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Too Pure an Air for a Slave

by Alastair Curtis

Black Tudors

Miranda Kaufmann, Oneworld, 2017

Black and British

David Olusoga, Pan Macmillan, 2016

The year is 1511. King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon are celebrating the birth of their son, Henry Duke of Cornwall, with a spectacular jousting tournament, consisting of pageantry, excessive feasting and royal fanfare. Artists from the Royal College of Arms are in attendance, recording the lavish proceedings; they have been commissioned to immortalise the events in the form of a 60-foot-long illuminated tapestry, the famous ‘Westminster Tournament Roll’. Amid the painted throng of soldiers, noblemen and courtiers on horseback, the court trumpeter John Blanke stands out. Dark-skinned and turbaned, Blanke is a ‘Black Tudor’; his image, small but exquisitely detailed, is considered to be the first visual representation of an African in Britain.

We know relatively little about Blanke’s life, although the shape and fold of his turban points to a North African or Andalusian heritage. It is likely he arrived in England from Spain in 1501, as part of Catherine of Aragon’s entourage of musicians, although we cannot know for certain if Blanke was among them; the records are scarce and incomplete at best. What is clear, however, is that Blanke occupied a privileged position at court. He appears to have lived comfortably in the King’s favour: in 1509, he successfully petitioned Henry for a wage increase, and started getting paid three times more than the average servant. A few years later, on the eve of Blanke’s marriage, Henry sent him a generous array of gifts, including an expensive violet-coloured cloak, hat and bonnet. Soon after, Blanke disappears from court records; his whereabouts after 1512 remain unknown.

Looking at Blanke’s portrait for the first time, then learning his story, ‘provokes a visceral reaction’, historian Miranda Kaufmann suggests, one of ‘surprise, followed closely by curiosity’. But why should the story of a black, relatively prosperous, well-respected courtier of the sixteenth century surprise us? ‘There’s this fantasy past where it’s all white—and it wasn’t. It’s ignorance’, Kaufmann explains. Blanke was certainly the most prominent African immigrant living in Tudor England, but he was by no means the only one. Africans were unexceptional: they have been traced to the courts of Mary I, Elizabeth I and James IV, where they were frequently employed as musicians, maids and courtiers, but they have also been located throughout Tudor England.

Kaufmann has spent years sifting through archival material in search of the 360 Africans known to have lived in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Details of their lives have been extracted from hundreds of parish registers, church records, tax returns and household accounts. Kaufmann began to compile and database these documents, for a long time hidden away in libraries and record offices across the country, while studying for her doctorate at Oxford on ‘Africans in Britain, 1500-1640’. They now form the bulk of her new book, Black Tudors. Kaufmann’s research offers a remarkable glimpse into the lives of England’s early African immigrants or ‘Black Tudors’, as she titles them. It is impossible to generalise about their experience in Tudor England. They have been discovered at nearly every level of society, from the extremely poor to the relatively well-off. While most made a home amongst the bustling streets and waterways of London, or the southern seaport towns of Plymouth, Southampton and Devon, Kaufmann has also unearthed baptism and burial records which locate Africans in towns and villages within Cornwall, Dorset, Kent and Cambridgeshire. These records date as far back as 1545, with the recorded burial of ‘Thomas Bull, niger’ in Eydon, a village in rural Northamptonshire. The picture these records paint is only partial: there is likely to have been hundreds more undocumented Africans living in England.

The existence of the Black Tudors unsettles the image of early modern England that has become fixed in the popular imagination: a mono-racial, mono-lingual, mono-cultural nation, consigned to the fringes of Europe. In Shakespeare’s Richard II, John of Gaunt celebrates this inward-looking version of England: ‘a precious stone set in the silver sea, / Which serves it in the office of a wall’, separating England’s ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ from the alien worlds on the other side of the sea. Yet, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the Golden Age of Discovery, a time of imperial ambition and fledgling colonial acquisition. While England struggled to compete with the Iberian superpowers and their predominance in the Americas, the nation nevertheless found itself at the heart of an increasingly interconnected world, with soaring levels of intercontinental migration. Throughout the Tudor period, a near-constant flow of African immigrants from Spain and Portugal were arriving on England’s shores, mixing with its people and setting up home: Gaunt’s isolationist and parochial conception of England never existed outside of popular myth.

Whether through complacency or willful neglect, the existence of the Black Tudors has gone largely unacknowledged by modern historians, who often assume that the presence of Africans in England began with the abolition of slavery, or later still, with the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948. Prominent scholars of African history such as Paul Hair were arguing as late as 1999 that ‘Black Africans were hardly at all known in England’ during the early modern period, ‘Anglo-African contacts being almost exclusively within Guinea’. So ‘it's quite a jolt’, Kaufmann explains, ‘to consider that there could have been Africans in the crowd gathered at [Tilbury] docks when Elizabeth I galvanised her troops to face the Spanish Armada’, nearly 360 years before the Windrush dropped anchor. Kaufmann’s aim in writing Black Tudors is to dispense with the collection of myths and misinformation which have obscured this important period in England’s history, returning these African immigrants to their rightful place in our national past by retelling their stories, long since forgotten. The existence of the Black Tudors was ‘common knowledge at the time’, she explains, ‘and it needs to become common knowledge again’.

Kaufmann tells the stories of ten African men and women in Black Tudors, including a Southwark silk-weaver named Reasonable Blackman; John Anthony, a mariner in the straits of Dover; and the high-class prostitute Anne Cobbie, who worked in a Westminster bawdy house. One of the most remarkable stories in Black Tudors is that of Cattelena, a young woman living independently in the village of Almondsbury, in rural Gloucestershire. For the most part, the details of Cattelena’s life went unrecorded, even her surname remains unknown — all we have to testify to her existence is an inventory of goods, compiled after her death in May 1625. Yet this modest list of homewares, including ‘one bed’, ‘four little pots’ and ‘one dozen of spoons’, is enough to assist Kaufmann in sketching the broad outlines of Cattelena’s life. Although she was relatively poor, the milk and cheese produced by her cow, the single most valuable possession included in the inventory, would have furnished Cattelena with just enough money to get by. In this respect, she lived a life not so different from her rural neighbours, who toiled away, day in and day out, with little to show for it and little to call their own. Her small-scale, countryside existence may be far removed from the splendour and publicity of John Blanke’s court life, but her story reveals how the Black Tudors were woven into the fabric of ordinary English life. The image of Cattelena pasturing her cow on the village green, in sight and view of her white neighbours, powerfully dismantles the version of Tudor history that we have come to expect, though Kaufmann argues that this would have been an unremarkable, even familiar sight within early modern England’s nascent multi-ethnic society.

A man named Edward Swarthye also lived in Gloucestershire; he may even have known Cattelena. Swarthye joined the household of the naval captain Sir Edward Wynter as a porter. Far from demeaning drudgery, this was a relatively powerful position, both carrying responsibility and commanding respect: when politicians, aristocrats and diplomats arrived at White Cross Manor, Swarthye would have been the first to welcome them over the threshold. It is impossible to know how visitors to White Cross Manor reacted to the sight of this Black Tudor at the front door. While the Tudors could be racist and xenophobic on occasion, Kaufmann argues that the they were ‘far more likely to judge a new acquaintance by his or her social class, than by where they were born or the colour of their skin’. Such was the case when the servant John Guye was publicly whipped by Swarthye outside White Cross Manor in 1596, on the orders of Sir Wynter. We are accustomed to the image of a white master whipping his black slave, but the sight of a white Englishman being whipped by a Black Tudor belongs to a ‘time before racism became a dominant prejudice in English society’. Guye’s whipping scandalised local society, but not because of Swarthye's race: Kaufmann argues that the cause for concern was that Swarthye was ranked lower in the household hierarchy than Guye, the steward.

Black Tudors draws on these stories and on others as compelling examples of lives which fall outside the limits of our current, narrow understanding of this historical period – like that of Diego, a shipman aboard Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde as it completed its circumnavigation of the globe, and of Mary Filis, a Moroccan seamstress living in Aldgate. These vivid, carefully constructed portraits challenge the assumptions we often make about England’s past and the place of Africans within it. The fact that the Black Tudors were accepted and acknowledged as English citizens, as opposed to being alienated as outcasts, strangers or chattel, inevitably ‘forces us to question whether the development of racial slavery in the English colonies was inevitable’, as Kaufmann suggests.

Britain would tear over three million Africans from their homelands during the next three centuries, but there were few signs of this impending trauma within Tudor England. Several slaving voyages had set sail in the 1560s, captained by the merchant Sir John Hawkins, which shipped over 1,500 Africans across the Atlantic to America. For the most part, these voyages proved costly and troublesome, especially since England did not yet have any New World colonies of its own, so the business was shelved and the trade triangle lacked its apex. Within Tudor England itself, slavery remained illegal: it was widely believed that the country ‘was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in’. Many writers were proud that England had resisted slavery, even as the trade took off across mainland Europe. The clergyman and chronicler William Harrison wrote in his 1577 Description of England that:

As for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay, such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes, that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become as free in condition as their masters, whereby all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them.

The majority of African migrants were employed as domestic servants, though none of them suffered anything resembling ‘servile bondage’. In fact, Kaufmann has found that many black servants eventually became financially independent, including Henry Jetto, a gardener at Holt Castle in Worcester, who accrued enough money to set up his own home in 1608. When Jetto died in 1627, he became the first known African to leave a will bequeathing legacies to his children. England’s liberal outlook extended to those African immigrants enslaved abroad, who were freed when they arrived in England. Such was the story of Jacques Francis, a 20-year-old salvage diver owned by a Venetian merchant, who was employed by the English to retrieve weaponry from the wreck of the mighty Mary Rose, the 400-ton Tudor flagship which had sunk in the Solent in 1545.

Perhaps the most resounding proof of the social integration of the Black Tudors comes from the parish register, the very reason we know about so many of the Black Tudors in the first place. England was an ardently Protestant nation, so baptism and marriage constituted a ‘public indicator of full participation in post-Reformation society’, as well as their acceptance by the community in which they lived. The fact that the Black Tudors were accepted and acknowledged as English citizens, then, only makes their complete erasure from our history books more difficult to explain.

This erasure was fuelled, in part, by a couple of licenses issued by Elizabeth I’s Privy Council in 1595 and 1601, which warranted the expulsion of the ‘blackamoors here in this realm’. Prominent historians like Peter Fryer have treated these licenses as unequivocal proof that African immigrants were denied the opportunity to settle in England. In Staying Power (1984), his landmark history of black people in Britain, Fryer argued that the licences were designed to expel all Africans and were telling evidence of Elizabeth’s ‘disapproval of the presence of black people’ in her realm. The reality was rather different: these licenses, issued to a German merchant named Caspar van Senden, were more restricted in their scope, ruling that individuals could only be removed from England with the consent of their employers. Van Senden was never able to obtain this consent, although not for lack of trying. The evidence presented by Kaufmann also suggests no concrete steps were taken to expel the Africans who had started to work, marry and raise families on English soil; and the black community in England seems to have flourished in spite of the lingering threat of deportation. The paucity of historical documents has occasionally meant historians have had to resort to Tudor drama and travel writing in order to reconstruct early modern attitudes to race, even though this writing represents Africans in a way that is stereotyped and inaccurate. The travel writing of the English colonial adventurer Richard Hakluyt, such as Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1598), takes considerable creative license when describing Africa's inhabitants, rehearsing far-fetched tales of the dog-headed men, cyclopses and cannibals which he claims to run amok on the continent. Hakluyt reinforced an image of Africans that was exotic, grotesque, alien, and at odds with the mundane reality of the lives of Swarthye or Cattelena, much closer to home. Yet for a long time, Principal Navigations provided one of the only ways for modern historians to understand how Africans were perceived, at home and abroad.

Shakespeare’s Othello is another text which routinely surfaces in any discussion of race in Tudor England. Othello is variously called ‘a black devil’, ‘thick-lips’, ‘sooty’ and ‘begrimed’ and modern audiences often presume that Black Tudors must have suffered the same racial stereotyping. The play’s most recent New Cambridge editor similarly used the play’s displeasure at Othello and Desdemona’s interracial relationship to argue that ‘miscegenation was a highly-charged emotional issue’ for the ‘insular theatregoers of Jacobean England’. But Tudor England was neither racist nor insular; parish registers offer plenty of evidence for unproblematic mixed-race marriages and long-term interracial relationships. Othello is a work of fiction, designed to entertain and enthrall: by construing Shakespeare’s play as fact, modern historians have obscured the history of the Black Tudors.

The misrepresentation of England’s racial past has also been politically motivated. The course of historical events has been rewritten by those in whose interest it is to deny the presence of Africans within our national history and their integration into early modern England. The late seventeenth century witnessed the establishment of the first English settlements in the Americas and a burgeoning demand for slave labour: by the late 1660s, over 17,000 Africans had been enslaved and shipped to the New World. England’s multi-ethnic history was rapidly, as well as conveniently, swept under the carpet, in an act of wholesale historical amnesia. The growing slave trade was also buttressed by an emergent racist narrative, which ruled that race relations had always been governed by innate inequality – of the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the white and the black. Early modern England was consequently robbed of part of its history and much of its colour. John Blanke and Cattelena were excised from our national history. The whitewashed and spurious history we have inherited was forged by generations of racist thinkers, seeking to justify, and later to forget and conceal, the abominations of 400 years of African slavery.

The Conservative MP Enoch Powell was especially attracted to the image of early modern England, not the version depicted in Kaufmann’s Black Tudors, but its bogus mirror-image: white, insular and nationalist. In a speech delivered on St George’s Day in 1961, seven years before his notorious anti-immigrant ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Powell wheeled out Tudor England as an exemplary moment in our national history, when the country was most faithful to what he considered England’s essential character. In his mind, early modern England was a prelapsarian time before the country began to amass territories in the Americas and the East Indies, and before hundreds of thousands of immigrants began to leave these colonies and arrive in England in search of a new home:

Backwards travels our gaze, beyond the grenadiers and the philosophers of the eighteenth century, beyond the pikemen and the preachers of the seventeenth, back through the brash adventurous days of the first Elizabeth and the hard materialism of the Tudors and there at last we find [our English ancestors].

Powell was an enthusiastic advocate of the British Empire, but now that the Union flag was being lowered around the world he began looking ‘backwards’, rather than outwards. Powell proposed that England must ‘come home again from years of distant wandering’ so as to ‘discover affinities with earlier generations of English who felt no country but this to be their own’. He believed, and hoped to convince others, that these so-called ‘earlier generations of English’ were white, mono-lingual, born and bred on English soil. Mid-twentieth-century England, whose population was being fed by increasing numbers of black immigrants from Africa and the East Indies, looked very different to the myopic version of sixteenth-century England he had dreamt up. Powell’s delusional speech, coming just a few years after the violent Notting Hill race riots, served to further ostracise Britain’s black community, by scrubbing them out of British history.

The historian John Tosh argues in The Pursuit of History that the ‘sanction of the past’ can be ‘sought by those committed to upholding authority’ as well as ‘those intent on subverting it’. History can be malleable and open to interpretation: Powell could distort British history to serve his own racist ends in the 1970s, then Britain’s black community could also stake its claim on Britain’s past, powerfully overturning Powell’s propagandist version of history, as an act of self-assertion and self-determination. This is the aim of Black and British, a bold new book from the broadcaster and historian David Olusoga, which serves as an ‘uncovering of black British history’. The book charts the continuous African presence in England, collecting the moments when black people were front and centre in our national history, from a centuries-old inscription in Hadrian’s Wall by a unit of ‘Aurelian Moors’, through to Tudor England, to the Battle of Trafalgar and onwards to the First and Second World Wars, before culminating in the Windrush’s arrival.

Britain’s multi-racial past possesses a personal and political importance for Olusoga, who grew up on an all-white council estate in Newcastle in the 1970s, at the height of racial tensions in Britain, when politicians were openly advocating programmes of repatriation for black immigrants, and when riots were routinely unleashed on the streets of London, Bristol and Liverpool. In Black and British, Olusoga reflects on how ‘many non-white people felt that while it was possible to be in Britain, it was much harder to be of Britain.’ This idea of Britishness has everything to do with how we construct our history. For a long time, Olusoga thought to be ‘of Britain’ was to identify with the chimeric white Tudor past peddled by Powell and his racist ilk. When the young Olusoga found that he was part of a longer history that extended as far back as the Afro-Romans, it was as if the prevailing narrow definition of Britishness had opened up to find a place for him too. ‘Black history became critical to the generation whom Powell could not bring himself to see as British’, Olusoga explains. Scouring the volumes of Black British History that flowered in the 1980s, like Fryer’s Staying Power (‘the first book I ever bought for myself with my own money’, Olusoga says) and stumbling across individuals like John Blanke, as well as more familiar faces, such as Francis Barber, Samuel Johnson’s Jamaican manservant and residual heir, or the famous abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, was a ‘profound experience’. For Olusoga, it meant he could root himself in British history, and therefore in Britain.

Both Kaufmann and Olusoga are engaged in a process of ‘historical salvage’, exhuming the forgotten and suppressed episodes in British history in which black people played an active part. This salvage operation is timely and vital because there still remains an obstinate resistance towards Britain’s black history and its assimilation into so-called mainstream history. Blanke, Barber, Equiano and many others are still restricted to a ‘segregated and ghettoised narrative’, which ‘runs in its own shallow channel alongside the mainstream, only very occasionally becoming a tributary into that broader narrative’. This demarcation is reproduced and policed in our history books, our school lessons and our popular culture. Last year, the classicist Mary Beard suffered virulent abuse for apparently ‘rewriting history’ by defending the historical authenticity of a BBC educational video which depicted a black British Roman. It is not Beard who is rewriting history, but films like Christopher Nolan’s vast, all-white, Oscar-nominated war film Dunkirk, which omitted the Royal Indian Army Services Corp Personnel and the hundreds of East African soldiers who served alongside the British army at Dunkirk. By reproducing the narrative of a whitewashed British history, contemporary culture is complicit in the marginalisation and racism faced by black people within modern society: a willingness to shut black men and women out of our national history clearly points to a discomfort with their presence in contemporary British society.

Even more disturbing is the extent to which Britain’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade has been masked. Olusoga vividly details the history of 40 slave fortresses built by the English on West Africa’s coast in the seventeenth century, where Africans were bought, sold, processed and violently branded with the initials of King Charles II: most people are unaware these fortresses existed, let alone that they remain there today, as decaying relics of Britain’s blood-stained legacy of colonial savagery and slaughter. This collective amnesia afflicts much of our national history, which has been wiped clean of all of its associations with slavery. While the most prominent image associated with the Industrial Revolution are of Victorian mill workers living in squalor and filth, it is a little-known fact that the mills of Lancashire and Liverpool were using cotton farmed by African slaves across the Atlantic, in the Deep South and the Mississippi Valley. The horrors of Southern plantations are familiar to us, depicted in the TV series Roots, or Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years A Slave, but the story of Britain’s role as an architect of the slave trade remains largely untold.

History is ineluctably connected with the notion of identity, both individual and societal. Black Tudors and Black and British aim to complete the picture: reintegrating black people into the epic sweep of our national history, and thereby exploding and reconstructing notions of ‘Britishness’. This is especially important in modern and multicultural Britain, with its unprecedented levels of black migration and racial mixing: census data recorded between 2001 and 2011 shows that the British African population has doubled in the last ten years, while Britain’s fastest-growing ethnic group is people who are racially mixed, a figure which outruns the rest of Europe. The consequence of this is profound and far-reaching: ‘the barriers between black and white… the divisions between so-called black history and so-called mainstream British history’ have become untenable. Olusoga describes how the phrase ‘Black British’, familiar to us all now, once spoke of ‘an impossible duality’: ‘“black” meant “other”, and “black” was unquestionably the opposite of “British”’. The stories that are being resurrected by Kaufmann and Olusoga are proving that the terms ‘Black’ and ‘British’ have co-existed, struggled, survived and lived peaceably in our history for millennia – and will do some to come, if we follow the precedent set by these once-forgotten histories.

ALATAIR CURTIS reads English at University College. He writes comedies because his degree is not enough of a joke as it is.

Art by George Wilson


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