Be­ing black way back when

Sunday Tribune - - BOOKS - BOOK: BLACK TU­DORS: THE UN­TOLD STORY AU­THOR: Mi­randa Kauf­mann RE­VIEWER: John Pre­ston PRICE: R326 on Loot.co.za

ON DE­CEM­BER 3, 1596, “in the county of Glouces­ter­shire”, one ser­vant whipped an­other in front of their mas­ter at a large house called White Cross Manor.

Noth­ing odd about this, you might think. Af­ter all, ser­vants were flogged all the time in Tu­dor Eng­land.

What makes this case un­usual was that the man be­ing flogged was white, while the man do­ing the flog­ging – he was called Ed­ward Swarthye – was black.

Per­haps the strangest thing of all was that no one present that day thought there was any­thing re­mark­able about this. And yet con­ven­tional wis­dom – along with a string of his­tory books – tells us that to be black in 16th-cen­tury Eng­land was to be stuck in a kind of liv­ing hell. If you weren’t en­slaved, then your days were still likely to pass in end­less drudgery and toil.

But as Mi­randa Kauf­mann re­veals in this con­sis­tently fas­ci­nat­ing, his­tor­i­cally in­valu­able book, con­ven­tional wis­dom has got it hope­lessly wrong.

Al­though life may not have been a bed of roses if you were black in Tu­dor Eng­land, it wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily that bad, ei­ther.

Take the case of an African court trum­peter called John Blanke, who played at the corona­tion of Henry VII in 1485 and was held in such high es­teem that the king paid for his wed­ding out­fit.

Far from be­ing en­slaved (as Kauf­mann points out, slavery was never le­gal in Bri­tain it­self, only in the colonies), Blanke de­manded, and re­ceived, good money for his ser­vices.

By the end of the 16th cen­tury, there were 10 Africans liv­ing in Southamp­ton, one of whom, Jac­ques Fran­cis, was a diver search­ing for the wreck of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’S great war­ship, which had sunk in 1545. At the time, the idea of im­mers­ing one­self in wa­ter was re­garded with con­sid­er­able sus­pi­cion by most of the pop­u­la­tion, and so home-grown divers were hard to come by.

And far from there be­ing any sex­ual prej­u­dice against black peo­ple, a num­ber of them mar­ried white men or women.

The splen­didly named Rea­son­able Black­man, a silk weaver, is thought to have mar­ried an English wife in around 1587. Trag­i­cally, their two chil­dren both died young.

Many Africans died in the Plague, with some of them given funerals “grander than those recorded for non-african par­ish­ioners”. And, not sur­pris­ingly, many im­mi­grants ended up be­ing bap­tised. One Mary Fil­lis, a Moroc­can girl, came to Eng­land in the 1580s and be­gan work­ing, aged six or seven, as a maid. At about 20, she con­verted to Chris­tian­ity.

De­spite be­ing so far from home, she is un­likely to have felt too lonely. By 1589, there was even a Moroc­can em­bassy in Lon­don.

The iden­tity of Shake­speare’s Dark Lady – to whom he wrote sev­eral of his son­nets – is one of lit­er­a­ture’s most en­dur­ing mys­ter­ies. Kauf­mann sug­gests she might have been an African pros­ti­tute called Anne Cob­bie, known as “the Tawny Moor with soft skin”, who was greatly es­teemed by a num­ber of prom­i­nent men of the pe­riod. Anne was in such high de­mand that she was able to charge five times as much as her white col­leagues.

Mean­while, in 1613, a South African man named Coree ar­rived in Lon­don and spent six months liv­ing as a guest in the house be­long­ing to the owner of the East In­dia Com­pany.

There, he was dressed in Western clothes and even had a suit of ar­mour made for him. But when he re­turned to Africa a year later, Coree promptly threw off his Western clothes, put a sheep­skin on his back, draped “some guts around his neck”, as one wit­ness put it, and strode off into the jun­gle, never to be seen again.

Of­fi­cial records make few ref­er­ences to black peo­ple, and so Kauf­mann has had to try to re­con­struct these lives from what­ever in­for­ma­tion is avail­able. As a re­sult, there’s of­ten rather more back­ground in her book than fore­ground.

In an ap­par­ent ef­fort to com­pen­sate for a short­age of hard de­tail, she kicks off each chap­ter with a breath­less fic­tion­alised pas­sage from each of her sub­jects’ lives. Frankly, these should have been tossed straight into the dust­bin.

But this is a small quib­ble in an oth­er­wise ad­mirable book. The nar­ra­tive is pacey, the re­search thor­ough and the tone mer­ci­fully free of ser­mon­is­ing. Any­one read­ing it will never look at Tu­dor Eng­land in quite the same light again. – Daily Mail

Mi­randa Kauf­mann

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