Reviewed by Harriet
Most people probably think that the presence of black people in Britain began with the large influx of nearly 500 who came over from Jamaica in 1948 on the MV Empire Windrush. Before that, we may have a vague idea that the relatively small number of black people who appear in 18th century portraits as grooms or servants were associated in some way with slavery. However – something I wasn’t fully aware of – though slavery was rife in the British colonies, it was never legal in Britain itself. Miranda Kaufman’s fascinating new book turns all these received ideas on their heads. Here are the life stories of ten Africans who led useful, conventional lives among their white British neighbours in 16th and 17th-century England. They held responsible jobs, and were baptised, married and buried in churches. And these ten are only the tip of the iceberg, the only ones with traceable life stories of the 360 Africans who Kaufmann has tracked down through brief mentions in parish registers or tax returns.
At the Court of Henry VIII there was a trumpeter called John Blanke. His image appears in the 1511 manuscript known as the Westminster Roll, where he is shown twice with his fellow musicians celebrating a tournament at court, though he was certainly in England by 1507, when a payment of wages is recorded. We also know that he was married, probably to an Englishwoman, by 1512. After that, he disappears from the record, but Kaufmann suggests he may have married a widow and taken over her husband’s business.
Black musicians, usually from musical families, were not all that rare at this time, but they were of course performing a role that native-born Englishmen would also have been able to do. Not so with the second case history, that of Jacques Francis the Salvage Diver. Born in West Africa in 1520, he came to Europe at the age of eighteen and was employed by the King to do a job that few Englishmen could carry out. He was a skilled diver, in an era when hardly any sailors knew how to swim – it was thought unlucky. After the sinking of the Mary Rose, which had nearly £2000 worth of ordnance on board, Henry was determined to salvage all he could. The project was unsuccessful, and soon Francis’s Venetian master was in court, with Francis called to give evidence – the first recorded instance of a black man doing so. Subsequently he may have continued to live in Southampton or found an employer who wanted to make use of his special talents abroad.
Then we have Diego the Circumnavigator, one of three Africans who sailed with Francis Drake; Edward Swarthye the Porter, who, in an amazing instance of role-reversal, was ordered by his master Sir Edward Wynter to whip an untrustworthy white servant, indicating that he was seen as a responsible member of the household; and the charmingly-named Reasonable Blackman, who made a living as a silk weaver in Elizabethan Southwark. Silk weaving was a respected occupation at the time, and Blackman was able to support his (probably English) wife and three children comfortably.
The great majority of Africans in 17th century England were ‘conversions’ – baptised in the Christian church. Such was Mary Fillis, born in Morocco, who worked as a servant in the family of a wealthy merchant from the ridiculously early age of six or seven. Baptised in her teens, she would have become an active participant in parish life. Also baptised, though coming from a very different strata of society, was Dederi Jaquoah. An African Prince, he came to England on a trading mission in the early 1600s – by this time, many English merchants were exchanging goods with their counterparts in Africa. He spent two years in London, learned English, and then continued the profitable trading business back in Africa.
Jaquoah was relatively unusual in returning home, as it seems most Africans settled in England for the rest of their lives. This was easier for men than for women, and undoubtedly some black women ended up as prostitutes. This was certainly the case with Anne Cobbe, ‘the Tawny Moor with Soft Skin’, who has been put forward as a candidate for Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. The end of her life is a mystery, but it’s possible she may have lived comfortably running a ‘bawdy house’ of her own. The final, intriguing, case is that of a woman named Cattelina, the only female African on record who appears to have lived a settled domestic village life, in Almondsbury, near Bristol. Nothing is known of her history, though she may have started as a servant in a nearby great house. However, at the time of her death, an inventory of her possessions included a cow, and bed, and various pieces of useful household equipment. As she is not recorded as a servant, she must have somehow acquired the status of an independent single woman.
The ten lives that form the central part of each chapter are focused on only because they had some brush with legal or church proceedings. Many more people are mentioned in passing, providing us with a tantalising view of quite a different England from the one we are accustomed to. The book also provides a fascinating view of the historical context of the time, and is impeccably researched and annotated. This seems to me to be an immensely valuable contribution to what is a far too little known aspect of life at this period, one in which people from Africa seem to have been accepted into society in ways that would become unthinkable with the advent of the slave trade. Highly thought provoking and extremely readable.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Miranda Kaufmann, Black Tudors: The Untold Story (Oneworld, 2017). 978-1786071842, 384pp., hardback.
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