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Tudor, English and black – and not a slave

in sight
From musicians to princes, a new book by historian Miranda Kaufmann
opens a window on the hitherto unknown part played by black people in
16th-century England
Sunday 29 October 2017 15.00 GMT, Bidisha for The Guardian

Within moments of meeting historian Miranda Kaufmann, I learn not to

make flippant assumptions about race and history. Here we are in
Moorgate, I say. Is it called that because it was a great hub of black Tudor
life? “You have to be careful with anything like that,” she winces, “because,
for all you know, this was a moor. It’s the same with family names and
emblems: if your name was Mr Moore, you’d have the choice between a
moorhen or a blackamoor. It wouldn’t necessarily say something about your

Her answer – meticulous, free of bombast, dovetailing memorable details

with wider issues – is typical of her first book Black Tudors: The Untold
Story, which debunks the idea that slavery was the beginning of Africans’
presence in England, and exploitation and discrimination their only
experience. The book takes the form of 10 vivid and wide-ranging true-life
stories, sprinkled with dramatic vignettes and nice, chewy details that bring
each character to life.

Africans were already known to have likely been living in Roman Britain as
soldiers, slaves or even free men and women. But Kaufmann shows that, by
Tudor times, they were present at the royal courts of Henry VII, Henry VIII,
Elizabeth I and James I, and in the households of Sir Walter Raleigh and
William Cecil. The book also shows that black Tudors lived and worked at
many levels of society, often far from the sophistication and patronage of
court life, from a west African man called Dederi Jaquoah, who spent two
years living with an English merchant, to Diego, a sailor who was enslaved
by the Spanish in Panama, came to Plymouth and died in Moluccas, having
circumnavigated half the globe with Sir Francis Drake.

Kaufmann’s interest in black British history came about almost by accident:

she intended to study Tudor sailors’ perceptions of Asia and America for her
thesis at Oxford University, but found documents demonstrating the
presence of Africans within Britain. “I’d never heard anything about it,
despite having studied Tudor history at every level. When I went to the
National Archive for the first time, I asked an archivist where to start
looking and they were like: ‘Oh well, you won’t find anything about that
here.’” Kaufmann kept digging, contacted local record offices and ultimately
built up to her book. So why has the existence of black Tudors been
unknown, untold and untaught? “History isn’t a solid set of facts,” she
replies. “It’s very much about what questions you ask of the past. If you ask
different questions, you get different answers. People weren’t asking
questions about diversity. Now they are.”

Despite Kaufmann’s research, it is hard to swallow the idea that black

people were not treated as extreme anomalies (or worse) in Tudor England.
“We need to return to England as it was at the time,” says Kaufmann – “an
island nation on the edge of Europe with not much power, a struggling
Protestant nation in perpetual danger of being invaded by Spain and being
wiped out. It’s about going back to before the English are slave traders,
before they’ve got major colonies. The English colonial project only really
gets going in the middle of the 17th century.” That said, she does leave a
stark question hanging in the air: “How did we go from this period of
relative acceptance to becoming the biggest slave traders out there?”

Black Tudors does not make overblown claims about ethnic diversity in
England – in her wider research, Kaufmann found around 360 individuals
in the period 1500-1640 – but it does weave nonwhite Britons back into the
texture of Tudor life. Black Tudors came to England through English trade
with Africa; from southern Europe, where there were black (slave)
populations in Spain and Portugal, the nations that were then the great
colonisers; in the entourages of royals such as Katherine of Aragon and
Philip II (who was the husband of Mary I); as merchants or aristocrats; and
as the result of English privateering and raids on the Spanish empire. “If
you captured a Spanish ship, it would be likely to have some Africans on
board,” says Kaufmann. “One prized ship brought in to Bristol had 135.
They got shipped back to Spain after being put up in a barn for a week. The
authorities didn’t know quite what to do with them.”

Although there was no legislation approving or defining slavery within

England, it could hardly have been fun being “the only black person in the
village” – such as Cattelena, a woman who lived independently in
Almondsbury and whose “most valuable item … was her cow”. Nonetheless,
Kaufmann uncovers some impressive lives, such as the sailor John Anthony,
who arrived in England on a pirate’s boat; Reasonable Blackman, a
Southwark silk weaver; and a salvage diver called Jacques Francis.
Kaufmann points to them as “examples of people who are really being
valued for their skills. In a later age, you get these portraits of Africans
sitting sycophantically in the corner looking up at the main character, but
they’re not just these domestic playthings for the aristocracy. They’re
working as a seamstress or for a brewer. Even in aristocratic households
they are performing tasks – as a porter, like Edward Swarthye, or as a cook
– they are doing useful things, they get wages. John Blanke, a royal
trumpeter, gets paid twice the average wage of an agricultural labourer and
three times that of an average servant. They’re not being whipped or beaten
or put in chains or being bought and sold.”

I balk at the names black Tudors were given – Swarthye, Blanke, Blackman,
Blacke – and at the idea that trudging out an existence as a Tudor
prostitute, like Anne Cobbie, a “tawny Moor” with “soft skin”, is any great
win for diversity. But it does seem that black Tudors are no worse off than
white ones. At a basic level, they are acknowledged as citizens rather than
loathed as outcasts. “It’s enormously significant, given how important
religion was, that Africans were being baptised and married and buried
within church life. It’s a really significant form of acceptance, particularly
the baptism ritual, which states that ‘through baptism you are grafted into
the community of God’s holy church’, in which we are all one body.”

Kaufmann says she feels “anxious, because people might not like” her book.
“Part of it is the surprise element: people didn’t think there were Africans in
Tudor England. There’s this fantasy past where it’s all white – and it wasn’t.
It’s ignorance. People just don’t know these histories. Hopefully this
research will inspire producers to get multiracial stories on our screens.”

Although she is very generous with her time, Kaufmann has been uneasy,
even to the point of seeming dissatisfied, throughout our conversation. She
goes cautiously silent when I try to link her concerns to current issues such
as Brexit, racism or the rise of populist nationalism. Part of the reason
might be wariness at the vicious online treatment meted out to women of
expertise when they comment on current affairs or state a fact that goes
against philistine fantasies. Earlier this year, the historian Mary Beard was
the target of abuse for corroborating an educational film for children which
showed a well-to-do black family living under the Roman empire.

This resistance to accepting a black history is not confined to the lower

reaches of Twitter. The academic and novelist Sunny Singh has
written about director Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, which erased the
presence of Royal Indian Army Services Corp personnel and lascars from
south Asia and east Africa working for the British and, on the French side,
Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian troops from France’s colonies. The
comedian Mark Gatiss was so disturbed by the presence of one black actor
in the cast for a Doctor Who time travel episode he was filming that he sent
a “very difficult” email to his bosses protesting that “there weren’t any black
soldiers in Victoria’s army”. Rattled, he did his own research and discovered
that there had indeed been one black soldier there, whereupon he relented.

Despite her work in filling in these historical blanks, Kaufmann laments the
scarcity of complete evidence: “I wish they had kept diaries or preserved
letters. Much as I’ve pieced together these lives, they’re not satisfying
biographies where we know everything – more often, they are snapshots of
moments.” Nonetheless, the tide is turning against the myth that England
has always been a monoracial, monocultural, monolingual nation. Along
with writers such as David Olusoga, Paul Gilroy and Sunny Singh, and
institutions such as the University of York, which has launched a project
investigating medieval multiculturalism, historians such as Miranda
Kaufmann are bringing England to a necessary reckoning with its true

Extraordinary lives: some black people in Tudor

John Blanke, the musician
One of the court trumpeters, he was present in the entourage of Henry VII
from at least 1507. He performed at both Henry VII’s funeral and Henry
VIII’s coronation in 1509.

Jacques Francis, the salvage diver

An expert swimmer and diver, he was hired to salvage guns from the wreck
of the Mary Rose in 1546. When his Venetian master was accused of theft in
Southampton, Francis became the first known African to give evidence in an
English court of law.

Diego, the circumnavigator

Diego asked to be taken aboard Sir Francis Drake’s ship in Panama in 1572.
Diego and Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577, claiming California for
the crown in 1579.

Anne Cobbie, prostitute

Cobbie was one of 10 women cited when the owners of the brothel where
she worked were brought before the Westminster sessions court in 1626.

Reasonable Blackman, the silk weaver

He lived in Southwark around 1579-1592 and had probably arrived from the
Netherlands. He had at least three children, but lost two to the plague in

Mary Fillis, servant

The daughter of Fillis of Morisco, a Moroccan basket weaver and shovel-
maker, Mary came to London around 1583-4 and became a servant to a
merchant. Later she worked for a seamstress from East Smithfield.

Dederi Jaquoah, merchant and prince

Jaquoah was the son of King Caddi-biah, ruler of a kingdom in modern
Liberia. He arrived in England in 1610 and was baptised in London on New
Year’s Day 1611. He spent two years in England with a leading merchant.

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

Oneworld (£18.99 rrp). To order a copy for £16.14 with free UK p&p,
visit or call 0330 333 6846.