Tudor England part II: Exploring Britain's African connections

*This is part II of Tudor England: Exploring Britain's African connection. For part 1, click here *

I've lost count the number of times I've been told, or shown that I do not belong in Britain. And on the surface, what I was taught in school seemed to support that. How could I confidently defend my right to be in a country when I was unaware that more than likely the people telling me to go home had African blood running through their veins?

An 'depiction 'of an African dignitary visiting Queen Victorian
© photographed by MisBeee Writes from postcard
English historian Peter Fryer, who wrote Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, tells us that there were Africans in Britain before the English came here!

According to his research, Africans were soldiers in the Roman imperial army that occupied the southern part of the island for three and a half centuries.

These soldiers were a division of the Moors named after a former Roman emperor called Marcus Aurelius. These soldiers were among troops that defended Hadrian's Wall in northern England in 3AD, Peter added.

British-born 'Africans' did not appear in Britain until 1505, according to Fryer - something that historian Onyeka Nubia disputes. In Onyeka's book Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins, he suggests that it is highly probably that their presence in numbers can be traced back to 12th century.


Historian and writer Onyeka challenges beliefs

© Narrative Eye
Dispelling the myth
So Africans were not just slaves, (see MisBeee Writes: Belle a new kind of English rose). They came to England as skilled artisans, dignitaries and as royalty. And as touched on in (MisBeee Writes: Azania: exploring cultural unity across ancient African), African kingdoms ruled by the likes of Emperor Musa of Mali and Oba Ozolua from the Kingdom of Benin, had already established trading links with Europe long before slavery existed.

The British Royal family holds some African heritage thanks to Princess Charlotte, (no....not Kate and William's second born). Princess Charlotte became Queen of England and Ireland following her marriage to George III of England on 8 September 1761. Charlotte came from an African branch of the Portuguese Royal House Margarita de Castro y Sousa and was the eighth child of the Prince of Mirow in Germany, Charles Louis Frederick, and his wife, Elisabeth Albertina of Saxe-Hildburghausen, according to details in the African American Registry.

Between 711AD and 1492, Spain was under African rule when Moor Tarik Ibn Ziyad led the occupation of the European nation. It was only when the last kingdom in Spanish Granada fell, that many Moors were forced to renounce their faith and convert to Christianity or face enslavement. This resulted in many becoming servants to royals in other parts of Europe, including England.

African imports
African-Iberian Catalina de Cardones is one such example who arrived in Plymouth in 1501 as Henry VIII's first wife's 'lady of the bedchamber' or personal servant. Catalina was believed to be of noble birth but took on the role of servitude for Spanish-born Catherine of Aragon following the political and social upheaval in Spain. It was people of her ilk that brought the Farthingale style of dress worn by African women in Spain to Britain, Onyeka writes.
Queen Elizabeth 1 in the Farthingale

© photographed by MisBeee Writes from postcard


Also imported was a style of horse riding popularised by the Zanata -  one of two branches of the Sahara's Berber population, according to Ivan Hrbeck's Africans from the 7th to the 11th century.

Fraunces was one of many jinetes skilled in riding horses without stirrups, which became fashionable across Europe. This type of riding originated from Tunisia and Algeria before the invasion of Arabs.

According to a Wikipedia entry on jinetes:
"The invasion would have forced them, among other things, to adopt as part of their tactics the use of camels with great dexterity. Their skills were enhanced when they were able to mount a horse, especially the kind of agile horse called a light Arabian, the ancestor of the medieval European jennet. This allowed them to prevail in North Africa and this type of fighting was introduced into Spain when it was conquered by the Moors ."

African pioneers
And the list goes on. We have Diego a Symeron (a Spanish word meaning wild and free and shortened version of Maroon) who travelled across north and south America with vice admiral Sir Frances Drake - an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver, and politician of the Elizabethan era.

And multilingual Jacques who spoke the West African languages Fulani, and Soninke, and Italian. He was a skilled diver able to hold his breath and open his eyes under water for long periods of times. And like the jinetes, this made him useful to his employers because he could  recover items lost at sea and search for highly-prized pearls.

Shakespeare and Lucy
Other important figures include the unknown-named African metalworker who popularised the manufacture of the fine Spanish needle during the reign of Mary 1 (Catherine of Aragon's daughter). According to Onyeka, the Worshipful Company of Needlemakers were so inspired by the skilled African needlemaker that his image was recorded on their crest.

There is also Frauncis who worked for Dutch beer brewer Peter Miller in St Hallows, Barking, Essex. When he died in 1596/7, he was buried in best cloth and had four bearers, which was an indication of his valued status as an employee, according to Onyeka.

Even national treasure and playwright William Shakespeare took creative inspiration from living near Africans. Such works as 'Othello' and 'Titus and Andonicus' are more popular tributes to Shakespeare's African muses but so are his 'dark lady' sonnets from 127 to 154. These sonnets are believed to have been inspired by Shakespeare's affair with Lucy Negro also known as Luce Morgan - a woman of African descent, according to Onyeka.



Last but by no means least we must pay homage to John Blanke, who I mention in (MisBeee Writes: Re-writing history with a walk). John was a trumpeter in Henry VIII’s court and is claimed to be from nobility and a former Spanish resident. He is famously recorded for playing at the Westminster Tournament Roll (1511) following the birth of Henry VIII and Catherine’s son Henry Duke of Cornwall.

Trumpeter John Blanke

© blackpresence
England's African population
Interestingly, any semblance of a formidable African presence during Tudor England seems to be strikingly absent today.

But Onyeka's painstaking consolidation of information from over 10 years of research; trawling through English parish records across London, Plymouth, Bristol and Barnstaple from England's Tudor period, unearths some truths.

He corroborates his findings from England against works from other authors across Europe and West Africa, to challenge the idea that African populations were insignificant between 1485 – 1603.

Based on his research, in some parts of England the African presence was at a ratio of 1:15, such as in St Botolph with Aldgate, London, or 1:20 in the St Andrews ward in Plymouth.
Now I understand that these statistics may appear hard to swallow. And I would understand if you rejected their validity. But answer me this: if England's African population were not significant, why did Queen Elizabeth I feel it necessary to issue letters and proclamations from 1596 onwards requesting the forcible removal of Africans in England because their numbers were growing? (see Emily Bartels' 'Too Many Blackamoors: Discrimination, Deportation and Elizabeth 1'.) These words may be over 400 years old but don't they sound familiar?

Slaves or freemen
Onyeka appears confident that the Queen's concerns were related to the new African arrivals and not those that were established and possibly assimilated into English life. He explores the complex relationship England had with the African continent and its people, which - to me - seemed to oscillate between acceptance and rejection. An acceptance or acknowledgement that some Africans were valued for skills and resources English society was in need of; but also a fear and need to reject those that were seen as different and a threat.

Interestingly, the darker skin colour was not always seen as inferior and bad but was often associated with dignity and nobility. And in some of the parish records Onyeka unearths, the ethnicity of the African pales (pardon the pun) into insignificance as the years pass. So an initial entry recording someone as Black may disappear in subsequent records,  suggesting that the individual had assimilated enough into English society.

Onyeka shows that Africans that landed on English soil were not immediately classed as slaves unlike in Spain and Portugal where they were often shipped back to the Caribbean. It seemed that the rule of law in Britain went some way to afford Africans a degree of freedom - even if that meant in some cases a life of servitude.  But when times got tough - as was the case during the 1590s wheat famine in England, foreigners including Africans were blamed for the problems. Some things don't change eh?!

So next time someone tells you that Africans had only a limited presence and contribution to Britain, look around you because the signs are there, it is just a case of deciphering between what is said and what is not. 
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong.

For more blogs like this, check
Belle - a new kind of English rose  
A podcast: Tudor England's African connections with historian Onyeka

Gold Coast: a lucid look into Denmark's colonial past


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