Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

Review published on November 14, 2017.

Black Tudors is a fresh look at English society during this period through the lives of ten people originally from Africa. Breaking new ground and coming up with some surprising findings about the lives they led. Black Tudors will alter preconceptions of the Tudor period and that is a measure of the importance of Kaufmann’s book. This is one of the most interesting social histories I have read and I think Kaufmann has opened a door for more research into the status of African and black people in Britain prior to the introduction of the slave trade (Black Tudors actually covers the early Stuart period also).

Miranda Kaufmann was researching a tangential subject when she came across the story of Africans living in England. She was intrigued but it wasn’t easy to follow up on the topic because major archives had very limited records, none classified in a helpful way. So Kaufmann tackled local sources and primary material. Black Tudors has a wealth of original research deftly contextualised. The people of this history have very different social status from each other and are originally from different parts of the African continent. This is a fascinating study if you are just interested in the lives of people in the Tudor period but it is also an important insight into the attitudes and mores of the times. The detail of their professions, families and integration into society in England are illuminating. Kaufmann worked with patchy primary sources, there are gaps in each of the stories (she lightly bemoans the lack of a diarist), but nevertheless the results are admirable. Any complacency by historians about the knowledge of the Tudor world will have been punctured by this book and for that reason reading Black Tudors is a humbling experience. We are always finding out new things but not always having our prejudices challenged. Historians will have to consider how this impacts future studies of the period because this book significantly alters our view of the people and period; their behaviour and prejudices.

I never thought that black history in Britain began with the arrival of Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948 or even with the advent of the slave trade in 1641. I had heard of Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho and knew that there must be a more complex story to be properly explored about the acceptance of Africans in society (both these men were respected in a time we assume black people were universally looked down on and treated appallingly). Still, like everybody else, I knew nothing of the black experience in the Tudor period and this chance to hear these individual stories is powerful and important.

We learn that black ambassadors from non-Christian countries were accorded the same respect as the any other representative at the royal court. Elizabeth did not let religion interfere with commerce. The hierarchical structure; royalty, nobility, clergy and administration over workers, peasant and villeins is the important delineation in society. The most telling aspect of attitudes, Kaufmann points out, is that these Africans were accepted into the Christian faith. This is not like the later missionary attitude of civilising but a recognition that they were as worthy as any to receive the chance of eternal life.

Kaufmann tells us the story of John Blanke, a trumpeter for King Henry VII and later Henry VIII. Importantly, Blanke was paid a wage, promoted during his career, married an English woman and played at some of the most important royal functions of the time. Then we have Jacques Francis, the salvage diver. Francis worked for Peter Paulo Corso, a Venetian, he lived in Southampton and worked on the attempted salvage of the Mary Rose (Kaufmann provides some great detail here). Francis testified in court indicating he swore a Christian oath. Diego escaped the Spanish to sail with Drake, interpreting and helping to forge alliances (he was respected because he was useful). Reasonable Blackman was a silk weaver, two of his children died of the plague in 1592 (death is the great leveller). Anne Cobbie the “tawny moor”, was a sought after Westminster prostitute. Cattelena of Almondbury, an independent woman. All these stories and the others in Black Tudors are interesting and entertaining. This is a very accessible read.

These are lives of hardship or minor privilege; people subject to the law (harsh on prostitutes for example) and the vicissitudes of life (plague is blind to colour).

Kaufmann pointed out in an interview with Bidisha in the Guardian that our understanding of history is defined by the questions we ask. In other words, no one asked about African lives in Tudor England before. A set of assumptions based on the attitudes of slave trading prejudiced our view. So when people are surprised by the way in which these Africans were accepted by Tudor England it’s because Kaufmann is the only ones asking the right questions.

During the period 1500 to 1640 Kaufmann indicates that there were only 360 known black/African individuals in England. So this survey is not a bad representative sample.

The general thesis is that the lives of these Africans in England was not determined by colour; there was no difference between a black trader and a white trader, a black servant and a white one. Essentially these people were paid and integrated unlike most of the rest of Europe, where slavery was rife.

Kaufmann is keen to point out that there were also problems at the time. John Hawkins mounted the first English slaver expeditions to Africa 1562/69. In one incident a woman claimed a 10-year-old girl as her slave when others were trying to baptise the child as no Christian can be a slave. Visitors brought slaves with them from the continent and no doubt being the only black person in the area must have been a discomforting experience. However, there was no slavery.

It is a triumph of Black Tudors that Kaufmann makes the world of the black Tudors come to life.

Kaufmann’s challenge to our views of racism and slavery in Tudor society also means re-examining the traditional assumption that the attitudes to race in Virginia and the colonies leading to the rise of slavery came from England. The origins of racial slavery in the colonies are more likely driven by financial greed than ‘philosophical’ views.

Although Britain did not indulge much in the slave trade at this time, the nation later became the most prolific exporter of people from Africa as goods (over 3M in the 18th century). So sadly things changed for the worse very soon after this period.

This is a really enjoyable, very well written social history and I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

Paul Burke 4/4

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
Oneworld Publications 9781786071842 hbk Oct 2017

Previous:

Vidal: The Autobiography by Vidal Sassoon

Next:

The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Callum Macdonald

You may also like