Free blacks in Tudor England: a buried past that has been uncovered

By Frederick H. Lowe

British scholar Miranda Kaufmann said she was so surprised to learn that  free black men and black women lived in England during the House of Tudor  that she changed the subject of her doctoral dissertation to tell their stories.

The cover of the book Black Tudors

“I dedicated  the research on my doctorate to finding how many Africans lived in Britain at that time period,”  said Kaufmann, a senior research fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Kaufmann’s research led her to write the nonfiction book “Black Tudors: The Untold Story” which could significantly change the way black people here and in England see ourselves.

The House of Tudor, was the royal family that ruled England, Ireland and Wales from 1485 to 1603.

The person most of us are familiar with or at least have heard of is King Henry VIII, who was named head of the Church of England after being excommunicated by Pope Paul III.  That’s because Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife to marry Anne Boleyn, who he believed would give him a male heir to the throne.

The book, which boasts a drawing of John Blanke, the black trumpeter on the cover, explores the lives of 10 black men and black women among the 360 living in Tudor England, the period before the transatlantic slave trade.

England later would make  a major transformation, becoming  the world’s largest slave-trading nation.

Dr.  John Cooper, senior lecturer at the University of York, said Africans living in England at the time weren’t slaves.  Under English common law slavery didn’t exist. England’s air was said to be too pure for a slave to breathe.

Black men and black women were paid for their work. They worked as independent agents, from mariners to silk weavers.

Another reviewer wrote that “Black Tudors” demolishes the myth that England was an all-white country during that period.

It’s been hammered into our minds that all blacks wherever and whenever they lived were slaves. So why weren’t Tudor blacks?

Dr. Kaufmann explained that the narrative of black people’s  history has been dominated by America and slavery is the central to this county’s story.

Africans also weren’t victims of discrimination. According to the book, Tudors were far more likely to judge a new acquaintance by his or her religion and social class than by where they were born or by the color of their skin.

How did Africans arrive in England?  Portugal, then a world power, brought enslaved Africans to Europe in 1444, and they traveled to Southern and Northern Europe. At the time, England was a minor world  power.

The word “slave” comes from the noun “Slav,” referring to Slavonic people of Eastern Europe who were enslaved in great numbers by Otto the Great, the Holy Roman Emperor, and his successors.

Kaufmann writes, for example, about John Blanke, the court trumpeter who played at the funeral of King Henry VII and at the coronation of his successor.

Jacques Francis, a salvage diver, was hired to salvage guns from the wreck of the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship, which went to the bottom of the Solent, the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from England’s mainland, in 1545. Mary Rose sank during The Battle of Solent” between France and England in 1545. Francis  reportedly was able to dive an astounding 90 feet.

He also was the first known African to give evidence in an English court of law.

Miranda Kaufmann

Others included Diego, the circumnavigator, who sailed around the globe in 1577 with Francis Drake on the ship The Golden Hinde. He was aboard The Golden Hinde when Drake laid claim to California in the name of Elizabeth I.

One person had an unusual name that said much about his personality and his race. Reasonable Blackman was that person. Blackman was an independent silk weaver, who lived in Southwark from 1579 to 1592.

In her research, Kaufmann also found an independent black businesswoman.

Cattelena of Almondsbury was an independent single woman who lived in the small Gloucesterhire Village of Almondsbury not far from Bristol. Her most valuable possession was a cow, which supplied her with milk and butter that she sold for a profit to her neighbors.

Those are some of the people mentioned in Kaufmann’s book.

“I want to challenge people’s preconceptions about the period,” Kaufmann said. The book is available on Amazon and in book stores.

 

 

 

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