Thursday, 21 November 2013

Review: Onyeka (2013) Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England Their Presence Status and Origins.

Packed House of Commons Meeting Room 11
6th Nov 2013
I attended a packed Commons Meeting room a few weeks ago to hear Onyeka give a witty and passionate speech to launch his new book: Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England Their Presence , Status and Origins. Now I have had the chance to read it I want to give my thoughts on his ground breaking work on a subject which is very close to my heart and this blog.

Blackmoores: Africans in Tudor England Their Presence , Status and Origins
Some idea of just how ground breaking this book is can be found in the fifty-two rejections Onyeka received when proposing it as subject of a doctorate. Most of the rebuffs were on the grounds that there was no one in the university’s department with the knowledge to supervise his subject. Onyeka is to be praised for overcoming his feelings of ‘failure and resignation’ to produce the work.

He argues that not only was there a black presence in the period but black Africans and their descendants brought new skills to Tudor society and crucially - they were not slaves. He continually rails against those historians who denied these facts, as he has evidenced, in fact he goes further speaking of an ‘academic culture’ that was against accepting any black presence that contributed in any way to Tudor society.

His dedicated scholarship in refuting that  ‘academic culture’ is without question. His masterful thirty page analysis and deconstruction of Elizabeth I’s Privy Council’s letters of 1596-1601 which said that ‘the said kind of people’ should be discharged  with all speed  from her realm, is just one of several examples of his analytic prowess. Onyeka’s thorough analysis reminded me of the late Prof Marwick from my OU studies and his demand for the ‘unwitting testimony’ to be teased from a primary text - those things which were are omitted, not stated, assumed or implied in and from any text. ‘Unwitting testimony’ can only be revealed by a thorough knowledge of the circumstance, and, critically, the period of the text: Onyeka seems to have that knowledge.

He reveals a significant black presence through the study of many thousands of parish record entries of the period to reveal the hidden black presence. For example, he suggests that one in fifteen or 6% of the entries in St Botolph with Aldgate’s  parish register were African.

For the status of Black Africans he examines not just the well known John Blanke, but many others such as Diego who assisted Sir Francis Drake in his circumnavigation of the globe or Symon Valencia, a servant to a needle maker. He  also discusses the roles played by women of African descent.

The scholarship of the writing is manifest by the huge number of primary sources referenced along with the prodigious bibliography however regrettably the same cannot be said of the book’s use of imagery.

I was very surprised to see that the front cover had no direct connection to Tudor England, The image was in fact painted in 15th Century Germany. I know well this foppish black Magus. He appears in an Adoration scene by the Flemish artist Hans Memling, who had copied the work of another Flemish artist Rogier van den Weyden. Van den Weyden was sponsored by the Holy Roman Emperor. The rear cover is Los tres mulatos de Esmeraldas (Portrait of Don Francisco de Arabe and Sons Pedro and Domingo) by Andrés Sánchez Galque. This extraordinary image of Ecuadorians  was painted in 1599 for the King of Spain. Again, it bears no direct relation to the history of Africans in Tudor England.

I found no reference to either work in the text, (the absence of a detailed index was a great frustration, hopefully this can be remedied in a future edition)  which led me to question the book’s selection and interpretation of images.

The text for the Bosch Adoration (Fig. 24) says the attendant of the black Magus ‘may be his daughter’ (p.218) I would contest this inference, as there is no evidence that  a female was an attendant of any Adoration magus black or white, in any of the writings on or depictions of the Adoration, in fact the only female ever present in the Adoration is the Virgin Mother Mary. Further the text claims the black in Domesday Abbrevatio  (Fig. 9)  is ‘useful’ (p.136) to society. His attire indicates exactly the opposite that he is a reprobate, an outsider, a threat to society.

The explanation and description of the  Queen of Sheba’s two depictions (Fig.. 10 and Fig. 11) are in the briefest of footnotes with no account as to why both images have her shown with a black face and blond hair – surely that requires clarification in a text on black Africans. Both these images and others (Fig. 16 et al, Fig. 22) I believe have been taken from the seminal work on black images in Art – The Image of the Black in Western Art which I have written about elsewhere in this blog. But oddly the book’s lengthy and authoritative looking primary sources and bibliography make no mention of this work. This is very disappointing omission.

The images of blacks seem to have been selected for aesthetic rather than historic reasons as they are mostly from continental Europe where black people were treated very differently from those in England. I know from personal experience the paucity of English images of blacks from the period. Nevertheless the images do exist, the book in fact has two good examples -   John Blanke (Figs. 2 and 20) and The Adoration of the Magi  (Figs. 12 and 13) which is a work well known to the author of this blog. The fact that both are used twice within the text seems to indicate their importance and rarity so, why did not either or both make it on to the front or back covers?. The actual images chosen are indeed glamorous, some might say sensational, but I would argue they  in no way  support  the scholarship found between the book's covers whereas as John Blanke and the black Magus are both worthy candidates.

In breaking that new ground in writing about a black presence in Tudor times, Onyeka moves  on from Prof Kate Lowe’s important and influential  researches on black Africans in Renaissance, Europe. And in doing so he moves away form the slavery and colonialism studies, which conventionally have formed the backbone of black British History, greatly expanding its possibilities. While many of his generation’s historians continue to rake over conventional black histories as new sources come to light or old are reexamined, he has found a new and important area of black British history. I am aware of only one other British academic in this area working with equal rigour in the archives to reveal that black presence and that is Dr Miranda Kaufmann whose unpublished doctoral work I have had the pleasure of reading. She seems to have accessed an even wider number of primary texts  than Onyeka, as her work has the possibility of becoming a searchable database detailing what tantalizingly little that the records she studied – Baptism Records, Burial Records, Marriages, Tax Returns, Household Accounts, Church and Municipal Account, Court Records, Wills and Inventories, Diaries and Letters –  revealed about the lives and times of  over 350 black Africans. I look forward to its publication so the two works can be fully compared. I am encouraged by all this activity around black Tudor History as it further underlines the need and the possibility for a British history taught in schools which is a rigorous academic subject from GCSE and A levels onto degrees, masters and doctorates all possible in black British History

To conclude Onyeka certainly makes his case that  Africans in Tudor England were not slaves, and did in fact bring skills to Tudor society.  His book contains many carefully detailed and argued  references, supported by copious footnotes and a prodigious number of primary sources, reinforced by a large, authoritative  bibliography.  The book is however to my mind let down through the way in which it handles images, specifically the few genuine black African Tudor images available and the omission of reference to the Image of Black in Western Art needs to be addressed in future editions.  His numerous setbacks while trying to write this work confirm that serious academic study of the subject still has some way to go. Nevertheless in his text he has made an outstanding contribution to the scholarship of black Africans in Tudor Times. With the reservation on how the book manages images, I fully recommend this work as an account of blacks in the period - #GoBuyThe Book.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Why I write this blog.....

Through my Image&Reality Black Africans in Renaissance England  co-presenter Dr Miranda Kaufmann’s thoughtful, polemical response to a recent BBC Radio program I have had the chance to really consider why I am writing this blog. Summed up here in my response to the programs presenter’s defense of her position, is my manifesto as to why I write what I do:

I was saddened to read the reply from the program’s presenter, what she missed is the fact that my indignation was rooted in her program's claims about the black presence in two British Histories; at Dunkirk - ‘almost impossible’ for there to have been a black presence and during  Elizabethan times – no proof of a black presence.

The media continuously reminds and confirms me of the possible roles or functions I as a black person, and people like me, can have in society through the stereotypes it creates. Reminding me of the things they believe I as a black person can do and cannot do, in doing so confirm and sustain their self-created stereotypes.

Here was the media, through this presenter and her guests, once again saying what and what not a black person could do, specifically it was ‘almost impossible’ for a black person to have an ancestor at Dunkirk or equally a family history dating back to Elizabethan times.

I would argue while it is almost impossible one can equally say it is remotely possible.

In  her reply she fires a reasoned and rational broadside of supporting facts to defend her position, I’ve no doubt the presenter is well meaning and her facts are well researched and accurate, with a wealth of references, but she misses my point completely. 

I was educated with a British history told with the presenter’s ‘accuracy and authority’ which most times excluded black people, where it did choose to include black people, their role or function was specifically defined. 

I as a black person want to be considered as a possibility not dismissed as an impossibility, no matter how remote the former. 

I as a black person want the opportunity to be considered, the presenter denies me, and people like me, that opportunity.

I as a black person, am looking to a British history which is inclusive, not exclusive, of people like me, a history in which black children can see possibilities - not impossibilities - for themselves and their family and friends: not being ignored; not having to fight to be considered and certainly not being told ‘it’s almost impossible.’

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Why the Blackman in the 1241 Domesday Abbreviato ?

Illuminated capital letter ‘I’ taken from the Domesday Abbreviatio entry for Derbyshire, possibly c.1241;
National Archive Catalogue reference: E 36/284
I was first introduced to this striking image by Marika Sherwood in some BASA correspondence a couple of years ago, at the time I didn’t  consider  it any further as to use the historian’s cliché ‘it wasn’t my period’ !

However two things in the past month have forced me to reconsider: first, I came across similar images while preparing for a Black Hidden Histories tour of the V&A’s collection; secondly I met the image again while reading Onyeka’s informative and very readable new book – Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, Their Presence, Status and Origins I'm reading it right now hope to have my review of it online early next week

The National Archive correspondence that Marika shared with BASA’s email group was inconclusive as to the image’s presence and status, while Onyeka infers that the image could indicate the ‘useful roles [black people played] in that society’.

My current research would indicate that some idea of his status can be determined which, regrettably, indicates that this black man was probably seen not to be so ‘useful’ to his society, in fact quite the opposite.

What is the Domesday Abbreviato  ?

Marika’s correspondence with the National Archive gives a useful description of the Document – Domesday Abbreviato  1241 - as well as stating the National Archive’s view on the presence of the black man:

The document itself is an abridgement of Domesday Book, possibly produced for use in the Exchequer in the mid-13th century. It has numerous illuminations and illustrations. Some of these are drawings of historical events, some are portraits of the main landholders in a particular county, but most are purely decorative illustrations used to mark the beginning of a new county section. The image of the black man falls into the latter category: it appears at the beginning of the section describing William the Conqueror's holdings in Derbyshire and its previous Anglo-Saxon tenants, and we can be quite certain that no one mentioned on that folio was African.

Why is he there?

We cannot even confidently infer that the scribe had seen a black man in person: many of the other illustrations are of long-dead historical figures or mythical animals, which the scribe clearly can never have seen. Therefore all we can confidently infer is that he had either seen a black person, heard a description of one, or seen a depiction of one in another source. Further, we can assume that he thought it would be an interesting and attractive addition to the manuscript.

In contrast Onyeka is more upbeat:

There are …images of Africans that show Tudor society did not inherit from its medieval past, an idea that [black Africans] were automatically inferior. Some of these image show Africans were familiar to people in mediaeval England and other representations’ imply they had a useful role in society. One of these representations is of an African in the Abbreviatio Domesday (1241) and its important because in a similar way to some Tudor images, the African is not displayed as fantastic or strange 

The Marnhull Orphrey (1315-35)
The Marnhull Orphrey

The image that brought to my mind the Domesday Abbreviato’s blackman was from The Marnhull Orphrey (1315-35) from the V&A collection.

The Marnhull Orphrey is a cross-shaped decorative strip which would originally have been sewn onto the back of a chasuble, the outermost liturgical vestment worn by clergy for the celebration of the Catholic Mass. The rich and exquisite embroidery is worked in silver and silver-gilt thread and coloured silks on a linen background, it depicts scenes from Christ’s Passion

Comparing the two men whipping Christ in the Marnhull Orphrey and the Domesday Abbreviato’s black man one can see they are dressed very similarly.

The depiction of the dress of the figures is significant as it picks out high status and low status, good and bad. Long robes since Roman times had denoted high rank, while the short tunic worn over hose was the reserve of the labourer.

Detail: Domesday Arbbreviato       Detail :The Marnhull Orphrey
The Virgin's gown follows the conventions of mediaeval depictions of dress in manuscripts, as her green gown is lined with brown with shield shapes, a shorthand for fur, and a sign of status in medieval dress. Equally the dress of St John (on the Christ’s left), St Peter and St Paul the two saints, shown on the left and right panels, respectively in the picture above, all three saints have long, flowing robes indicating their high rank and status.

The depiction of the lower ranking individuals are equally suggestive: the two men flaying Christ wear short tunics and variegated hose , very similar dress to the black man in the Domesday Abbreviato, indicating the common low labourer status of all three figures.

Michel Pastoureau in his book The Devil's Cloth. A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric explains the significance of the checks and stripes in the hosiery of those three figures:

In the medieval Western world, there are a great number of individuals – real or imaginary- whom society, literature and iconography endow with striped clothing. In one way or another, they are all outcasts or reprobates, from the Jew and heretic to the clown and the juggler, and including not only the leper, the hangman, and the prostitute but also the disloyal knight of the Round Table, the madman of Psalms and the character of Judas. They all disturb or pervert the established order; they all more or less to do with the devil.

It is well documented in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that striped dress had a demeaning, pejorative or clearly diabolic quality. This belief was justified by reference to the Old Testament book of Leviticus 19: 19 which was at one time during the period translated as you will not wear garments made of two colours. To do so was to break an order from God leaving one open to being seen as a  devil. Today the accepted reading of this verse is you will not wear garments made of two fibers, for during the 13th and 14th centuries the first translation prevailed producing the images shown.

So , perhaps the Domesday Abbreviato’s black man is depicted through his attire as one who would disturb or pervert the order of society, contrary to Onyeka’s  belief that he would be ‘useful’  to society.  Similarly it might be argued that his dress indicated he is not the ‘interesting and attractive addition to the manuscript’ the National Archive would have us believe.

To conclude, why has the Derbyshire section of the Domesday Abbreviato a black man as one who would disturb or pervert  remains a mystery yet to be solved. However what we do know his attire marks him out as one who is depraved, set on disruption of society – outside of any Christian society like those flaying Christ in the Marnhull Orphrey.  A pejorative image of a black man that sadly seems to have persisted throughout the period, the Abbreviato and Orphrey are over a century apart  and its impact on later periods I am still accessing.

Pastoureau, Michel, (2001) The Devil's Cloth. A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric. New York, Columbia University Press
Williamson, Paul (1986) The Medieval Treasury: the art of the Middle Ages in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Onyeka, (2013), Blackamoores: Black Africans in Tudor England their presence, status and origins, Narrative Eye and The Circle with a Dot, London

Electronic Sources
Domesday Book | Domesday legacy
accessed Sunday, November 10, 2013
BASA Newsgroup correspondence by Dr Marika Sherwood, 12/08/2011
‘St Edmundsbury Local History - The Little Domesday’ Book
accessed Sunday, November 10, 2013
The Marnhull Orphrey (Orpherys)
accessed Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday, 10 November 2013

So, I wrote to the V&A......

St Maurice
Marnhull Orphery
Following on from comments on my tour of the V&A's Hidden Black Presence I did write to the V&A about the errors I'd spotted  and my recommendations for some changes (you can download the papers by selecting their link below or click on its image above).

At the time of writing but I do know the St Maurice has been passed to the right department while  I've yet to hear back on the Marnhull.