Miranda Kaufmann’s exploration of African presences in Tudor/Stuart Britain is an evergreen, educational powerhouse
Originally publication: Oneworld Publications, 2017
We all know that 2020 was a seismic year for race relations. The murder of George Floyd by a policeman in the US sent decades-old discussions into fever pitch. In the UK, it was the Brexit vote that triggered a rise in hate-crime and xenophobic sentiment. That’s something that Miranda Kaufmann touches on late-on in Black Tudors: The Untold Story:
‘As debate about immigration becomes ever more vituperative and divisive, it is vital to understand that the British Isles have always been peopled with immigrants’.
And throughout the preceding pages, she expertly exposes and navigates the huge but unsung contribution African immigrants made to British society throughout the late Tudor/early Stuart periods. She focuses on 10 characters who moved through the echelons of English life, whether that be in royal courts, circumnavigating the globe with Sir Francis Drake or weaving silk in Southwark.
She turns her thorough research into fluid prose and often hits on imagery so vivid that you can almost smell the places coming off the pages. The way she writes about prostitution in Westminster, or dairy producing in Gloucestershire, for example, showcase the kind of connectivity you’d expect from classicist fiction.
And whilst some of the stories – like that of Edward Swarthye, the first black man to whip a white man on British soil – lead us to ‘question whether the development of racial slavery in the English colonies was inevitable’, she’s not afraid to shy away from the injustices faced by many of Swarthye’s counterparts, especially women. She does this in pleasingly acerbic, on-the-nose fashion too, like in the chapter about the Westminster-based Anne Cobbie:
‘Few women voluntarily chose prostitution as a career. Many recounted that they had been tricked into it by ‘fair words and great promises’. Some had received guarantees of marriage that proved as worthless as the men who gave them once the deed was done’.
The overwhelming feeling you might come away from Black Tudors: The Untold Story is one of exasperation that you weren’t taught this previously. Part of that may be to do with the fact that much of the ground-breaking research – in which Kaufmann has been involved since the early 00’s – wasn’t widespread until recently. And while the documentation on many of these figures remains scanty, this book is as much about our education as it is reclaiming their stories.
Its impact since publication in 2017 has been massive. But its message will continue to be important until sections of society are willing to become less ignorant about our collective past, and how much we owe to those from other cultures.
You can purchase Black Tudors: The Untold Story here.