Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Miranda Kaufmann - Black Tudors: The Untold Story

In the months before I read Miranda Kaufmann there was a twitter outcry from right-wingers who objected to the portrayal of some Ancient Romans in a documentary about Roman Britain, as being dark skinned. Despite the assurances of a number of well qualified historians they seemed unable to believe this well established fact.

I suspect these same individuals would be hugely outraged to read Miranda Kaufmann's new book Black Tudors which makes it clear that during the Tudor period English people would not have been surprised by, or unused to seeing black people, particularly Africans, on their shores. Indeed, as the stories she focuses on here make clear, black and non-white people, played a large variety of different roles within Tudor society - from servants and prostitutes, to highly qualified sailors and weavers. Kaufmann begins by making a very important and clear statement about the perception of non-white people in Tudor England:
When the Black Tudors encountered Tudor Englishmen, they found a people who, though certainly xenophobic on occasion were deeply curious about the world beyond the seas. Most English men and women knew little or nothing of the world beyond their parish boundary. A 'stranger' was simply someone from outside the parish. 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.
Furthermore, and this will surprise more than a few bigoted twitter users. The idea that black people only came to England as slaves and as a result of slavery is completely incorrect. Instead the opposite is true and one of the fascinating things is that many black people in the Tudor period appear to have come to the British Isles precisely because they understood that there were no slaves there. Racism, in the sense that we understand it today, did not exist, and people were treated (whatever their skin colour) in terms of what position they occupied, or should occupy in society.

As Kaufmann continues:
Social class governed society. Everyone, from the King... through the aristocracy, to the gentry, yeomen and husbandmen, down to the lowliest vagrant, occupied a particular place in the 'Great Chain of Being'. When Africans arrived in England as ambassadors, they were treated as such, but when they arrived aboard a captured ship, they found themselves at the bottom of the pile.
Kaufmann explores this through the stories of a few select individuals. The shortage of records from the period means that Kaufmann must at times speculate about the people she records, but the facts she has unearthed tell as fascinating story. There's Diego an escaped slave who joined the ship of Captain Drake, helped him raid the Spanish and then returned to Plymouth with him. Later he travelled on Drake's circumnavigation of the world. Diego was wounded on the trip (and eventually died) but he was not a slave. In fact Kaufmann provides evidence from witnesses that Diego had "made a contract with Francis Drake". In other words he was being paid a sailor's wage. There are plenty of stories like this about other black sailors and other black men and women who played a role in Tudor society.

But it is important to say that Kaufmann is not sentimental, nor does she pretend that colour did not matter. It's clear in the case of Anne Cobbie, a prostitute described as a "Tawny Moor with Soft Skin" that Tudor men sought her out because of her complexion and her body. Kaufmann uses the discussion of race, sex and Tudor prostitution to re-emphasise her central point though - that race was not a barrier to involvement into Tudor society. She writes:
Both African men and women were punished by the church courts for having sex outside marriage. In February 1593, Joanna Bennett of Grays Thurrock, Essex, was brought before the Church court at West Ham and charged with 'having carnal knowledge and abusing her body with a certain blackmore now dwelling in the town'. The following January one Agnes Musby did penance for 'fornication with Paul, a blackemore'... These relationships show a very physical acceptance of Africans into Tudor and early Stuart society.
Surprisingly I found that the accounts of specific individuals were more interesting for the way that the author used them to show just how many black people there were in England in the period. She shows this through discussions of Shakespeare s work, analysis of wills, baptism and marriage records and so on. The importance of this is summed up by Kaufmann:
Historians have often argued that the racialised chattel slavery that developed in Colonial America was based on a mind-set imported from England. But the experiences here show that slavery was not an inevitable result of the Anglo-African encounter. Coupled with evidence of free Africans in early Virginia, this book adds weight to the conclusion that American slavery was something that emerged in the very specific economic and social circumstances of the early colonies.
I agree with this conclusion, and the value of Kaufmann's book is precisely that it does support this argument. However what I felt the book didn't do was explain what, precisely, did lead to the racism that developed in the UK and the United States. If it did come from such "specific economic and social circumstances" how did it develop? Who pushed it and why? I think the answer lies in the way slavery and capitalism were linked - the need to justify slavery and stop the unity of black and white that would oppose the barbaric trade.

Miranda Kaufmann's book is an excellent and accessible book that demonstrates that racism and prejudice were not automatic in the encounter between Europeans and Africans. If it didn't go far enough to explain where that racism did come from, that certainly isn't enough to stop me recommending it to others.

Related Reviews

Snowden - Before Colour Prejudice
Richardson - Say it Loud
Fryer - Staying Power

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