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.


Anonymous said...

I am going to read the book now.....thank you for a good read in this exciting review

Unknown said...

Thanks very much for this review Michael. I too will go out now to purchase the book and read. I have always wondered about the presence of Africans in Tudor times and I appreciate your point about the inappropriate images. Are there any images available that depict Africans in Britain during that time? That is my question - if so I would love to see a book published just about that. We need some like you to write it!

Michael said...

Images of blacks other than the Black Magus and St Maurice in the period are rare especially black people in England but they do exist the book has two good examples John Blanke and the Devon Black Magus.

Thanks for the positive comments, I do have some plans as to how these and other images of Black Tudors might reach a wider audience - watch this space!

Anonymous said...

Amazon days the book is out of print? I'm confused cuz I'm assuming it was recently written. Do you know where I might find it?

Michael said...

No it's not out of print. You've plenty of options beside Amazon, here's a cutting from an email I received from Narrative-Eye Onyeka's publisher earlier this week:

If you have yet to reserve a book, Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, their presence, status and origins, you can still do so by emailing or pick up a copy at any of the following stockists:


Big Green Bookshop
Unit 1, Brampton Park Road,
London N22 6BG
020 8881 6767

1 Bloomsbury Street,
London WC1B 3QE
0207 637 1848

Calabash of Culture
21 Sydenham Road,
SE26 5EX
0208 778 6326

Centre Point
9 Cambridge Street,
01933 229 775

Daunt Books
83 Marylebone High Street,
London W1U 4QW.
020 7224 2295

5 Caledonian Road,
N1 9DX
020 7837 4473

Museum of London
150 London Wall,
020 7814 5600

New Beacon books
76 Stroud Green Road,
Finsbury Park, London,
N4 3EN, UK.
020 7272 4889

102 Brixton Hill,
020 8671 0800


Narrative Eye


Good Reading!

Abena Sɛwaa said...

Thanks for this very insightful piece. I've just finished the book

Chavez Moore said...