The Black Tudors šŸ’•

Love, love, love Carlisle Bay. Where else can you walk from the anchorage to the Barbados Museum and Historical Society and hear about the past, present and the future? Last week: climate change. Last night, we attended a talk about the presence of black people in Tudor England. Go figure.

I guess the first question: did the rest of Quest crew really want to go to the museum for this talk? Ha! If they did what they wanted to do all the time, well, I cant even imagine. There are unexpected benefits though – like the wild green monkeys we saw on the way, gambolling in the ground by the racehorse stables. Green monkeys have the longest tails btw. Proper curling antennas.

Second question: who gave the talk? Dr. Miranda Kaufman. An Oxford-educated historian, Dr. Kaufman is the author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story.

The story of Dr. Kaufman’s book – derived from her PhD work, seems almost as amazing as her subject. This is because, for years she trawled archives, records and documents in the UK for… names. Just names. Handwritten in scrawl or Latin, documenting the presence of African-derived people in Tudor Britain.

She could identify their ethnicity by the words added to their names – blackamoor or negro. In this way, Dr Kaufman found people of African-descent living and working all over the country. 

They weren’t slaves either. This adjustment of historical context suddenly became jarring – especially in Barbados. The audience asked questions afterwards, trying to pull it back to their country’s experience of British-fuelled slavery.

Dr. Kaufman held her ground. She explained Tudor records show the British slave trade didn’t really begin until it was deemed necessary to have a large and relatively-adapted work force to grow sugar in the tropical Caribbean. Before this, Britain was considered a slavery safe haven.

How do we know? For a start, we know from court records from 16th century Britain. People of African-descent testified in courts of law in Tudor Britain. This couldn’t happen if they were slaves. These testimonies include the case of Guinea-born salvage diver Jacques Francis. He was in England at the time, helping to salvage the guns from Henry VIII’s newly-sank flagship, the Mary Rose.

Secondly, these views of Britain being a safe haven were written down. William Harrison’s 1587 Description of England states, ‘As for slaves and bond men, we have none..’ Indeed, he went on to describe a condition in Britain which it made it pesky for visiting slave owners. ‘As soon as they set foot on land they become as free in condition as their masters..’

Dr. Kaufman duly found such accounts. Slaves would actually wait until they were in Britain before they packed up and walked away from their owners. ‘Can’t keep me here,’ they’d have said in their Tudor clothes. Hopefully gone off to see a Shakespeare play.

Britain was that sort of a place at the time. The Barbadian audience stared back incredulously. Was it still the same in the UK – where no one could be slaves on British soil? And how then did it make slavery ok on other soils? No one asked Dr. Kaufman. We didn’t think to either.

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