301 Black Tudors

Black Africans began to make their way in increasing numbers to England – firstly mainly via trading countries like Spain and Portugal, but increasingly direct. What sort of lives did they make in England?


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Last time we talked about the increasing contact between England and the rest of the world; this week, it’s time to talk about Black Tudors ladies and gentlemen. In the last episode we heard about the English trader John Lok – who incidentally was an ancestor of the super famous philosopher John Locke in centuries to come. Fab fact. Although since you can count the number of people who know of the Elizabethan John Lok on the fingers of one hand, it’s probably not so fab. Anyway, when Lok returned to England from Africa, it was recorded that he ‘brought with him certain blacke slaves’. There were five men, and in fact it seems they were not slaves; they were there to learn English and be returned to Africa. Although as we mentioned in the last episode, history does not relate whether the 5 men were ever contacted again and whether the partnership between them and Lok was continued, one thing seems pretty clear; there’s no sign of racial superiority here, or of a violent relationship – this is a straightforward trading partnership. Which is curious; it has often been argued that the racialised chattel slavery that developed in the colonial Americas came from a mind-set ready-made and imported from England, but here’s at least one example which seems to show that contact between English and African did not mean that slavery was the inevitable result.

This hopefully leads us gently and seamlessly into a discussion of the presence and lives of Black people in England in the Tudor period, a subject which has thankfully received a lot more attention than it once did. In fact, Kathleen Chater maps the broad outline of the coverage by historians of black history in England[1], and prior to the 19th century it is thin gruel indeed. The first scholarly works seems to be in 1925 with 6 pages in a work by M Dorothy George, which is pretty much it, until 1948 and a work by Kenneth Little. In this phase of writing, the history of black people was covered as part of general British history, rather than specifically Black history.  In the 1960s and 1970s this changed, with more works appearing which looked specifically at black history, such as Folarin Shyllon’s book Black People in Britain 1555–1833. But works often reflected historical work done from the perspective of the American experience; assuming for example that all blacks in Britain were enslaved. Since Peter Fryer’s Staying Power was published in 1984, there has been much more focus on individuals, which look at history from their perspectives, and from a wider perspective, rather than the previous assumption that Black history in Britain was defined by poverty and slavery. Recently, there has been a lot of interest of course; with discussion about multi racial presence in Roman Britain, which caused a bit of a Twitter storm I seem to remember, and much greater research and publications on black people in Tudor England. I should make a couple of book recommendations and note my debt to David Olusaga’s book ‘Black and British’, and Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors.

Those of you who are members will have heard of Kaufmann’s book, since I mentioned her in the context of 1503 and the marriage in Scotland between James IV and Henry VIII’s big sis, Margaret Tudor. Between the Roman Empire and the 15th century, Britain was largely cut off from sahran Africa, with the end of the international connectivity the empire had brought, and with the rise of the Arabic and Islamic states. Curiosity and legend still made it through, as we saw last time with the works of Pliny and Mandeville. But of face to face contact we have no record. That changes though in the 16th century, and may well have changed before. So as I mentioned earlier, English traders were working as ex pats from Andalusia; interestingly, when some skeletons on the Mary Rose were analysed, one of them was found to have North African heritage, although the person himself, nicknamed Henry, had grown up around Portsmouth[2]. So, who knows when Henry’s ancestors came from North Africa? And what’s clear is that London, ports and ships show the greatest diversity of origin, which is what you’d expect I suppose. Anyway, the interest in black Tudors can show us more about the growing international connectivity of the late medieval and early modern world. It can tell us more about the lives of individuals with different backgrounds to the majority of population, but crucially maybe it can help us with that question about racial attitudes; were  black people viewed by the English with the kind of racial attitudes that were a feature of the 19th C Scramble for Africa? How common were black people in Tudor England, and what sort of lives did they lead?

We might open the account in Scotland if I may, which obviously will feel all wrong, but there is an English angle, since we know that there were Moorish women in Margaret Tudor’s massive train of 500 people that arrived in Edinburgh in 1503, and there is a record of a ‘black madin’, in her court being given cloth. We know of at least 7 Africans who visited James’s court including one Peter the Moor, paid a pension by the king, and also travelling along with his court were two black friars.

There seems to be no suggestion that any of these people were enslaved; and indeed one of them was a Moorish drummer, known only as the ‘More Taubronar’ who played the drum and was a choreographer, and who would have been on constant call for his talents. That musical theme links us back to England, because one of the first well documented black people was a trumpeter at Henry VIIIs court, who appears on a roll of the record of the tournament in 1511. John Blanke seems to have been a thoroughly rib tickling bit of humour, a play on the French for white, or blanc. ‘Cos he wasn’t you see. A bit like Little John. Cos he wasn’t either.  John Blanke appears in some other documents, firstly in 1507 when he seems to be paid £12, which is sort of OK – 3 times that of a domestic servant’s pay anyway, and a position at the King’s court was pretty much top of the greasy pole for your musician of the day. He joined an international bunch – Henry’s musicians came from Flanders, France, Germany and Italy, and like them his wages indicate that he was quite clearly not enslaved. Catherine of Aragon was well used to black skinned servants, and to enslaved servants from a number of ethnicities, as well as Africans, and one of the servants, Catalina, was dark skinned, born in Granada in Southern Spain. Since she was referred to as the ‘slave that was’ she was probably a slave when in Spain, but was freed when she came to England; if so Henry VIII would have been following in his father’s footsteps, since Henry VII had set free one Pero Alvarez an African who came to England.

The amount we know about John Blanke is very limited, as it is for most people of course; but he’s certainly making a living like anyone else in his petition – making a bid for a pay rise to the king at one stage and having it accepted. He got married, probably to an English woman, in January 1512, and was well enough thought of for the king to pay for John’s wedding outfit. That’s the last we hear of John, but not the last we hear of Africans at the English court; Elizabeth I for example paid for an outfit in white taffeta, gold and silver for a ‘little blackamore’ in 1575.

John Blanke was clearly able to live an independent life, with a skill to sell; and it’s probable he came to England, like Catalina, via Spain or Portugal. The same may be true of one Jacques Francis who makes an appearance in a court case in 1548. Jacques was a diver, and related to the court that he had been born on an island off the Guinea coast. He was in the employ of a Venetian called Corsi, working on salvaging ordnance from the Mary Rose – which is an awesome prospect if you think about it, surely a humungous task without modern breathing equipment. This was the talent Jacques Francis clearly had. Corsi, became embroiled in a court case, after he was accused of stealing, and the court case dragged on for a couple of years. At some stage in the court proceedings, Corsi seems to have claimed that Jacques was a slave; but there seems to be evidence that he was drawing wages, and was described as a servant rather than slave. We don’t know the result of the court case, and don’t see any more of Jacques, but given that Corsi’s team had worked on three salvage operations in quick succession, you have to think that Jacques would have been in line to pick up other jobs.

The evidence piles up that African lives in Elizabethan England, although not very numerous, black Africans lived independent lives, and did not seem to suffer obvious discrimination due to the colour of their skin. It is true that black Tudors worked most commonly in service, and therefore were of relatively low status; but that was not that unusual anyway, since domestic service was far and away the most common form of employment, especially for younger people. Now much later, in 18th century England, young black servants appear in an almost decorative capacity, appearing in the portraits of the rich and mighty, dressed up to look exotic and to emphasise the colour of their skin. This was not the case in Tudor England, where their role seems to have been just like any other servant, with some surviving accounts for clothes reflecting normal, workaday cloth[3]. Domestic servants in early modern England could become very close to their employers, and were seen very much as part of the household, and there’s every indication that black people were viewed in the same way; it’s a rather backhanded compliment, but there’s a famous case of a black servant, Edward Swarthye, who was employed in the household of the Wynter family in the late 16th century, probably joining during an expedition by Sir Edward Wynter in 1585-6. Edward Swarthye, on one occasion was ordered by his volatile master to whip a white business associate called John Guye, which led to a court case in which Swarthye gave evidence. A point to make of this story, is that there is no sign of any horror that a black African should whip a white Englishman, as there most certainly would have been in later centuries with the attitudes embedded by the atlantic slave trade. As I say, it’s not necessarily ideal to have one’s status confirmed by being ordered to whip another body, but there we go.

While the majority of black people worked in domestic service, therefore, there is also plenty of evidence of black tudors living independent lives, successfully supporting themselves financially in a trade like any other English subject. Reasonable Blackman, for example, was a silk worker living in Elizabethan Southwark. Reasonable I have to say is an excellent first name, though possibly not as cool as strongbow, obviously, and if I were to chose a similar one to Reasonable’s, I might go for ‘Slightly tetchy’ Crowther, but none the less, Reasonable I would say is better for business, and it’s possible that Reasonable was in fact a sort of trading name rather than a name Blackman used for himself. We see that Blackman was part of the Southwark community, taking communion on Easter Sunday 1579. Other independent tradesmen like Blackman appear occasionally in the record – in Mary’s reign there’s a reference to ‘a Negro made fine Spanish needles in Cheapside, but would never teach his art to any’. Spanish needles I understand, were fine needles made of steel and quite new to England, where needles had been made of wood or ivory, or rather crudely worked iron. Whoever the needlemaker was, they clearly possessed a very marketable skill in high demand, a skill worth protecting with a bit of secrecy. In the mid 16th century, Africans carving a financially independent path would have been rare, but by 1600 was growing; other records survive from Cornwall, Worcestershire and Kent. Among them are examples of men who left service to establish households, which was of course the natural route for many in domestic service; Henry Jetto and John Accomy are two names that survive.

By 1587, Blackman was married, and his son John was baptised at St Olave, and was probably the first of 4 children. We don’t know the name of Blackman’s wife, but she was probably English, given the relatively low numbers of Africans in England at the time. There are only 3 records of marriages between Africans in the period. Marriage between different races was clearly not frowned on then; in 1578 George Best wrote curiously

I myself have seen an Ethiopian as black as coal brought to England who taking a faire English woman to wife, begat a son in all respects as black as the father

The tone is curious about the source of black skin, not outraged at the mixed marriage, if that’s the right term. As George Best’s quote suggests, Black skin posed a challenge to Elizabethans thinkers, who worried away at it, with the initial conclusion that it must have something to do with the heat of the African sun. But as the English travelled more widely, men such as John Lok concluded that something else was going on, given that they met people living in very hot places who were not black.

George Best in fact decided that the answer lay in religion, and with the sons of Noah, identified in Genesis as the progenitors of the three races of mankind – Sem, Ham and Japhet. Up to 1492 there had been only 3 known continents; the descendants of Ham were said to be African, Asia held the descendants of Sem, and Europe of Japhet[4]. The tradition finds expression in the 3 wise men; the chap bringing the Myrrh, Balthazar, was often depicted as black. The legend of blackness as the sons of Ham had a negative angle to it, which was sometimes used to justify slavery. According to the scriptures, Ham had humiliated his father and as punishment, Noah had cursed Ham and his descendants to be the ‘servant of servants’. So George Best here concluded that blackness was part of Noah’s curse, to ‘remain a spectacle of disobedience to all the world’. It’s not clear how far and deeply the legend of the sons of Ham spread, but a seed was sown.

The last we hear of Reasonable Blackman is rather tragic, with the death of 2 of the Blackman children of plague in 1592. There is a reference in 1614 to a silk weaver, Edward Blackmore of Mile End; so just maybe perhaps their son survived and carried on the family trade. We know of the death of Reasonable Blackman’s other children though, since their burials are recorded in the parish register, and Christianity was of course very important to being part of the community, and to be able to marry. There is ample evidence that in Tudor England Africans were welcomed in the church; a Moroccan who came to England, Mary Fillis for example was baptised and became part of the protestant church. A minister called Edward Terrill in 1640 on Baptising an African called Frances wrote in the bible in declaring enthusiastically that Christianity was for everyone:

Then Peter opened his mouth and said, of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of Persons: But in every nation he had that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him

A Turkish slave released from enslavement in Cartagena in 1586 by Francis Drake, one of a hundred, came to England in 1586. Chinano had refused to convert to Christianity in Cartagena, but once in England was apparently impressed, saying that in England he found

Courtesy, gentleness, friendly salutations of the people, succor for him and his countrymen, pity and compassion of the Englishmen.

Which is nice, and he concluded that ‘if there was not a God in England, there was none nowhere’

Christianity was important also because for some time there was a view, though often contested, that once baptised, a person could not be enslaved; in a bull of 1435 Pope Eugenius IV excommunicated any who enslaved baptised inhabitants of the Canary Islands. In 1624, the General court of Virginia ruled that ‘John Philip, a negro’ was qualified as a free man and a Christian to give testimony. Sadly, the rule was often ignored, and in 1667 the Virginia Assembly specifically declared that conversion to Christianity would not give an African freedom.

By later in the 16th century, it is very probable that Africans found their way to England direct as trade increased, rather than as they had earlier via Spain or Portugal, like Catalina and Jacques Francis. This might be through contact with traders – Drake, for example, established a friendship and partnership with an African called Diego, who came back to Plymouth with him and who he employed in his household til they went again to sea, where Diego’s knowledge and language skills were invaluable. Some may have come to England as a result of piracy; an African mariner called John Anthony who lived in Dover may have been captured from a Spanish ship, and freed when he was taken back to England. An African called Diogo had a similar profile to John Anthony’s; he was captured from a ship when 12 years old along with his Portuguese master, and taken to Algiers where he was sold to a pirate called Camarit. Diogo served Camarit for 7 years until he was captured by an English pirate. He then  spent 4 months in England, but then, while Anthony chose to stay in England, Diogo returned to Portugal to find his original master.

At the same time, there was a growing trend for high status Africans to visit Europe, and England. They might come to learn the language, to learn more of the English, so as to trade more effectively. We’ve already heard of Coree for example, who left with high quality intelligence about the English contempt for iron; and John Lok’s 5 Africans who came to learn the language and go home to develop the English trade. In 1610, Prince Dederi Jaquah from Cestos came to England with a trader called John Davies. John Davies became a leading figure in the Guinea trade, establishing the first English factory on the African coast. As the English established more factories, African kings understood the need to understand who they were dealing with and establish strong commercial relationships; the king of Aguema sent on of his sons to England in 1633 as a pledge, and the Prince travelled to England twice, and became a factor at the base of the English Guinea Company. Later in the 16th century, Elizabethan trade and diplomatic relationships grew specifically with Morrocco, so much that diplomats were exchanged with their households.

Ok, now there are two general questions that I suspect you have in your minds. Here’s one of them, I rather presumptuously suspect – how many people are we talking about here? How used to black Africans would your average English person be? Absolute certainty about numbers seems pretty much impossible, but there are indications of extent. A poll tax records in Southampton show that there were at least 10 Africans resident at the time, living generally in the households of wealthy merchants. The parish of St Olave’s in London saw 3 baptisms and 12 burials of Africans between 1588 and 1638. The best source are parish registers, though it is unlikely that all those of African descent will be identified in records which can be pretty laconic. So the estimate of historians that the black Africans in Britain number in the hundreds is probably conservative. The geographical spread is also up for debate, but births or deaths of Africans have been identified in 10 counties; for example, there is the example of Cattelena, living as a single, independent woman in Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, who left a will, a reasonably typical one, listing her few possessions. Possibly Cattelena had arrived as a servant in a gentry family, before setting up on her own.

However, despite this and some other examples of Africans in rural parish registers, the majority of the hundreds of black Tudors were centred in London and port cities such as Dover, Southampton and Bristol. Miranda Kaufman points out that a quote of 1584 that makes passing reference to ‘the blackamores…that dwell in Guinea (whereof I suppose you have heard and seen also some in this land)’, suggests that black Africans were a more common and recognisable part of English life than we might have thought. That would certainly have been true in the busier ports and centres of trade. Outside of that it’s less certain I would think.

The other question is that one of the status of black people. England afterall has some form from the expulsion of the Jews under Edward I, until the liberal minded Oliver Cromwell invited them back under the Protectorate. And there is a tradition that the Elizabethan attitude was similar; coloured maybe by later centuries and the British slave trade, but also by a famous letter from the Privy Council that seemed to suggest that England’s government at least wanted rid of Black Africans. So, this then is the story. In 1601, a licence was granted to one Caspar van Senden allowing him to transport ‘blackamores’ out of the kingdom, which seems like an open and shut case then – Eizabeth was prejudiced against them. But it’s worth noting that Robert Cecil himself had a black servant called Fortunatus, and Cecil thought it ‘not right to have those kind taken from their masters compulsorily’; so van Senden’s licence had the whopping great proviso that no black servant could be taken without his employer’s consent. Which, given that no money was allocated by the PC, was most unlikely. A second licence was then drafted; which confirms therefore than van Senden’s first licence was a dead letter. The second licence was never published, and may anyway have been drafted by van Senden rather than the PC. So the licence seems not to have demonstrated any desire by Elizabeth and her PC to expel black Africans in practice; rather it was an attempt by an unscrupulous merchant to gain some compensation for a cost he had incurred, returning captured English POWs to England, by being allowed to sell black Africans in England on the Spanish and Portuguese slave markets. A plan with which the PC effectively refused to play ball.




And indeed, the evidence mounts that in the 16th century such Africans as did come to England lived lives much the same as the rest of society. The majority were in lower status jobs like domestic service, but there are plenty of examples of Africans joining the church, running businesses, securing financial independence, having families and so on.

The legal situation as regards slavery is not cast iron. There was no statute law that unequivocally stated that slavery was illegal in England, a situation that would persist and cause a lot of grief in future centuries. And it is quite possible that there were some of the enslaved in England, particularly in the households of foreign nationals from countries where slavery was legal; so from Spain or Portugal, or indeed Venice, where the senate had decreed in 1489 that anyone that killed a runaway ‘Ethiopian or Saracen’ slave would be immune from prosecution. However, it seems quite clear that the English thought that slavery was not possible under English Common law. William Harrison, author of the ‘Description of England’ famously wrote

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

There seems to be some supporting evidence for this; in 1587, a Portuguese Physician called Hector Nuñez had a problem with a slave he had bought illegally from a Cornish mariner and tried to get the law to compel obedience. He failed, and complained to the Court of Requests that he had ‘no remedie …by the course of the Common Law of this realme… to compell’ an ‘Ethiopian’ who ‘utterly refuseth to tarry and serve’ and ‘to serve him duringe his life’.

And then there was the famous Cartwright case.  At the Star Chamber trial of John Lilburne in 1637, a case was quoted as follows: ‘in [1569], one Cartwright brought a slave from Russia, and would scourge him, for which he was questioned; and it was resolved that England was too pure an Air for Slaves to breathe in.’[5]

Finally, in 1620, an English trader in Africa, Captain Richard Jobson, was offered a chance to buy some enslaved females on the Gambia river; Jobson refused, and told the African trader that the English were

A people who did not deal in any such commodities, neither did we buy or sell one another, or any that had our own shapes

So, it was clearly an object of some pride, as indeed it was in France; in 1571 a Norman merchant arrived in Bordeau with a cargo of slaves; when he tried to sell them he was arrested, and the parlement of Guyenne freed the men declaring that ‘France, the mother of liberty, does not permit any slaves’. It seems the news of England’s approach to slavery spread abroad as well; during Drake’s adventures in the Caribbean, it could well be that it was this reputation that encouraged the enslaved of the Spanish islands to seek refuge with Drake’s ships. What is confusing then, given this local pride, was that in the 1560s John Hawkins had been responsible for the first entry of England into trading in the enslaved; a sort of two brained hypocrisy that will tragically stay with England and indeed Scotland throughout their involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.

But despite the aberration of Hawkins’ well supported slaving expeditions, its seems clear that while there are odd occasions where the rules were stretched, slavery was not accepted within England’s borders. That there was a growing population of black people in England, and they appear to have lived free of the kind of racism and oppression symptomatic of the later slave trade, and lived lives much as the other inhabitants of England, part of the weft and warp of Tudor England.

Next week we will turn to hear about the senior service; did the Elizabethan age really deserve it’s reputation for the development of the English navy as the basis for English naval dominance of later centuries? Or, you know, not? Something to look forward to then. In the meantime, thank you for listening, good luck, and have a great fortnight.

[1] https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/black_history.html

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-47572089

[3] Kaufmann, M Black Tudors p102

[4] Olusaga, D Black and British pp55-6

[5] http://www.mirandakaufmann.com/common-law.html

4 thoughts on “301 Black Tudors

  1. I’ve been slowly working my way through these casts and just listened to this one. I really liked hearing from those records and references to people’s lives in this episode. Getting glimpses of how normal people lived is one of my favorite parts of studying history, and I was very glad to learn so much about a topic I’d never really considered before.

    1. Thank youi! and yes it was a very interesting topic about which to read up; and like you I have become much more. I also did a splurge of social history in episodes 280-286 if you are interested, and the last two, 319 & 320 are also social history. There will be more!

  2. I have been so avidly following your story of England that I returned to re-listen. I’m way behind – hey ho.

    Anyhoo, I am so impressed with your reportage of the integration of black Africans and the enslaved I wanted to tell you so, and thank you for your work.
    I’m going to share the episode on FaceAche as I’m sure many of my friends will be as interested as I am.

    1. Thank you! It was inspired really because Miranda Kaufman’s book had just come out – and David Olusaga’s not that much before. It was very interesting for me to explore a different topic too.

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