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28 January 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:36pm

From royal trumpeter to chief diver, Miranda Kaufmann uncovers the Africans of Tudor Britain

As Kaufmann writes “it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled by immigrants”.

By David Dabydeen

Scholarship on the historical black presence in Britain tends to dwell on the 18th century: the era of the slave trade, a consequence of which was the huge number of black people brought to Britain to work for aristocrats, merchants and anyone rich enough to buy such people at public auctions held in taverns and coffee houses. The documentation of their lives is plentiful, enhanced by the testimonies of former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano.The rise of great cities such as Liverpool and Bristol can also be linked to the revenues from slavery. David Olusoga, Nick Draper and others have unearthed thousands of British individuals and families who benefited from investments in the African body. No account of the social and economic development of 18th-century Britain is complete without recognition of the contribution of Africans enslaved in Britain and the Caribbean.

Miranda Kaufmann’s book, however, reaches back further to tell the stories of black Tudors. It is not only groundbreaking, but also a gripping set of portraits of ten Africans, selected from the hundreds discovered through patient searching through parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials; municipal records; tax returns; wills and inventories; household accounts and other miscellaneous, often obscure or overlooked archival materials. As Kaufmann writes, “no one has yet trawled the entire corpus of 16th- and 17th-century documents” for evidence of the black presence. There are, for example, nearly a million probate inventories that survive for the period around 1580-1720. “These lists of objects, from livestock to armour, chamber-pots to musical instruments, provide an intimate insight into the daily lives and material culture of ordinary people.”

It was by painstaking examination of some of these probate records that Kaufmann discovered Cattelena. She  lived in the village of Almondsbury (a few miles from Bristol). The only record of her existence – describing her as “a negra” and “a single woman” – is an inventory of her goods, made after she died in 1625. These included a cow, a bed, a quilt and blankets, a bolster cushion, some spoons, a tablecloth and wooden plates. By creating a historical context for each of these possessions, Kaufmann is able to offer a partial reconstruction of Cattelena’s life. The Tudor bedding indicates that Cattelena was “benefiting from a general rise in living standards during the latter half of the 16th century.” Ownership of a tablecloth “suggests a certain level of wealth, as well as some finesse in her daily dining habits”. The cow is a critical part of the biographical jigsaw. Cows were the principal sustenance of villagers, providing milk, butter and cheese (the last of which was considered a medicine for wounds, aches and pains).

By considering Cattelena’s status as a single woman (30 per cent of English women were unmarried), Kaufmann is able to depict her as an English villager grazing her cow in common land, in the company of others who accepted her as part of the rural community. “Her very ordinary presence… is extraordinary. Imagining her darker face in the pastoral scene forces us to reimagine rural life in this period.”

Cattelena of Almondsbury may have been an “ordinary” black presence, but others were centre stage, playing “an active part in some of the best-known stories of the age”. Jacques Francis, originally from West Africa, lived in Southampton in the 1540s, working for a Venetian, Peter Corsi. Corsi was commissioned by Henry VIII to bring up valuable weaponry from the sunken Mary Rose. Corsi’s lead diver was Francis. To keep him in tip-top condition, Francis was paid wages, fed well and accommodated comfortably. Most Tudors could not swim, hence the countless who drowned in naval skirmishes. Africans, however, had gained a reputation for diving expertise, and were routinely employed by Europeans as pearl divers and salvage workers. “They were admired and prized across Europe and the Atlantic world.” Years of training meant Francis developed “the necessary lung capacity and mental strength, and the ability to equalise the pressure in one’s ear”.

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Francis was also the first known African to give testimony in an English court, attending the High Court of Admiralty in 1548 to defend Corsi from accusations that he had stolen goods from another salvage operation. Francis swore an oath on the Bible, declaring himself a Christian. The fact the court accepted his testimony reminds us that, unlike in continental Europe, slavery was not practised in Tudor Britain. This is a point Kaufmann stresses. As soon as Africans stepped upon British soil, they were considered to be free persons, even if they were previously enslaved in Spain or Portugal and brought to Britain by their owners. Tudor Britain was sugar-free and slave-free.

Africans participated in key events in British history. One of Kaufmann’s case studies is Diego, who circumnavigated the world with Sir Francis Drake, starting off from Plymouth in 1577. Diego, enslaved in a small town in Panama, escaped in 1572, when Drake raided it for silver on board Spanish treasure ships docked there. The former slave was invaluable in Drake’s acts of piracy. Diego recruited escaped Africans who had formed strong communities in Panama (“Cimarrons”).

Together, they launched many raids on Spanish ships. On the way to one such raid, the Cimarron chief took Drake to a tall tree from which he could see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This was the first time an Englishman had set eyes on the Pacific, and Drake was grateful to God and to Diego, whom he made his personal manservant and translator. The treasure that Drake brought back made him famous in Britain, and endeared him to Queen Elizabeth. Diego, who settled in Plymouth, was not the only African to work aboard a Tudor ship but his close association with Drake made him special. Together, they sailed around the world in a prolonged rampage against European ships and settlements, accumulating riches but also sharing in near-fatal encounters with native South Americans. In Mocha Isle, off the coast of Chile, Drake was wounded in the face and Diego sustained more than 20 injuries from arrows. When, in 1579, the Golden Hinde arrived in California and Drake declared the territory as belonging to Queen Elizabeth, this very first claim to American soil by an Englishman was witnessed by Diego.

The black people reconstructed by Kaufmann are all pioneers in their own ways. John Blanke was one of Britain’s chief trumpeters, serving both Henry VII and Henry VIII. When Henry VII died, Blanke was “at the centre of a great royal spectacle”. He and the other court trumpeters followed the cortège over two days, from Richmond to Westminster Abbey:

They were near the front of a very long line of dignitaries, gentlemen and courtiers. The streets of London were packed with onlookers, with representatives of all the City Guilds and Companies prominent among them.

Being black, and on horseback, Blanke was one of the most visible of the thousands who witnessed this historic event. When Henry VIII inherited the throne in 1509, Blanke was secure enough to petition him for an increase in wages upon the death of a fellow trumpeter, Dominic: “It may please your Highness in consideration of the true and faithful service which your servant daily doeth unto your Grace… [to] grant unto him the same room [position] of Trumpet which Dominic deceased late had… with the wage of 16d by the day.” Henry VIII agreed, doubling Blanke’s wages. When Blanke got married in 1512, Henry ordered a gown of violet cloth, and a bonnet and a hat, as gifts  for the marriage of “our trumpeter”.

There were many recorded black servants in the English and Scottish Tudor courts, at least one of whom inspired a poem by William Dunbar (“Of Ane Blak-Moir”). Blanke stands out because there are two images of him in the Westminster Tournament Roll. He was almost certainly the first black Tudor to be painted.

Kaufmann draws our attention to the variety of black Tudors, from sailors to servants and silk weavers. Her work, based on her doctoral dissertation and informed by the research of other notable scholars such as Marika Sherwood, Kathy Chater and Imtiaz Habib, is impeccable and thorough , yet imbued with admiration and compassion for the people whose lives she has fleshed out from (often meagre) documentation.

She is also aware of the contemporary political relevance of her work, its conclusion stating that “as debate about immigration becomes even more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled by immigrants. The Black Tudors are just one of a series of different peoples who arrived on these shores in centuries past.” When the classics professor Mary Beard said last year that there was “plenty of evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain” (including an Algerian-born governor), she received a torrent of abuse from online trolls. Will ignorant and uncivil messages pile up against Kaufmann’s book? 

David Dabydeen is co-editor of “The Oxford Companion to Black British History”

Black Tudors: The Untold Story
Miranda Kaufmann
Oneworld, 376pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power