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A history of the black people of Tudor England shows large numbers and varied circumstances before systematic racism developed, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

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Onyeka Nubia, England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society (Zed Books 2019), ix, 357pp. 

In the second half of the eighteenth century, racism was firmly entrenched among the slave-owning class in Britain as part of the ideological underpinning of the slave trade. As a ‘lady of quality’ remarked in 1770 about the treatment of black slaves in Antigua, ‘when one comes to be better acquainted with the nature of the Negros, the horrour of it must wear off...[their] Natures seem made to bear it, and...[their] sufferings are not attended with shame or pain beyond the present moment.’1 The question of how and when it developed is one of the themes of Nubia’s account of black people in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. 

There is little disagreement that while people of African descent were present in Roman Britain, black people would have been virtually unknown in north western Europe in the medieval period. The half-Middle Eastern character in the thirteenth-century romance Parzival, described as having a complexion ‘like a parchment, with writing … black and white, in patches’2 would only have been a possible creation if neither the author nor the audience had come across individuals with black parentage in real life. This character, incidentally, also suggests a lack of anti-black racism in medieval European society, since despite his skin ‘like a magpie’ he is supposed to be very handsome and as a knight, second only to the eponymous hero himself. 

One view of the post-medieval arrival of Africans in Britain, set out for example in Peter Fryer’s classic Staying Power, is that this only began in any significant numbers in the 1570s and was as a result of the beginnings of the slave trade. Although the earliest evidence for buying or selling slaves in England itself is from 1621, and organised British slave-trading only began in the later seventeenth century, from the mid-sixteenth century on, British merchants had started to dabble in buying and selling black Africans. Thus, Africans started to be brought to Britain, mostly to be household servants, but some as court entertainers or as prostitutes. In this view, the presence of Africans in Britain, arising as it did from slave trading, went hand in hand with ‘an emergent discourse in English culture that naturalized the enslavement of black Africans.’3

For Nubia, however, concentrating solely on how early slave trading brought Africans to Britain excludes the variety of routes by which entirely free Africans could have arrived in the country. Since there was no system in England to codify who was a slave and who wasn’t, it can be difficult to state with certainty the status of Africans who appear in the records as attached to aristocratic households. How free these individuals would have been to leave, or how literally we should take apparent expressions of ownership, can be difficult to tell. What we can say is that at least until the early seventeenth century, ‘it was difficult by law to keep Africans as slaves’ (p.49). Africans who had been brought to Britain to serve in households, whether explicitly as slaves or not, would have been the majority of the burgeoning African population, but Nubia points out that they were joining a not insignificant number of Africans who were there by choice. 

Documenting Africans in Britain

These free Africans in Britain included skilled artisans, like the needle-maker of Cheapside in the mid sixteenth century who knew how to make fine Spanish needles but ‘would never teach his art to none’ (p.32) and yeomen like Henrie Anthonie Jetto, who died in 1627 and who may have had sufficient property and status to have had the right to vote. The variety of roles which Africans played in sixteenth and seventeenth-century British society is demonstrated by the way in which they can be found living across the country. Africans were present not just in London, where nevertheless they may have made up five percent of the population of the parish of St Botolph without Aldgate, but also in rural places like Guernsey, Hatherleigh in Devon or Holt in Worcestershire. 

Nubia is clear that we should see these early modern Africans in Britain as part of the communities in which they were living. There is indeed some evidence of communities mobilising in their defence, as in an early example from 1470 when a court in Southampton ruled that the Genoese merchant Fillipi Cini was not permitted to sell Maria Moriana, an African woman in his household, as if she were a slave. On a more everyday level, Nubia argues that the evidence of Africans and their children being baptised in churches and buried alongside their white neighbours demonstrates how they were accepted as part of the community.

It is possible to overstate this. One example Nubia gives, of an African woman called Grace who was baptised as an adult in 1604 and whose two illegitimate children were baptised and buried (both died as infants) in the churchyard, could equally be interpreted as evidence of a community doing the bare minimum for a woman who was only allowed a place on the margins of society. However, Nubia’s research has certainly shown that it was possible for Africans to live free lives in sixteenth-century Britain with a range of occupations and to found families with white British spouses. Henrie Jetto, for example, has modern descendants with the surname Jetter who had no idea of their African ancestry. 

History of racism

Nubia is careful to avoid the misconception that he is arguing that there was no prejudice against Africans in early modern Britain, but in his view, the difference between this and later racism was that ‘this prejudice was not state sponsored.’ (p.169) The racism of the state would only have developed in the later seventeenth century, with the start of systematic British slave trading. Nubia makes a convincing case that elements of later racist ideology, like the idea that black people were the descendants of Ham, son of Noah, and therefore suffered from the Biblical curse of Ham, were not employed systematically in the sixteenth century. While some early-modern writers did identify the children of Ham with Africans, others claimed descent from Ham for either the English in general or for English monarchs in particular. However, that racist ideology was not fully formed does not itself show that there was no state interest in seeing it develop. It is here that Elizabeth I’s contentious Edicts of Expulsion come into the picture. 

In 1596, Elizabeth I had an open letter sent to the Mayor of London and other towns instructing them to give any help necessary to Edward Banes (an English merchant and privateer) in transporting out of the kingdom ten black people, who had been brought by a rival merchant. A follow up letter a week later instructed them to also help a merchant called Caspar van Senden to take black people to Spain and Portugal to exchange for English prisoners there. These letters have sometimes been viewed as an attempt to achieve a general expulsion of black people from England. That interpretation seems to be a stretch, but they do appear to be an example of the English monarchy engaging in slave trading. 

This was not necessarily racist as well as immoral and unprincipled. As Nubia points out, early slave trading privateers like Hawkins, Drake and Banes were equal opportunity slavers, prepared to enslave anyone, not just black people, if the opportunity arose. In 1601, however, Elizabeth followed up with a third proclamation about black people in England, which contained the statement that she was ‘highly discontented to understand the great numbers of negars and Blackamoores which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm … who are fostered and relieved [supported] here to the great annoyance of her own liege people, that want the relief, which those people consume …’4 We do not have to see this final proclamation as a serious attempt to drive all black people from England to recognise the racist language. It could be a Tory Home Secretary talking about refugees.

It is therefore hard to be in full agreement with Nubia’s contention that there was no state-sponsored racism in early-modern Britain. Rather, in showing that the early history of black people in Britain was more nuanced and varied than simply a story of slavery, he demonstrates how important this period is for an understanding of the development of that racism. There is little evidence in Nubia’s work for spontaneous, popular racism, but there are indications of how racist ideas could be encouraged to be developed by the slave-owning class. Nubia is correct that black people and slavery were not yet synonymous in Britain before the later seventeenth century, but they were beginning to be, as they had already become synonymous in Iberia.

It is important to uncover the rich and varied stories of Africans in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Britain, just as it is important to recognise that Britain from the early-modern period on was never mono-ethnically white. It is also vital to see the role of the state and the bourgeoisie in developing the racist ideology that would underpin the systematic development of British slave trading. Nubia shows that it was possible for individual Africans to live freely in Tudor England as part of their communities. That a century later this had become much less possible was not the result of the prejudice of ordinary people, but of the rise of racism as part of system of oppression fostered by the ruling class.

1 Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The history of black people in Britain (Pluto Press 1984), p.161.

2 Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans. A T Hatto (Penguin, London 1980), chapter 15, p.372.

3 Emily Weissbourd, 'Race, Slavery and Queen Elizabeth’s "Edicts of Expulsion"', Huntington Library Quarterly vol. 78, no.1, (2015), pp.1-19, p.13.

4 Fryer, Staying Power, p.12

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now. 

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