspora has made in the history of Wales’ economic and cultural development.

While it might not seem obvious, the connections between North East Wales and Africa go back as far as the

Romans, who brought their own slaves with them - slaves from nations across the Roman Empire in Europe, North Africa

and the Middle East.

In the 17th century, the French, Dutch and British began to create colonies in North America and the Caribbean. They

exported people from Africa to work on plantations too. Although the British were late starters, they soon became one of the dominant slaving nations with the rapid growth of industry in Wales during the eighteenth century, in many cases, paid for by profits from slavery in the West Indies and the Americas.

One such place is Acton Park in Wrexham, which was home to the Cunliffe family until the early 20th century. The Cunliffes made their money in 18th century Liverpool by operating a profitable trade in slaves, tobacco, sugar, rum and manufactured goods. Foster Cunliffe & Co. owned twenty-six ships, including four slave ships, working the Triangular trade between Africa, the West Indies, British North America and Britain.

Foster Cunliffe’s grandson, Sir Foster, used the family wealth to buy Acton Park and estate. While willing to spend money on extending the house, building the Four Dogs gateway on Chester Road and his archery parties, Sir Foster was less willing to acknowledge the source of his family’s prosperity.

Industry in 18th century Wales continued to gain new markets because of the slave trade. The copper works in Greenfield Valley, Holywell, produced manillas, which were used to buy slaves in Africa and the Pennants, a family from Flintshire who ran a very profitable plantation business in Jamaica, were able to spend the profits on developing the Penrhyn slate quarries and building Penrhyn Castle. Over in Bersham, the ironworks produced the sugar rolls that the plantation owners in the Caribbean needed to crush their sugar cane.

As a result of the links between North Wales and the slave trade, research has shown that black people begin to appear in Welsh parish registers from the 17th century onwards and by the 1770s it is thought that around 15,000 black people were living in Britain. Black people in Wales during this period were often servants to wealthy Welsh families.

Perhaps the most famous of these is 'John Meller's Coachboy', the subject of a famous painting which hangs in Erddig and is thought to depict a black horn player and servant of John Meller who lived at Erddig in the early 18th century.

The Erddig accounts for 1719 record a payment of £5 to 'the black' whilst a letter from the Rector of Marchwiel to John Meller in 1721 says 'I know no reason, if the Major (Meller's brother-in-law) send his Black to me today, but that he may be christen'd this morning.'

Recent research, however, suggests the coachboy's uniform dates from the late 18th century and it now seems likely the portrait was not painted in John Meller's time. The portrait was possibly acquired by Philip Yorke, a later owner of Erddig, to commemorate a particular servant who had stuck in the memories of local people.

It is unlikely we will ever know the real identity of John Meller's coachboy or how and why he came to be in Wrexham, what he thought about living and working here in Wales nearly three hundred years ago, and how local people reacted to possibly Wrexham's first African.

One woman who has made it her business to now about the region's historic links with Africa is historian Miranda Kaufman, who lives in Pontbylddyn in Flintshire.

Last year, Miranda published her first book, Black Tudors: The Untold Story, in which she uncovers the long-forgotten records – and remarkable stories – of Africans who lived in Tudor England.

The book was recently shortlisted for The Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2018, the British Academy’s prestigious international book prize, worth £25,000, and which rewards and celebrates the best works of non-fiction that have contributed to global cultural understanding and illuminate the interconnections and divisions that shape cultural identity worldwide.

"When we think of the history of North Wales, we think of medieval castles, of mining, of Victorian seaside resorts," said Miranda, who read History at Christ Church, Oxford. "In fact the area also has a fascinating black history, from African servants in Georgian gentry households, like John Ystumllyn, buried at Ynyscynhaearn in 1786, to the Africans who studied at Congo House, Colwyn Bay at the end of the 19th century and there is no doubt plenty more still to be discovered.

"On another level, this area is too close to Liverpool not to have links to slavery. North Wales families such as the Pennants of Penrhyn Castle made their money in Jamaica; while the Greenfield Valley factories made copper manillas for merchants to buy slaves with, and processed slave-picked cotton and in 1788 manufacturers at Greenfield petitioned Parliament not to abolish the slave trade, on which their livelihoods depended.

"North Wales is often overlooked by English scholars of Black British History, but, like the rest of the United Kingdom, it has its own stories to tell."

On Sunday September 30 from 2pm-6pm there will be the launch for Wales Black History Month in Wrexham at Ty Pawb on Market Street. There will be African dancing, hip-hop music and more. It is a free event and all are welcome to attend.

Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann is published by Oneworld.