The landowner’s enforcer
Edward Swarthye’s role in a vicious family feud landed him in court
In 1596, a black man called Edward Swarthye whipped John Guye, the future first governor of Newfoundland. They were both servants in the Gloucestershire household of Sir Edward Wynter: Guye managed the iron works, while Swarthye was the porter. This was considered shocking and “unchristian like” at the time, but not for the same reasons we might assume today. It was the fact that such a high-status, educated servant as John Guye had been publicly humiliated that upset the onlookers, not the colour of Swarthye’s skin.
Swarthye had likely been brought to England by Wynter after he captained the Aid on Francis Drake’s Caribbean raid of 1585– 86, as one of many Africans who fled their Spanish enslavers to join the English.
The whipping was just one incident in an ongoing family feud between the Wynters and their neighbours, the Buckes. (Guye had recently married James Bucke’s daughter Anne, thus dividing his loyalties). Bucke accused Wynter of a raft of crimes, from enclosing the common land to having had him assaulted. Edward Swarthye appeared as a witness in the ensuing court case of 1597, his testimony confirming that he, a black Tudor, had whipped a white man before a crowd assembled in the Great Hall at the Wynters’ home, White Cross Manor.
The fact that Swarthye was allowed to testify in court demonstrates that he was viewed as a free man in the eyes of the law. Enslaved people have been prevented from giving evidence throughout history: the Romans would only accept such testimony if it had been obtained using torture, while in 1732 the state of Virginia declared that black men and women were “people of such base and corrupt natures that their testimony cannot be certainly depended on”. By contrast, Swarthye’s testimony was taken by the Court of Star Chamber without demur.