|Packed House of Commons Meeting Room 11
6th Nov 2013
|Blackmoores: Africans in Tudor England Their Presence , Status and Origins
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.