Black people have lived in Britain since the Roman occupation over 1000 years ago. The first black people in England were not victims and they contributed far more to English history than they are usually given credit for. The shameful and barbaric English slave trade did not begin until after Queen Elizabeth the first’s death and the black men and women living in England before then were totally free.
This cannot be said for other kingdoms in Europe and by 1502 the Spanish were transporting black slaves from Africa to South America for profit. Some of these slave ships were intercepted and raided by English Privateers (Pirates) and the slaves were brought to England and freed. According to historian David Olusoga on BBC Bitesize, Africans brought to England were accepted and lead very normal lives. Some were employed by merchants, seamstresses, beer brewers, silk and needle makers. They lived as far out of London as Suffolk working in the cloth trade which was the most important English trade at that time. The records show that Black Christians were baptised, married and buried in English churches.
According to Historian Miranda Kaufmann’s website, ‘It really was true that Africans in England were free. Diogo, an African who had been taken to England by an English pirate in 1614, later reported to the Portuguese Inquisition that when he laid foot on English soil, “he immediately became free, because in that reign nobody is a slave.”
The English were more interested in trading in pepper, gold, pearls and ivory than in people but if an opportunity arose to make money the pirates would have taken it. The pirates maintained that all who set foot on English soil were free but they would still happily sell black people into slavery to other Kingdoms. Sir John Hawkings was the first recorded man to do this: in 1562. He exchanged 300 slaves: some from African merchants, some he took from Portuguese ships and the rest he kidnapped from Africa himself. Queen Elizabeth the first backed his journey and his new coat of arms included three shackled black men. He seemed proud of this cruel trade and it’s interesting to note that there is no evidence that anyone back in England protested.
Above: Saint Maurice was martyred in Switzerland for refusing to massacre Christians for the Roman Empire. He was canonized by the early church.
This was the age of explorers and great new discoveries from the new world and Africans were seen as exotic. Henry VIII appeared in a court masque in 1510 with his face blackened. His son, Edward VI did the same at a Shrovetide masque in 1548. King James IV of Scotland enjoyed the company of his black servants, musicians and entertainers. His wife Queen Margaret (Sister of Henry VIII) had one black attendant but Queen Elizabeth I employed many. She had a beautiful silk, taffeta and tinsel gown made for one of them.
When a ‘Moorish’ ambassador and his revenue of 15 countrymen paid a state visit to Elizabeth’s court in 1600 there were culture clashes that we might recognise today.
By European standards it was a very small retinue but no one would offer them hospitality. Earlier that year a French ambassador and his retinue of 80 had been accommodated easily at court free of charge. The moors were not considered important enough to stay at court and after taking up residence in a large house all sorts of rumours spread about their ‘strange’ activities.
It was noted by local people that the moors always faced east when they slaughtered their animals which some Londoners found an odd. Many considered the Moors uncharitable because they charged the poor for their left over food. The local custom was that the great houses gave food and alms to the poor freely and regularly. We will never know what the Moors felt about the English but it is likely they found them strange and inhospitable people too.
There were many books circulating in the 16th century about the Lions and rhinos of Africa. They were often wildly inaccurate. One such book informed its readers that Ethiopia had so much gold that even prisoner’s shackles were made from gold and that dragons sucked on elephants to drink their blood.’ Other books said that one African tribe was ruled by a dog and some Africans had only one eye in the middle of their foreheads.
Jack Francis worked for a Venetian merchant and gave testimony in the High Court of Admiralty when his employer was accused of theft. This is surprising because at this time, according to Miranda Kaufmann, there were still serfs left over from previous generations and they were not allowed to give evidence in court by law. Serfs worked for their masters without payment and yet a free African man could testify in the high court.
One black man, John Blanke, was a trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII. He came to England as part of the Spanish Princess Katherine of Aragon’s retinue when she arrived in England to marry her first husband Prince Arthur Tudor.
John was paid at very good rate of eight pence a day and he also negotiated a pay rise with the King and received it. He was present at the official celebrations for the birth of Henry VIII’s and Katherine of Aragon’s short lived baby son. It was considered to be fashionable and an exotic status symbol to have a black servant and probably even more so for him to be a talented musician.
In the sixteenth century people’s surnames often reflected their trade: eg. John Baker, John Smith or John Fish. John’s surname is French for, ‘White,’ which was obviously not his real name. We will never know how John felt about his nickname but frankly today it would be seen as racist.
Black Englishmen may have been free, employed and allowed to join in christian fellowship but that certainly does not mean they were always treated fairly. Queen Elizabeth sent two open letters to all the mayors and sheriffs in England in 1596 and 1601. They are clearly racist and xenophobic in content and make very uncomfortable reading:
‘Her Majesty understands that there have recently been many blackmoors brought into the realm. There are already too many and it is her Majesty’s pleasure that therefore these kind of people should be sent forth from this land.’
‘There are a great number of negroes and blackmores fostered and powered here to the great annoyance of her Majesty’s own liege people who covert the relief which their people consume.’
What Elizabeth is saying is ‘They are over here, taking our jobs and the food from our mouths.’ It seems Elizabethans like many people before and after them would rather blame a minority group than face up to a complicated social issue such as unemployment. The proclamation failed and the English black population stayed.
Interestingly over 30 children of mixed parentage have been found in English parish registers before the outbreak of the English civil war in 1642. This shows, that at least in some quarters, love was greater than prejudice.
BBC: Bitesize GCSE KS3 Tudor History Miranda Kaufmann’s website