Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Book Review: 'Black Tudors' by Miranda Kaufmann

Once upon a time, before there was racism...

Well beyond being a nation of shopkeepers, the British are a nation of event recorders. There are registers, court records and all kinds of documents official and informal that detail the lives of Britons going back a thousand years. So it should be no great surprise that the stories of blacks in Britain can be broadly reconstructed. The good news is they were not slaves, but full-fledged citizens. The country did not allow slavery on its soil in the Tudor era, and anti-miscegenation laws didn’t begin until the 1660s. Black Tudors focuses on ten black men and women there during the reigns of Henry VII and VIII, Elizabeth I and James I. Records allow Miranda Kaufmann to trace life events and moves, and infer wealth and success.

Along with black history, comes British history, the roles they played in it and how they were affected by it. One black man escaped Spanish slavery and worked for Sir Francis Drake, pillaging the world. Another, named Edward Swarthey, is famous for publicly beating a white man, unopposed, at the behest of his employer. There was a London silk weaver in the time of plague, and a deep diving salvager who recovered expensive ornaments from sunken royal vessels. They came in contact with royalty: one was one Henry VIII’s trumpeters, who is even portrayed – wearing a turban – at the Westminster Tournament celebrating the birth of Henry’s heir.

This link to history is both strength and weakness in Black Tudors. While it gives context and perspective to all their lives, it also looms too large over them. There are far too many pages of politics and detail – which ships were seized for what debts in what ports and how their owners finagled their release, gypping each other along the way. Really nothing to do with the shipwright, other than in one case he had to go to court for back wages. There is way too much family treeing, having essentially nothing to do with the subjects.

Henry VIII seems to have looked upon blacks as evidence of his own worldliness, and the global import of his little kingdom. At the time, the empire did not yet exist, and most of the wars he waged were simply across the channel. But blacks, given royal acceptance, were also accepted in general society. They were named in wills, testified at trials, and buried in churchyards. They were few in number, and so were notable they were noted every time they dealt with authority. It’s likely why Shakespeare was able to have black characters and references to blacks in his plays. 

It wasn’t until the mid 1600s that Britain really caught the slave trade bug, made blacks inferior, and joined with their American colonies in pushing blacks out of society. So, Kaufmann says, it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s not natural, inevitable or obvious.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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