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The Lives of Black Tudors: An Interview with Miranda Kaufmann

The Lives of Black Tudors: An Interview with Miranda Kaufmann

By Natalie Anderson

Miranda Kaufmann’s new book, Black Tudors, explores the lives of Africans in the world of Tudor and Stuart England. In it, she traces the paths of ten individuals whose places in society ranged from court trumpeter to household porter; sailor to silk weaver; African prince to prostitute. The book challenges long-standing conceptions of what life in sixteenth and early seventeenth century England looked like and examines how these individuals – and many others like them – lived, worked, were married, and were buried alongside other Tudors. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr Kaufmann about her research.

Miranda Kaufmann

Natalie Anderson: Let’s start at the very beginning. What was the genesis of this research?

Miranda Kaufmann: I was in my last year [as an undergraduate] at Oxford, and I had to think of what to do for my Masters and my Doctorate. I was in a lecture and they mentioned that the Tudors had started trading in Africa in the middle of the sixteenth century, which was new to me. I started wondering what Tudor sailors made of the Africans they encountered and vice versa. Then, when I started reading around, I found references to there actually being Africans in Tudor England, which I’d had no idea about. So, I just wanted to find out more and started searching for them, because there didn’t seem to be much written about it.

NA: So there was a gap in the research. Was that what got you initially interested in this time period and subject area, or was it something you had a prior interest in?

MK: Well, I think I’d loved the Tudors from primary school onwards, really. I think, probably like most people, it was the drama of the royal family and what they were up to, but then I became interested in the wider society.

NA: And the book does tip over into Stuart times a bit, but maybe the name ‘Tudors’ is more marketable, or more instantly familiar to people, and conjures up certain images?

MK: Yeah, I did raise this with my editor – does it matter that some of them are a bit Stuart? They technically might have been born in the Tudor period. And my editor was very keen on the title Black Tudors.

NA: Once you got started on this project, where did you begin your research?

MK: I got in touch with this organisation called the Black and Asian Studies Association, because one of their members had written an article for History Today briefly talking about black people in Tudor England, but it didn’t have any footnotes. So I was like, ‘Can I have your footnotes please? Where did you get this all from?’. And [the author] was really helpful and sent me in the right direction, because they had been gathering information about [the subject]. So that was my starting point. One of the big sources is parish registers, and they had begun informally collecting some parish registers, so I had those as a kind of list, and I went back to the parishes and found more there, and I also started looking in southern ports – places where they might have turned up. And once people got to know what I was looking for, other historians sent me things sometimes. And I went to the National Archives and started searching in their database.

NA: And you did end up with such a fascinating range of people. How did you choose the ten people who wound up featured in the book?

MK: Those were the ones that I was able to find out the most about. Because sometimes, in a parish register for example, it only says something like, ‘John, a blackamoor, was buried’, and then you can’t find out anything more about them. So the ones in the book we know more about. John Blanke [a trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII] appears in the royal household accounts and records, so we find out more about him there. For Mary Fillis [a Moroccan convert] there’s this long baptism record, which goes into great detail in the parish clerk’s memorandum books; [there is] a long account of her baptism with a lot more detail about her life. Also, quite a few of them appear in court cases as witnesses, so with those you can get a bit more of a story as well.

NA: If you could choose, which of the ten individuals would you most like to meet?

MK: Oh, hm, I think either Diego [a mariner] or Dederi Jaquoah [a prince]. Let’s go for Diego, because he’d have so many good stories; like there’s the amazing story of him travelling around the world with [Sir Francis] Drake.

NA: With all the different professions featured – you’ve got trumpeter, in John Blanke’s case, or diver, or silk weaver, or prostitute, or mariner – where do you go to find the different records for each of those people?

MK: Well, John Blanke appears in the exchequer papers, [which include] the records of him being paid and his different petitions. That’s all in the National Archives in Kew. Jacques Francis [a salvage diver] appears in the high court admiralty records. Diego appears in voyage accounts of the period, and also some of the Spanish records where Spanish officials are reporting back about what Drake’s been up to on the coast of South America. Edward Swarthye [a porter] appears in a Star Chamber court record. Reasonable Blackman [a silk weaver] is in a parish register in Southwark. Mary Fillis, like I said, is in a parish memorandum book. Dederi Jacquoah again has a detailed baptism record, and I also found him in a later East India Company letter. Who else have we got? John Anthony [a mariner] writes two petitions to the privy council, so he’s in the State Papers. Anne Cobbie [a prostitute] is in the Westminster sessions. And for Cattelena [an independent singlewoman] we have an inventory of her goods.

NA: Was it then a challenge to construct an entire book around these relatively fragmentary records? You do supplement each chapter with wider historical context and information, which helps to pad things out when you don’t have a lot of detail about one individual.

MK: Yes! Putting their lives in the context of what was going on in society at that time gives us more of an understanding of just what it meant to be a prostitute or a trumpeter or a sailor – it helps to show us what was going on.

NA: I was also really interested in what inspired your device of opening each chapter with a small fictional vignette about each ‘character’. How did you come up with that idea?

MK: I don’t really know now. It was such a long time that the whole thing was in genesis. I think it’s another function of us not knowing as much as we would like about them, so I thought it was a different way to explore what their lives were like, and just to draw in the reader into the chapter and to get the reader going – get them asking questions and trying to imagine what their lives were like.

NA: Did you find it easy or fun to access their voices and to imagine what they might have really thought about or sounded like, rather than just reading a clinical historical record – to try to get into their heads a little bit?

MK: Yeah, it was an interesting exercise. It was about trying to think of a moment in their lives which was maybe the most exciting moment, or the most dramatic moment. To try and draw the reader in. I did quite enjoy that exercise.

NA: I liked it, too, as a way of drawing you into a chapter.

MK: Oh, some people don’t like it. A couple of reviewers have said they didn’t like it at all.

NA: It just made me think, ‘I wish someone would write some historical fiction to go along with this book’.

MK: It would be great if it inspired some historical fiction!

NA: You highlight several times how it’s more someone’s religion than their skin colour which affects how much they’re accepted or integrated into English Tudor society.

MK: I think that has to do with [the fact that] it was just such a highly religious society. They’d just gone through the Reformation, and religion was so important to people. If you look at the way they talk about Catholics, and the fact that Catholics were penalised under the law at the time. I think that [religion] was just a more important differentiator.

NA: Could that also be partly because, as you’ve mentioned, parish registers are one of the better preserved and more plentiful sources, so you’re more likely to find a record having to do with religion relating to black Tudors?

MK: I suppose. I mean, parish registers were a really good way of demonstrating the numbers of Africans who were here. In terms of the numbers, that’s where a lot of [the evidence] comes from and how we know for certain these individuals were here. But I suppose that does mean you’re thinking about them more often in terms of whether they were Christian or not. But then equally I think when they’re appearing in a court of law, they have to be Christian to give evidence.

NA: What sort of audience were you trying to reach with this book?

MK: As wide a one as possible. Definitely beyond the academic audience. I wanted to make it accessible to the generally educated reader. Anyone! Because I think it’s important to get a wide range of people to read it and to get beyond academics.

NA: Do you think there’s a benefit or value to bridging that gap between ‘popular history’ and ‘academic history’? Because this falls nicely in between.

MK: Yes. The research and the source material was the result of my academic PhD, but I wanted to translate it into a more accessible and engaging story that would reach more people. But I think it’s important, even if you’re writing a popular book, to make sure that the research behind it is academic.

NA: How are you hoping it might be used in the future?

MK: Well, like I said, I think it would be great if it inspired some historical novels. But it would also be great if historians took it up, maybe disagreed with some of it, or did some more investigation. I think, as the source material for the early modern period becomes more accessible, if more and more things are transcribed or digitised, then it would be possible to find even more information about black Tudors using word searches and such, which you can’t do at the moment. A lot of the time, if you find someone in a court record or something, it’s good luck that you found that particular case, because there’s no way that you would be able to find it [deliberately]. The court records are usually catalogued by the names of the prosecutor and the defendant, so unless one of those was African, you wouldn’t know that there was an African witness in the case. With Edward Swarthye, for example, it was just lucky that his deposition was filed separately and got separated from the rest of the records of the case, and so when I searched for ‘negro’ in the search engine at the National Archives it came up, because that was his alias. But that was just dumb luck, really. Whereas if everything was digitised, then you could just search for ‘blackamoor’, or whatever, and it would come up, so you’d be able to find even more.

One other thing I’d love to see done with it is I’d love for it to be read by literary historians – people studying the literature of the time – because I think quite a lot has been written about race in the early modern period without any reference to the actual Africans who were living in England. You know, they write based on the literature of the time but without much reference to the history. So it would be good if they took what I found on board next time they analyse Othello.

NA: What have you made of the reaction to the book and its popularity, because it’s done really well. Were you expecting it to take off the way it has?

MK: No – I mean, it’s been reviewed in all the main papers and reviewed really positively. And I wasn’t sure it was going to get reviewed anywhere at all, so I think the publicity department of [publisher] OneWorld have done really well. But obviously it’s intrigued people, because it’s something a bit new about the period. There’s loads of people who love the Tudor period, so I hope that I’ve hooked some of them into thinking about something different about the period.

NA: Do you think the book has come also at quite a prescient time – not just to do with wider debates which are happening now about immigration, but even debates within the world of medieval studies itself? This keys in quite well to a lot of current discussion about conception of the medieval and early modern world as being isolated, and this is a good study in showing it as quite global, actually.

MK: I’ve tried to contribute to the immigration debate in a way. I think a lot of people assume that immigration is a modern phenomenon, and I want to show that we’ve had diverse immigrants for centuries. A lot of stuff written about the Tudor period gets quite insular. A lot of it’s based around the royal court and the religious struggles, which possibly brings you onto the Continent, but if it’s not just England then it’s just England and Europe without going beyond. And, in fact, global issues were already [present]. You read about the [Spanish] armada, and you know about Drake’s circumnavigation [of the globe], but you don’t read about all the other raids he made on the Caribbean and the wider impact of that.

NA: Do you have any plans to develop the research further in any way?

MK: I think I’ve said everything I need to say about the black Tudors now. I’ve been living with it for a long time.

NA: Well, it’s inspired some really great spin offs already, it seems. Like the John Blanke Project.

MK: Oh, that’s a great project. Michael [Ohajuru] has become really inspired by John Blanke – almost obsessed – and he’s commissioned all these artists to draw portraits of him, and poets have written poetry inspired by him, and musicians have written music. It’s really great. We had an evening at the British Library where all those people performed or talked about their art. There’s another one happening at the College of Arms on the first of December. It was a really inspiring evening and it was really great to see where it’s all gone.

NA: Did you have a favourite research moment – one of those moments of connection or breakthrough in a library or archive?

MK: Perhaps one of the most dramatic experiences for me was early on in my research, when I went to the National Archives, and I spoke to the archivist and said, ‘This is what I’m looking for’, and they said, ‘Oh, you won’t find anything about that here’. So, I went to the search engine and started typing in various search terms for the Tudor period, and one of the results was this ‘Edward Swarthye alias negro”s deposition in this court case. When I pulled it up I couldn’t read it very well, but the one word that jumped out at me was ‘whipped’. And I assumed that he was the one being whipped rather than doing the whipping, and so it was quite a moment when I managed to read the document and realised that Edward Swarthye was the one holding the cudgel rather than being whipped. That sort of turns it upside down – all the assumptions you make about what was going on. That was perhaps my first inkling that the story was going to be different to what one might have thought.

NA: My final question is if you have any recommended reading for people who’d like to go from here and learn a bit more about this topic.

MK: There have been a couple other books written on the subject, mostly academic. There’s a book based on a conference, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe – I don’t agree with everything they say, but that’s alright. If they want to follow the history of Africans in England through to the modern period, there’s a book called Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer, which was written 30 years ago now, but it’s still great. Or there’s also David Olusoga’s Black and British.


Dr Miranda Kaufmann is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her book, Black Tudors, is available now, and her upcoming talks may be found on her website

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Follow Natalie on Twitter: @DrMcAnderson

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