By Iona Glen, MA History

The criticism that British history focuses too narrowly on white narratives is often met by the defence that, before the twentieth century, the population consisted only of white people. Kaufmann proves this to be untrue, examining in detail the lives of ten Africans who lived in Britain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Drawing on recent historical research and archival material, Kaufmann has created a database of over 360 African people living in England and Scotland from 1500 to 1640. Although they were a minority of the overall population, the lives of these historical figures should change how we think about Tudor history, and urge us to question our assumptions about the past. 

By exploring the Early Modern period, Black Tudors tells a different story to the “narratives of suffering” that often characterise histories of black people in connection to Britain. Although these narratives are extremely important, Kaufmann argues that the later horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial plantation “cast their shadows across almost every discussion of the history of Africans in Britain”. This leads to an automatic assumption that every black person’s experience in Britain was that of exploitation and enslavement.  Although many Africans were enslaved in Europe by the expanding Portuguese and Spanish empires, in the early sixteenth century the English and Scottish kingdoms were not yet powerful enough to compete with these trading powers; the English began serious involvement with the slave trade from the 1640s. Before this, a widespread assumption existed that "England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in", as a court ruling pronounced in 1569, and no statute codifying slavery was ever passed. In fact, Kaufmann asserts that religious status and social class were the most important criteria for judgement in Tudor society rather than place of birth or skin colour, although these categories did intersect.

Kaufmann asks three key questions about her subjects’ lives and experiences: Why and how did they come to England? How were they treated? What were their lives like? These historical figures include John Blanke, trumpeter to Henry VIII, Mary Fillis, a Moroccan convert to Christianity, Jacques Francis, a salvage diver, and Annie Cobbie, a courtesan in London. They were part of everyday Tudor society across different social strata, appearing in parish registers, letters, diaries, tax records, and court proceedings. Although these top-down sources cannot recover the voices of these people, they do reveal fascinating insights into key events of their lives, and their relationships to social structures and institutions.

Several famous episodes from the period are given a new dimension. A Moorish woman called Catalina attended Katherine of Aragon on both of her wedding nights, first with Prince Arthur in 1501 and later to his younger brother Henry VIII in 1509. The vexed question of the first marriage’s consummation impacted the course of Tudor history, becoming a key feature of Henry VIII’s later divorce proceedings. Although she had returned to Spain by the time she was required as a witness, Catalina was one of a handful of people who knew the true story. This example helps to break down traditional narratives, challenging the popular perception of a well-known event by showing a black woman’s intimate involvement in a pivotal moment of Tudor History. 

Furthermore, a comparison of the lives of two Africans who took part in the circumnavigation of the globe by naval hero and privateer Francis Drake from 1577, reveal the impact of gender on their differing experiences. Diego, a former slave in the Spanish Caribbean, was valued as a part of the crew, having played an instrumental role in Drake’s successful seizure of Spanish treasure in 1573. A woman known as Maria, on the other hand, was seized from the ship of a Spanish nobleman and marooned on an island after she was "gotten with child between the Captain and his men pirates." As a man, Diego was able to gain status by proving himself a loyal and skilled sailor, but this was not an option for Maria. As Kaufmann notes, her story shows the vulnerability of women who were abused and exploited at sea, and cautions against creating any idealised images of relations between Englishmen and Africans in the Tudor world. Kaufmann does, however, explore the lives of African women living in Britain who appear to have fared better. An "independent singlewoman" named Cattalena dwelt in rural Almondsbury, Gloucestershire, leaving an inventory of her property in 1625, including a bed, a table-cloth and a cow. Although this may not exactly seem like great prosperity today, the inventory tells us that Cattalena could make a modest living in a country village much like any other Tudor, the very mundanity of her life subverting all contemporary expectations. 

Lively and engaging, Black Tudors highlights the value of uncovering hidden histories, and excavating the lives of Africans in Britain, immeasurably enriching our perspectives of British history. As Kaufmann states: "when we ask new questions of history, we get new, and often surprising answers".  

If you would like to learn more, Miranda Kaufmann is coming to UCL to take part in the seminar "Being Black in Tudor England/Being English in Mughal India" in May. The Centre for Early Modern Exchanges is dedicated to the studies of cultural, economic, and social exchanges between early modern states in the period 1450-1800. Find more information at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/early-modern/