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Book review Books: Revelatory account of the black presence in Tudor England

Black Tudors
by Miranda Kaufmann
(OneWorld, £18.99)
THOROUGHLY researched, accessible and well written, this study of the black presence in England during the Tudor period is an eye-opener in many ways.
Miranda Kaufmann has spent a great deal of time delving through parish records, court transcripts and other contemporary documents to unearth the representative stories of 10 Africans who lived and worked in the country before England became seriously involved in the Atlantic slave trade.
The conclusion of her studies is that there were more black people in the country during Tudor times than many might have imagined and that the many hundreds who ventured to these shores generally did so of their own accord.
Once here they also lived, worked and struggled in much the same way as the rest of the general population — as servants, shop workers, maids, sailors, musicians or prostitutes — with few restrictions on their liberty beyond the ordinary moral and legal constraints of the day.
Kaufmann argues that partly this was because English law, unlike the legal framework in large parts of the rest of Europe, specifically forbade slavery. But it was also because the Tudor period pre-dated the need to construct racist theories that were later used to justify participation in the slave trade.
The subjects the author chooses to focus on are a mixed bunch. They include the likes of John Blanke, a trumpeter, Edward Swarthye, a porter, Mary Fillis, a servant, and the splendidly named Reasonable Blackman, a silk weaver. Each gets their own chapter looking at how they might have arrived in England, what their lives would have been like and how they fitted into society.
While many of the stories are interesting, the essential difficulty with this venture is that so little is known about each of the characters that a great deal must be left to supposition. The concrete facts we have about each are few and far between, which means that Kaufman has to resort to filling the gaps with a general consideration of what the world was like at the time.
The chapter on Blanke the trumpeter, for instance, has much about the lives of other Tudor musicians but little of the unknowable detail of what Blanke himself actually did. While it would be unfair to characterise this as padding, there are times when it feels pretty close to it and interest for the reader waxes and wanes according to the professions of the subjects.
Details of the swashbuckling adventures of Diego, a sailor who circumnavigated the globe, are pretty gripping, even though there is not much detail about his role in the adventures. But when it comes to quieter souls such as Cattelana, a “singlewoman” living modestly with a cow in the countryside near Bristol, the excitement inevitably wanes.
It’s difficult to know how else Kaufman could have tackled this dilemma, other than to have produced a much shorter and potentially less engaging book. As it is, hard facts about the 10 subjects probably account for less than a quarter of the text in the 370-plus pages, with the rest background.
Perhaps the solution for the reader is just to take the book for what it is, a useful and entertaining contribution to the understanding of the lives of black people in England so many years ago. “Anyone who assumes that all Africans in British history have been powerless enslaved victims must be challenged,” says Kaufmann. “The black Tudors actively pursued their own interests and were free to do so.”

 

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