A black porter publicly whips a white English gentleman in a Gloucestershire manor house. A heavily pregnant African woman is abandoned on an Indonesian island by Sir Francis Drake. A Mauritanian diver is despatched to salvage lost treasures from the Mary Rose... Miranda Kaufmann reveals the absorbing stories of some of the Africans who lived free in Tudor England. From long-forgotten records, remarkable characters emerge. They were baptised, married and buried by the Church of England. They were paid wages like any other Tudors. Their stories, brought viscerally to life by Kaufmann, provide unprecedented insights into how Africans came to be in Tudor England, what they did there and how they were treated. A ground-breaking, seminal work, Black Tudors challenges the accepted narrative that racial slavery was all but inevitable and forces us to re-examine the seventeenth century to determine what caused perceptions to change so radically.
Dr. Miranda Kaufmann is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She read History at Christ Church, Oxford, where she completed her doctoral thesis on 'Africans in Britain, 1500-1640' in 2011. As a freelance historian and journalist, she has worked for The Sunday Times, the BBC, the National Trust, English Heritage, the Oxford Companion series, Quercus publishing and the Rugby Football Foundation. She is a popular speaker at conferences, seminars and schools from Hull to Jamaica and has published articles in academic journals and elsewhere (including the Times Literary Supplement, The Times, The Guardian, History Today, BBC History Magazine and Periscope Post). She enjoys engaging in debate at the intersection of past and present and has been interviewed by Sky News and the Observer.
DNF. I'd just finished The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History and was all fired up to read more about those usually invisible to (overwhelming male) historians, not just women but people of other races. It might even be a good book, from some aspects, but it wasn't an enjoyable one, it was boring to the extreme. Dry, dry, dry. You know when you are reading and you can't remember what you just read and that happens repeatedly? That's when it's time to admit defeat from turgid prose and look for something that holds your attention.
What I got from the little I read, about a quarter of the book, was that Blacks in Italy and Spain were slaves and being property had no rights. This was abhorrent to the UK and apart from a few brought in for private households, there was never slavery in Great Britain. So any Black reaching the UK, no matter how, even if as a slave, should s/he escape, s/he was free. (Later, in 18th C London there was a 'law' that any slave who escaped and stayed free for three weeks became a free man. The law didn't exist, but the mob did, and the rule of the mob prevailed).
Henry VIII who loved music and was an accomplished musician had a great favourite in a trumpeter, John Blanke, who wrote a letter that survives, to the king asking for a pay rise.
From Roman times there were always black people in Britain, they just got ignored by historians. There is a short article on blacks in Tudor times here. It ends with Queen Elizabeth I trying unsuccessfully to expel them from the UK.
This is scholarly and well researched: a continuation of Kaufmann’s PhD thesis: in other words a proper history book. There is a myth that there were very few people of colour in England in the Tudor period and that Elizabeth 1 made an effort to get rid of those that were. Strictly Kaufmann extends her range to the mid-1620s. Here ten particular men and women are identified and their stories told. Kaufmann does have a tendency to wander off the point and give background detail, probably because her source material is fairly thin. The main sources of evidence are parish and court records: deaths, baptisms, court cases of variable kinds. We start with a trumpeter at the early Tudor Court, John Blanke who was present at Henry VIII’s coronation and end with Cattalena of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire whose possessions at her death were recorded (including her cow) in the early seventeenth century. She was a free and single woman, living alone in an English village: supporting herself. Another woman, a widow was designated as her executor. We know there were Africans living in England in the Roman period. By the end of the Tudor period there were communities in most of the ports, but especially in London. Kaufmann has identified 360 people identified as being black in records of the time. As records are only partial there were likely a significant number more. She also identifies that the very confusing Admiralty records have been little researched and they will have much more information as a number of those identified were certainly sailors. This is before the slave trade (apart from a couple of abortive voyages by Hawkins in the 1560s) and before there were any major colonies. Some were here as a result of trade with the West African coast; others were liberated from Spanish or Portuguese ships; some came with particular skills like Jacques Francis who was part of a team of divers who were charged with swimming down to the wreck of the Mary Rose and salvaging what they could. Kaufmann has an awareness of the times in which she writes: “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.” The science of DNA has added to weight of evidence as well. A man in Wales was able to trace his family tree back to Tudor times and a black servant in one of the great houses. This man, known as Jetto has descendants in many parts of the Britain and even as far as Australia. By the nature of humanity many of those who settled here married as well. All of these migrants were free; slavery wasn’t legal at the time, not in England. There is evidence that many of the pirate ships had crews that were often up to half black, mostly escaped slaves from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. This is a fascinating account and being a historian by original training I appreciated the scholarship that went into it. This is very much a starting point and I am sure research will develop the story. There were a few niggles and a few tangents, but on the whole this is a good counterpoint to some traditional Tudor histories.
What an extraordinary, revelatory book. The author has gone through the minutiae of parish registers and legal records to reconstruct the stories of Africans living in Tudor England, on the way revealing just how many there were. It's a staggering demonstration of how much history has been whitewashed. The author puts each of the stories she's dug out into a wider context of the time (skilled artisans, pirates, prostitutes, musicians at the royal court, divers; city people and country people; settlers and just visiting) and shows how much international travel and immigration, forced and voluntary, was going on. Obviously the historical record is sparse--most people have disappeared altogether, six centuries on, so the number of lives Kaufmann has managed to dig out are probably only a fraction of the whole--but this is a really impressive attempt at recreating a world that hasn't just vanished but been deliberately whitewashed away.
Fantastic stuff. Inevitably there's a lot of grimness here--racism, the beginnings of the slave trade--but there's also glimpses of a world that was just busily getting on, with immigrants of all sorts fitting in to society and becoming part of its ebb and flow.
I read this in e so I didn't get full value from the illustrations; also if you get it in hardback you could use it to hit people who think England's past is monochrome. A really good and necessary book.
Firstly, I'm pleased that this has been published as a cross-over book for a general audience as, like The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici, it challenges the continued popular idea that the Renaissance was essentially White. Kaufmann offers mini essays on ten Black Africans living in England during the 16th and early 17th centuries who were not slaves and who had at least some agency in their lives. She also tries to assert, with some success, that while the British could be insular and xenophobic, 'strangers' could just as easily be someone from another village or town, or of a different religion (this is a time of religious contestations and the Reformations), and skin colour wasn't necessarily a signifier of prejudice.
That said, the records are very sparse and some of the assumptions being made are rather loose. Firstly, it's not always clear that the subjects were actually Black: Kaufmann is sometimes going simply by surname where someone is called Black, Niger, Blackamore, or simply More or Moore - the latter is especially unreliable (Thomas More?). On this basis, she identifies between 300-400 Black people living freely in England. Some are slaves freed or escaped from Spanish or Portuguese masters; others have travelled to London as part of their trade.
Secondly, the sources are often legal records: parish registers of births, deaths and marriage; tax papers; wage negotiations; business and legal records. This gives facts (though ethnicity is not usually recorded) but not feelings: it could be the case that Black Africans were a not uncommon sight especially in a city like London but it's harder to gain an understanding of how they felt or how others felt about them. Certainly there do seem to be instances of what appear to be mixed marriages (like that between Desdemona and Othello which most people in that play celebrate).
Each chapter starts with a little fictional scene which I actively disliked: for example, a Black prostitute is described rubbing her skin with cream and luxuriating in how her soft black skin is the reason for her commercial success. As a prostitute. Hmm. I don't like pure imagination inserted into my history.
My biggest gripe, though, is that there just isn't the evidence to say very much about these African Tudors apart from the fact they existed: instead Kaufmann is forced to fill the text with information about Tudor life. So because an African woman is a prostitute, we hear all about the trade, about sexually transmitted diseases and brothels and who the customers were, and even a brief and pretty uninformative reading of Thomas Nashe's 'The Choice of Valentines' poem because it's set - yes - in a London brothel.
Similarly, the identification of a Black African trumpeter at Henry VIII's court leads to digressions into music, triumphs and coronations, jousts and other courtly ceremonies and pastimes at which music is played, even an outline of Henry VIII's own musical skills and instruments. It's interesting, but it's way off topic. I can see that it reflects the paucity of information that is available in the archives but it does make the book far looser and more unfocused than the title promises.
So this is an interesting attempt to bring to public notice research that has been ongoing for the last 50 or so years in academia and that's clearly a good thing. It's just a shame that by its very nature, the historical archive of essentially legal documents is limited in what it can tell us. If you come to this wanting to learn all kinds of assorted information about the period then this is enjoyable; but it only lightly sketches in Black lives - not Kaufmann's fault, but disappointing all the same.
Scholar and historian Miranda Kaufmann has written vignettes of half a dozen or so Africans who lived and worked in England during the Tudor Era.
The trouble with this collection is that so little information exists, Kaufmann has to parcel it out among other more well-known history. I still found it interesting, but for readers looking for Black History only, it feels rather disappointing.
The answers are complex, but the questions that most commonly spring to mind about the Black Tudors are simple: why and how did they come to England? How were they treated? What were their lives like?" pg 3
The answers, in addition to complex, are brief. But this book did clear up some misconceptions I held about the time period.
For example: "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 the colour of their skin, though these categories did on occasion intersect." pg 4
Many of the records Kaufmann produces were held by the church — baptisms, marriages and so forth.
As an American, it is a different perspective to learn about a country's history that was affected so little by slavery. People could move in and out of England with their slaves, but these unfortunate persons could also be freed or claim their freedom.
Henry VII set a precedent when he freed an African man named Pero Alvarez who was from Portugal, a country with slavery at that time. And it was backed up by the courts.
In author William Harrison's "Description of England", he wrote: "As for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes, that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set food on land they become as free in condition as their masters, whereby all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them." pg 16
I wish America had been more like that.
Readers get to learn about musicians, African princes, ship wreck divers, explorers and more in this book. Recommended for fans of history and non-fiction.
One doesn’t generally associate Tudor-era England with individuals of African-descent. Surprisingly, Tudor England had a sufficient amount of Black residents/workers and there were not ‘slaves’ as usually envisioned. Miranda Kaufmann explores this riveting, fresh angle of English history in, “Black Tudors: The Untold Story”.
A large amount of credit is due to Miranda Kaufmann for being exceptionally ambitious and striving to reveal an aspect of Tudor history that even the most staunch English history aficionado may not be familiar with. Such an untraversed topic opens the door to a written piece that could be choppy, off topic, and comprised mostly of filler information due to the absence of overt resource material. Kaufmann avoids this by sticking mostly to her thesis and staying on task.
“Black Tudors” has a two-prong focal approach by offering an overall look at the role, lives, and socio-status of Blacks living in Tudor England while also highlighting specific Black individuals with various professions and societal norms. This serves as a strong introduction to the topic with variable depth while not overwhelming the reader.
There are, unfortunately, issues with pace and consistency as Kaufmann’s writing tends to fluctuate from entertaining to ��boring’. This is also peppered with some repetitive information and consequentially results in the desire to skim the material/pages of “Black Tudors”. Despite some of these flaws, Kaufmann successfully reveals noteworthy information that is memorable and not too scholarly in tone. In this manner, “Black Tudors” is a piece that targets both novice and expert readers on the topic.
As “Black Tudors” progresses, Kaufmann has the habit of sounding too clinical and merely recapping account books and ledgers concerning the lives of Blacks. On the other hand, Kaufmann’s level of research is evident and in-depth adding substance to “Black Tudors”.
Scholarly academics will be satisfied with Kaufmann’s sleuth-work as she confirms information and the whereabouts of the figures discussed using detective/lawyer-like tenacity leaving no stone unturned.
After providing portraits of the ten key figures discussed; Kaufmann concludes with a brief, overall look at the status of Blacks during periods and attempts to solidify the image of this racial group being solid citizens and not part of any enslavement. “Black Tudors” successfully reveals a new perspective to readers and debunks certain stereotypes that may exist.
“Black Tudors” includes a thorough bibliography complete with a highly satisfying number of primary sources, annotated notes, and a section of photo color plates with photos not previously available in other Tudor texts.
Kaufmann’s “Black Tudors” is extremely forward-thinking and ambitious both in respect to ‘typical’ Tudor history pieces and as the author’s debut book. The material thesis is strong, serves as a valid introduction to the topic, and is intriguing on an intrinsic level. However, the pace is slow, the text is often repetitive, some emotional appeal is missing, and the pages can be downright ‘boring’. “Black Tudors” is very much recommended for those who must read everything there is about British history, black history, and Tudor-era England; but do not expect a mind-blowing work.
I will hold back, for now, on the Scottish trumpeteer who worked in international espionage, and the ecstatic user of a Tudor dildo, who ‘With Oh, and Oh.. itching moves her hips/And to and fro full lightly starts and skips ’. Suffice it to say that any fears that Kauffamn’s that Black Tudors may prove worthy, but dull, are unfounded.
There is an assumption, Kaufmann believes, that all Africans in British history have been enslaved victims and that the Caribbean slave trade was ‘almost inevitable’ – ie depressingly predictable. Black Tudors opens, however, at a time when British involvement in the African slave trade was largely north to south, with us as the slaves.
The coastal villages of Tudor England and Ireland were raided regularly for the slave markets of North Africa. Indeed, this trade was still going on in the Caroline period when our trade in West-African slaves to the Caribbean and North America began.
While there were thousands of white slaves in Africa, those few black Africans who ended up in England were free, and it is their rich and emblematic stories as Afro-Tudors – and Stuarts - that Kaufmann tells. Each, from a retired pirate, to an African prince, are introduced with a little piece of fiction; a few paragraphs, written in italic, in which they are imagined expressing their thoughts at a particular point in their lives. But this fiction is kept quite separate from the history.
The subjects of biographies can take over an author’s imagination. Weaker historians give way to this and express what they feel were their subjects’ thoughts at particular moments. Kaufmann never does this. The biographical material she has is thin – sometimes very thin. A Jacobean Gloucestershire villager left no record beyond the probate list of what she had owned at the time of her death. Yet Kaufman brings her subjects to brilliant life by using only the proper tools of the historian: empathy tethered to fact and context. The fictional passages are simply a charming and novel introduction to their real world.
The names of Kaufman’s black Tudors reflect European empire building, baptism, blunt description of their colouring, the popularity of nicknames and the English fondness for puns: they include the Latin sounding Cattelena of Almondsbury, an Edward Sawrthye, the silk weaver Reasonable Blackman, and John Blanke (as in the French ‘blanc’). This last was a trumpeter at the court of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, performing at his funeral, and then, in a scarlet livery, at the coronation of Henry VIII.
Several other black Tudors appear at key historical moments – diving for salvage after the sinking of Henry VIII’s great battle ship the Mary-Rose, or accompanying Francis Drake as he set out on his circumnavigation of the world.
Kaufman’s suggestion that Blanke may have come to England in the train of Katherine of Aragon, or on the ship-wreck of Juana of Castile and Philip the handsome, opens her introduction to the Spanish slave trade, which began with their conquest of the New World, and to the courts of the first Tudor kings. Kaufman thus frames the wider history of the period, before adding the details that allow her subjects to take shape.
John Blanke is the only Black Tudor to have a portrait – so we can see he wasn’t blanc at all. It appears in a Westminster Tournament roll with Blanke mounted on a horse and playing what we would now call a cavalry trumpet. But it is his demand to Henry VIII for a pay that makes him more immediate and real: ‘his wage now and as yet is not sufficient to maintain and keep him to do you Grace like service as other trumpets do’. Henry VIII’s was a talented and knowledgeable musician and it seems he appreciated the services of Blanke, whose money was doubled.
Kauffman then considers what Blanc needed his money for: the costs of travelling with the court, and the English love of fine clothes. Henry VIII later paid for Blanke wedding outfit, a gown of violet cloth furred with black lamb (violent was a favorite colour for weddings), and the gifts of a hat and a bonnet.
Trumpeters like John Blanc were not only present at major state occasions. They also acted as messengers and were supposed to enjoy diplomatic immunity that allowed them free passage through enemy territory. This made them useful as spies – something I had never considered. In 1560 the Duke of Norfolk complained to William Cecil of the arrival of a trumpeter from Scotland carrying letters, ‘but more to spy than otherwise’.
Kauffman is struck too by the sheer ordinariness of the lives of her black Tudors (and Stuarts). It did not seem remarkable then, as it would have done two centuries later, to see the black porter Edward Swarthye beat the educated white manager of an iron works on their employer’s orders. Porters were, essentially, security guards, and he was doing his job as any other English porter might.
The story of the dildo comes as background to the life of one of only two women featured: the ‘tawny’ prostitute Anne Cobbie. Black prostitutes were rare. More black men visited white prostitutes than the other way round and Cobbie’s striking ‘soft skin’ earned her a high price. Kauffman describes the rich clothes worn by such high class tarts, and it is a client’s description of a visit to one such that includes the passage on the dildo (‘stiff as steel’ and used ‘with many a sigh’).
But this, Kauffman points out, was written for what Pepys called ‘one hand reading’, and a prostitutes expected fate was to be left, by the age of thirty fiver, ‘fitter to furnish a hospital than to garnish a bedchamber’.
I was glad of a happier ending to Black Tudors: Kauffman’s last little biography of a Gloucestershire villager and her cow. People named their cows, and Kauffman set the scene so well I had happy day dreams of independent single women like her Cattelina and their animals, Brown Snout, Lovely and Welcome Home.
And there is something moving in finding black Englishmen and women simply pottering around Tudor and Stuart England. A shared past can unite us and it is a worthy achievement – in the best way – to unearth such a past and do it so well. Black Tudors is light as a feather, yet well informed and informative: an absolute joy.
An edited version of this review appeared in The Times Leanda de Lisle is the author of Tudor: the Family Story
The author obviously did a lot of research, but most of what she included in this book has absolutely nothing to do with the purported subject of the book. It's as interesting as reading an inventory. I do not care how much a tournament cost.
Black Tudors by Dr Miranda Kaufmann is an ambitious book loaded with little-known Tudor trivia that has long been overdue in the study of 16th century England, and fortunately for the future of this little-explored topic, the result is a fascinating production of the utmost quality that takes a close look at ten individuals who could, quite accurately, be considered Black Tudors.
There is a common-held belief that these British Isles were inhabited by a native, white population before the rise of Slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the onset of twentieth century globalisation with the voyage of the Empire Windrush from the Caribbean, that people of colour quite simply were unknown to our Tudor-period ancestors. Yet, as Dr Kaufmann shows in this illuminating and extraordinarily in-depth publication, such a view is quite simply nonsense. As the author notes in the blurb, people of colour were christened, married and buried by the church in England, and were paid wages just like any other 16th century person. They formed integral parts of the communities they lived in, and provided services that were often welcomed, and in many cases, essential.
A Black Tudor presence is first explicitly noticed shortly after the arrival of Katherine of Aragon in England for her wedding to Prince Arthur, around the turn of the 16th century. The Spanish princess brought her own servants across the Channel, which included a woman of a Muslim Moorish background named Catalina, whose duty included making the future queen’s bed. Perhaps more famously is the arrival of a trumpeter to the Tudor court who became known, ironically one imagines, as John Blanke, a man who would serve both Henry VII and Henry VIII with distinction, and for which he was handsomely rewarded. Henry VIII even footed the bill for Blanke’s wedding, ordering a gown of violet cloth, a bonnet and a hat as a gift for ‘our trumpeter’
For even the most ardent of Tudor readers and students, there will be much within Black Tudors that you simply didn’t know, and this is where the true value of this work can be found. Dr Kaufmann is not simply covering well-trodden ground, an issue which has often plagued the study of the sixteenth century, but instead is revealing information that most of her audience will be coming across for the first time. The results are astounding.
Who knew, for example, that Africans were the predominant divers of their day, a fact which witnessed the recruitment of an African named Jacques Francis to try and salvage some items from the sunken Mary Rose in 1450s, over four hundred years before the ship was eventually raised from the sea bed. Sir Francis Drake was just one prominent figure of his day who employed a person of colour, in his case Diego, a freed slave from Panama who would go on to circumnavigate much of the globe with his English captain, often working as an interpreter.
Of course, the history isn’t always joyous, as discovered by the tragic tale of Black Maria, a woman aboard one of Drake’s ships who was raped, impregnated and then abandoned on an island when she presumably had outlived her usefulness. We are also treated to the curious tale of a black porter named Edward Swarthye, who in 1596 in rural Gloucestershire was employed to whip a white member of the gentry named John Guye, perhaps an incident unfathomable to our preconceived ideas of enforced black subservience in the past. A particular entry which I thoroughly enjoyed reading involved the wonderfully-named Reasonable Blackman, who was able to take advantage of his freedom in England to become a successful silk weaver in Southwark, counting many wealthy aristocrats and merchants amongst his clientele.
I was also astonished, more through my own ignorance of the subject as it was so poorly documented elsewhere before this book, that although black people existed as slaves in Spain, bought and sold on cathedral steps like inanimate objects, slavery was not recognised in England so that once these men and women arrived in England, they were considered free. For example, when Pero Alvarez, an African man who arrived in England from Portugal during the reign of Henry VII, he was instantly considered a free man, no longer subject to the shackles of slavery. The subject of slavery arose in an English court of law in 1569 when it was comprehensively determined that no man could be subject to slavery upon entering the kingdom, for ‘England has too pure an air for slaves to breath in’. Two decades later, William Harrison noted proudly;
‘as for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes, that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become as free in condition as their masters, whereby all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them’
The author is an expert in her field, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and an Oxford graduate, where her doctoral thesis was based on the presence of Africans in Britain between 1500 and 1640. The subject couldn’t be in safer hands. Dr Kaufmann’s research is impeccable, and has to be for such a detailed if specific study of those people who for so long have been disregarded by centuries of historians. She treats each of her subjects as individuals in their own right instead of just a community, exploring each life with a delicate warmth and respect that endears those individuals to the reader. We are gripped by their story.
Black Tudors is essentially a fascinating and concise microhistory of a small but important community in 16th century living their everyday lives amidst the much greater socio-political matters occurring around them, from the Great Matter and Reformation of Henry VIII to the threat posed by Spain against Elizabeth I. This book has no filler, and is wholly focused on its objective, a heavily-researched, well-referenced and pioneering, production. At 34-pages, her bibliography is possibly the most exhaustive I have seen. Kaufmann succeeds in her project, and succeeds well.
In her introduction, Dr Kaufmann notes ‘the misconceptions surrounding the status of Black Tudors are part of a wider impression that any African living outside Africa before the mid-fifteenth century, be it in Europe of the Americas must have been enslaved’, further pointing out in her conclusion that Africans were seen and heard across England, from Hull to Truro. This book will hopefully go some way to dispelling this misguided belief that many of us hold. Kaufmann also states confidently “for all those who thought they knew the Tudors, it is time to think again”. She’s right.
ARC provided by Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review
I once heard a radio interview about a Dickens novel adapted for stage where the lead role was played by a black man. The interviewer suggested that this was an interesting choice considering the time period in which it was said. To which said black actor replied, with humour, that actually there was no reason why the character couldn't actually have been black considering how diverse 19th C London really was - 'we (poc) weren't just invented'. I did know that there was a lot more ethnic diversity in Britain than our received historical sources lead us to believe but even I was surprised at just how diverse Britain through the ages really was. Black Tudors looks specifically at a period of English history about which much fiction - especially of the princes and king variety - has been written. Of course England was not populated only with gentry and aristocracy, nor was it populated only by white people as the author shows. This is a light read for a historical non fiction and the author has been frank where she has made assumptions due to gaps in historical record, and also what led her to those educated guesses. This is a fascinating book and adds substantial fuel to the argument for more diversity in historical fiction.
This is a revelation. Tudor England was actually a place where Africans came to be free. Tudor England was so different because they had no economic motive for slavery. There were no plantations which at that time required slave labor. Colonies with plantation economies eventually brought about institutionalized slavery and racism in those colonies, but by the end of the Tudor period the British Empire was barely in its infancy.
So what's our takeaway for our current world? If racism is economically motivated by a need to suppress a slave population, why is there racism in our increasingly automated society? That's certainly something to think about.
I came across Miranda Kaufmann's Black Tudors: The Untold History whilst browsing my library's online catalogue, and duly reserved it. Whilst I studied the Tudor period in some detail at school, I have largely focused on more modern historical periods since. However, I am always eager to learn, and was keen to read about a largely unknown-to-me element of a fascinating era.
Black Tudors is called variously, in the numerous reviews sprinkled over its cover, 'alive with human details and warmth', 'a work of brilliant sleuthing', and a book which 'promises to change perceptions of a period at the heart of Britain's national identity'. These reviews served to intrigue me further.
Kaufmann has pieced together Black Tudors by using 'long-forgotten records' of 'the remarkable stories of Africans who lived free in Tudor England.' She has split her narrative into ten distinct chapters, each of which turns its focus to a particular individual - essentially, each forms a case study. These range from trumpeter John Blanke to Anne Cobbie, a prostitute who was known widely as 'the Tawny Moor with Soft Skin'. Early on, Kaufmann highlights: 'In many ways, their lives were no worse than those of the vast majority of Tudors... but this was the result of having no social standing, not of having dark skin.' Whilst many Africans were enslaved during this era, some had their freedom, and were able to exercise it.
Each chapter begins with a page-long imagined narrative of the individual. In the case of salvage diver Jacques Francis, for instance, who worked on the shipwreck of the Mary Rose, Kaufmann writes: 'That was why he was here, why the King had hired his master: to salvage the expensive weaponry. The Venetian could not dive this deep himself and so he'd found Jacques, and the other divers in his team, and brought them to this cold island to perform a miracle for the English King.' I did not personally feel as though these sections were necessary; they added very little background, and much of what they said was repeated later on in the chapter. Whilst I appreciated the range of professions which these individuals held, I did not learn a great deal about them, really.
In her introduction, Kaufmann notes: 'Despite the insatiable appetite for all things Tudor, from raunchy television series to bath ducks modelled as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the existence of the Black Tudors is little known.' Having read Kaufmann's book from cover to cover, I think it is fair to say that this is still a little known element of Tudor history. Whilst more is known about some subjects than others, there is so much speculation at play - how an individual came to Britain in the first place, and the routes which this entailed; their marriage partners; what happened to them when they no longer appeared in court records...
Due to a general lack of records throughout this era, a lot of what Kaufmann writes is purely speculative. There is little concrete information which she had to work from, and therefore much of Black Tudors could be said to be more of an imagined narrative than a work of history. There are so many instances of 'maybe' and 'perhaps' here that sometimes one wonders why Kaufmann tried to focus on the black Tudors at all.
The prose of Black Tudors is definitely accessible, but it never really felt as absorbing as I like history books to be. I learnt some things, but nowhere near as much as I expected to when I started to read. I did appreciate that Kaufmann continually cites the historical context of the period, but this often overshadows the individual whom she is trying to focus on; they largely get lost in the minutiae of Tudor life. The real information which has been used in Black Tudors is often so scant that really, the book reads like a generalised history of the period. Much of which makes up each chapter scarcely touches upon the individual in question.
Black Tudors does not achieve what it sets out to. I completely understand that there is comparatively little by way of sources available, but the title of the book is rather misleading. There is an admirable amount of research and subject knowledge here, but in a more generalised manner. This history book is not what I was expecting. Although it has a lot of good information on the Tudor population as a whole, it does not know enough about any of the individuals which it tries to focus upon; therefore, they have no way of feeling like realistic beings, who really existed.
Black Tudorsultimately feels quite muddled, and I did not really enjoy the tangents which Kaufmann often diverts to. These make the narrative feel fractured and fragmented, and it is sometimes difficult to pick up individual threads of the stories of the individuals in consequence. Whilst I read some parts of Black Tudors with a great deal of interest, for me as a reader, it really missed the mark.
I said this in a reading update, and I’m gonna say it again. I really hope more white readers (especially those who romanticize this time period) read this book.
The Tudor period is so romanticized and dramatized by so many, and so many people walk away with incorrect assumptions about people of color (namely, Africans) and their lives during this time period. Whether it be a book, tv show, or movie the time period excuse is always used when these mediums choose to show Africans as nothing but slaves. I’m thankful that everyone who reads this will have their assumptions challenged.
This book was entertaining, very informative, and as a black woman it made me proud and excited when reading these accounts.
The only negative is that 2 stories (out of 10) I found not to be too fascinating as they felt to drag on too long with contextual facts that are supposed to support the narrative of a particular African’s story, but seemed to go on too long of a tangent.
Also, I'm not too hyped a white woman wrote this as white women historically (and today) have been the biggest proponents of keeping black people (especially women) down, so a white women being one of the very few authors bringing this topic and truth about history to light makes me uncomfortable. In the future, I will be on the lookout for more works like this, and hopefully they will be written by black scholars.
I am somewhat conflicted about this book. It was absolutely fascinating. The information was great, and I enjoyed a lot of the little details, especially the ones about the court records.
Firstly, once you get into the 1620s, I am not really sure you can call them 'Black Tudors'. Admittedly, 'Black Tudors and Early Stuarts' does not work as well.
Secondly, some of her connections got a bit tenuous. My eyebrows raised a bit when she constructed a past for Cattelina of Almondsbury entirely out of whole cloth, and when she went from a discussion of Annie Cobbie to a discussion of abandoned babies. Could the abandoned baby found shortly after the trial of Anne Cobbie's employers have been Anne Cobbie's child? Yes. But we have absolutely no evidence that it was.
Lastly, I had real issues with the way she began each chapter, with a series of paragraphs putting the reader into the mind of the subjects. We don't know what any of them were thinking, or saying. Not John Blanke-- certainly not Anne Cobbie, who is depicted as putting on skin cream and thinking about how her soft skin is what her customers like, and not Cattelina of Almondsbury, who is milking a cow and thinking about being black, and how strange that is. Given the very little information we have about them, I can understand the temptation to create a narrative around them. I just don't think the author should. It would have been, I think, an equally interesting book had it been structured differently, perhaps around themes, and not people forced to exemplify those themes.
This book discusses the lives of black people in Tudor England, contradicting the assumption that they were not a part of English history at this time. The author attempts to tell the story of several individuals, and in so doing shed light on the variety of occupations and roles held by black people at the time, again contradicting an assumption that black people in England must have been slaves or servants. I liked that the author frankly discussed what is and what is not known from the historical record, especially as there were a lot of blank spaces in the lives of these ordinary people. When she made assumptions, she explained why she did so (for example, she theorized that one individual had immigrated from the Netherlands based upon the neighborhood in London where he lived). She also started each chapter with a brief passage from the imagined perspective of her subject, which I enjoyed as it made it easier for me to engage with the subject matter. I appreciated that the author included a significant bibliography and notes section, as these are sometimes lacking in popular nonfiction books. My interest in the Tudor era comes primarily from reading a lot of historical fiction, which often (and understandably) tends to stories about royalty or people associated with royalty. I appreciated the insight into ordinary people, and I hope that some historical fiction authors read this book and incorporate some of information in it to make for more interesting and diverse characters. I certainly enjoyed discussing the information I read in this book with friends.
I received this book in exchange for an honest review.
For most people, Black British history beings with the Windrush. Miranda Kaufmann's book shows that it extends much further back into history—not just into the earlier twentieth century, or even into the nineteenth, but into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There was a small but detectable population of people of African descent in Britain: west African royalty travelling to England for education, trumpeters at Scottish courts, divers and seamstresses and servants and sailors. They weren't slaves, but rather free people, who worked for others or owned their own small businesses; they were baptised into the Church of England and intermarried with English people. In both the big picture and the fine details, Kaufmann presents a history sure to undermine many assumptions about what the distant past looked like.
Black Tudors is not a set of conventional biographies. The book is as much about the contexts, the moment in history, within which these people lived as it is about them. As with the case with the vast majority of the inhabitants of early modern Britain, we have only scraps of knowledge about them and their lives. This may frustrate some readers, as may the fact that Kaufmann sometimes roams quite far from the subjects of her book. Despite that, however, this is still a fine, well-written book which adds appreciably to our knowledge of Britain's past.
I liked it. Incredibly well-researched. It lost stars for me because so much of the information was focused on the Stuart era and not the Tudors, also because so many of the details included did not quite relate to the stories.
I have read several outstanding books about everyday Tudor lives recently, and I'm delighted to add this one to my bookshelf. Solid and exhaustive research that makes excellent arguments not only for the presence of Africans in the everyday Tudor landscape but also their status as free persons who were ordinary members of the community. I also particularly love that each chapter is devoted to a person of a different social standing, so in addition to presenting the breadth of diversity in circumstances that the different subjects enjoyed, we also get a slice of many different sorts of Tudor lives.
Kaufmann also does an excellent job modeling how one researches very specific subjects, and how much information can (and cannot) be inferred from something as brief as a will or a baptismal record. Her contextualization of the information she presents is a real pleasure to read.
It is said that history is written by the winners. While that is certainly true, the more insidious fact is that history is written by those who hold the pen. What this means in a practical sense is that those with little power, and little influence–whether or not they “won”–are often either diminished in the historical record or left out entirely. One of the great (or terrible) things about the emergence of the internet is that it has given voice to populations who, even fifty years ago, would not have been heard. The internet is going to change how histories are written in the future, the vast amount of data available, and the clamor of voices waiting to speak will need to be addressed by future historians.
But enough digression. We’re talking here about the Tudor era. Very, very few people are literate, even in the upper levels of society. While high ranking men and officials had a decent literacy rate, women, lower classes, and other marginalized groups were overwhelmingly illiterate. The upshot of this is that we know quite a good deal about the rulers, the “important” folk, economics, etc. but very little about the daily lives of merchants, yeomen, women (especially poor women), and others not well represented in the written record.
This fact makes Kaufmann’s book incredibly ambitious. There are no known surviving sources written by Africans in Tudor England. Kaufmann instead must play detective, inferring the shapes of these people’s lives through their interactions with higher-status (ie. record-leaving) contemporaries. What Kaufmann has found is the tip of a fascinating iceberg. The unusual wording of law in the British Isles (and notably not in her colonies) meant that there could be no slaves in England (though people could be, and were, treated as such). As a result, Kaufmann’s history isn’t one of slavery, but about the wide range of professions and lifestyles occupied by Africans in Tudor England. We are introduced to sailors and wreck divers, prostitutes and silk weavers, servants and princes. Some were able to live independently in cities and towns through the country, others were employees or servants. Some tales are inspiring. Others, like the fate of Maria, an African woman brought on board one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship for “entertainment” are horrible beyond imagining.
Kaufmann has been able to unearth or infer quite a bit of information on the lives of African individuals in Tudor England. Her book is a fascinating look at a time before England’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade made the dehumanization of African people the norm. Her work will appeal to historians and anthropologists alike, and is a must read for anyone seeking more information on the role of non-Europeans in history.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.
*I received this book through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.*
I had never really given much thought to Africans living in Tudor England, but I'm glad this book introduced me to a few of their incredibly varied lives. In addition to highlighting less prominent historical figures, this book teases out plenty of details which histories focused on politics often miss. I particularly liked the chapter on the divers who salvaged items from the sunken Mary Rose. I had no idea this had been done in the 16th century, let alone that African divers had been recruited for the task. This book is filled with such details and this along with the strong challenge to my preconceived notions about the period made this book a great read.
There were more of them than you think. From Henry VII's trumpter, to a Westminster whore, the book is chock full of interesting tales about fairly ordinary people living ordinary lives... they just happened to be African in a time and place we don't normally associate with Africans.
It was heartening to learn that the English weren't racist. The fact that these people were Christians was more important to them than the colour of their skin. Leading to a number of marriages between Africans and English.
"We thought we knew Tudor England, but this book reveals a different country, where an African could earn a living, marry and have a family, testify in a court of law, or even whip an Englishman with impunity."
In 1619, the White Lion sailed into the English colony of Virginia. Aboard were 20 Africans captured from a Portuguese slave ship. The colonists bought them, making them the first slaves to be sold in the British Atlantic slave trade.
This is usually where we start the story of Africans in the English-speaking world. But they were living and working in England for at least a century before the slave trade. And this is their story.
John, the trumpeter from West Africa, who played at the coronation of Henry VIII and was sufficiently ambitious and confident of his position to petition the young King for a pay rise.
Jacques Francis, the professional diver from Guinea, who worked to salvage armaments from the sunken Mary Rose, and testified in his employer's defense in court.
Diego, the sailor from Senegambia, who fell in with Francis Drake fighting the Spanish in the Caribbean, and then joined him on his circumnavigation of the globe.
Reasonable, a black silk weaver, fled the wars in the Netherlands to become a successful craftsman in Southwark.
Mary Fillis, a Moroccan servant to a seamstress, who like many other Africans arriving in theocratic Elizabethan England found acceptance through conversion.
Dederi, a prince from West Africa, sent by his royal family to learn English in London, at the height of an African-English trading relationship that didn't involve slaves.
These are just some of the Black Tudors this research has unearthed.
It doesn't romanticise the pre-slavery experience of Africans in England. Tudor society was brutal at the best of times.
But in Protestant England your religion was a much greater obstacle than your skin colour. The parish records show Black Tudors being christened and marrying White Tudors, in a way that would be unthinkable a century later.
Then in 1641 Massachusetts passes the first slave laws. And another history begins.
This book is so interesting! It was good to hear about society and attitudes during this period, and particularly surprising to learn that people of colour were treated the same as everyone else - interracial marriages happened often, and, more importantly, the keeping of slaves was illegal over here. There are unfortunately few records from that time, but enough to learn that even single women of colour could own property, and earn her own living. Oh - and an African even whipped a white man legally! A very surprising and good read.
This is an important book, showcasing crucial research, and it just so badly written that it obscures, rather than reveals what it has to say. There is a short and excellent epilogue at the end of the book, which includes a summary of Kaufmann's research. I would recommend reading it first, as I suspect a lot of readers will give up in frustration well before they get that far. Books from PhDs can often be dry, however, focus is a much bigger issue for Kaufmann. Each chapter discusses one of the 360 African-British residents Kaufmann was able to identify in the Tudor era, with only a small handful featured in total. Very, very little is known about the lives of most Tudor people, and Kaufmann could summate the known facts about these individuals quickly. Instead, she jumps between related topics, explaining why they may, or may not, be relevant. The result is a lot of often disjointed information coming very fast, designed for a range of audiences. In dealing with someone whose family died of plague, for example, we get information about the waves of plague at the time seemingly aimed at an audience new to Tudor life, common beliefs about stopping plague, and kinda randomly a moving piece of writing from the 13th Century black death burials in France. In another, we get a reasonably rapid fire elaboration of the history of Barbary, very relevant to the focus of the book, but little more than a dry list of political manoeuvring apparently unconnected to the actual individual whose chapter this was, and seemingly aimed at an audience with some working knowledge of the period. There were random asides I enjoyed: the stuff on trumpeters was fascinating, and the bits about the importance of cows to lone females as well. But it never stopped being scattershot. It's a shame, because the research and perspective of Kaufmann was thoughtful and important. I notice several reviewers refer to her tendency to explain why England was a desirable destination as a defence of British policy. This changes over the course of the book, as Kaufman details the growing involvement in the slave trade, and the hypocrisy of Britian's policies. Her work to undo the perception that Britain expelled black citizens is motivated by the need to recognise their visible presence in Tudor society: Londoners would not be surprised to see black people, and enough villagers had a resident "blackamoor" to mean that rural areas were familiar with where such people came from, and how they fitted. There is little evidence that race was used at this time as a justification for slavery, or denial of a role in normal society (Kaufmann's subjects are promoted, own and trade property, are buried in consecrated ground etc). Religious conviction was used in this way, and African-descended peoples were under heavy suspicion for being 'infidels' or Muslims. For this and other reasons, they would not have lived lives without racism, but the distinctions are important. Great topic, great research, and I would recommend if you are good at persisting. Hopefully, this will be the first of many books on this topic.
"Black Tudors: The Untold Story" by Miranda Kaufmann does an excellent job of highlighting the African presence in Britain during Tudor times. With a few exceptions, we know little about their lives since just their names and ethnicity is all that have been recorded about them. But the fact that they were present in numbers large enough to be noticed, means that British history needs to be viewed in a different light. In 2018 I attended a presentation by the author at the British Museum where she talked about specific characters mentioned in her book.
I was also lucky enough to attend a presentation by Onyekaa at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015 on the Black Tudor presence. And having read his book (Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status, and Origins) on which his presentation was partly based and this book complements it nicely.
Based on the content, the author has obviously done a significant amount of research and I would certainly recommend reading it.
Great history lesson, but definitely not an untold story. Maybe a more accepted story now, but I know of at least 3 women who have been writing on this subject for years. Shout out to Francesca Royster, Joyce Green MacDonald, and Margo Hendricks. I would love for Netflix to work with these women and give us a miniseries!
“The presence of Africans in Tudor England was common knowledge at the time, and it needs to become common knowledge again.”
I’ve spent over 20 years reading about the Tudors and this is the first time I’ve encountered a book specifically dedicated to telling the stories of Black men and women during that era. The title is slightly misleading because it also tells the story of Black Stuarts, but I suppose that’s not as easy for marketing.
Kaufmann follows the stories of 10 men and women, showing the range of professions Black people had during the 16th and 17th centuries. These include a diver, silk merchant, musician, sailor, and an “independent single woman”, among others.
As is expected, very little is known about these people, so Kaufmann uses their professions to reconstruct the kind of lives they would have lived. Many of them faced hardships, but it was not because of the color of their skin, rather that living conditions and life expectancy were very different in Tudor England.
Kaufmann asserts that slavery and the need for prolonged manual labor in the American colonies was in sharp contrast to what was going on in England, a place considered by contemporaries to have air “too pure” to allow slavery. It’s under this guiding principle that she shines a light on the long forgotten lives of Africans in England, some who surely sought refuge there.
It’s frustrating that there is only so much we will ever know about these people and their experiences, but Kaufmann also says in the Epilogue that many new resources are now becoming available online to researchers willing to put in the effort (she has roughly 100 pages of her own research appended in this book). I hope that this is the first of many books I will be able to read about this subject.