Show Hide image

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”.

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”.

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

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power

Credit: Arrow Films
Show Hide image

The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”