This book has been on my to read pile for a while now and back in October, when it was Black history month, I thought there was no better time to read it. I had heard good things though, so I couldn’t wait to get started and I was definitely not disappointed!
It showcases ten very different examples of black people living in Tudor England to demonstrate that they would have been more judged by their social status than their skin colour. Each chapter is dedicated to telling the story of a different person. A few of the examples include the now fairly well known John Blanke, a trumpeter to Henry VIII, to Jacques Francis, a salvage diver who dived to the Mary Rose. All the examples chosen show the wide variety of trades available to them. They were not the slaves that we may perceive them to be, but free people who were able to chose their own path. Jacques Francis was a personal favourite and will be featured in a blog post at some point next year.
With focusing on these examples, the reader can clearly understand that Tudor and early Stuart England was not as white as we have been taught. For this reason, the book is very important as it sheds light on a little known aspect of history, which I am always a sucker for. The author not only gives a wider context to their situation, but gives smaller examples of other black people in the same situation, where we cannot find more than a fleeting glimpse of from the records. At times, this can take over a little from the people’s stories she is trying to tell, but I understand that it was necessary to do this in order to give a well-rounded picture to the times they lived in.
The writer’s style is easy to read and understand, which helps to appeal this book to a wider audience. It also helps them to ask questions about how racial attitudes and how this began to change following the introduction of the slave trade later in the seventeenth century. To do this, there are some uncomfortable moments in the book, particularly when explaining ideas of racism and slavery that were beginning to develop, and had already developed in places like Spain and Portugal, which are well explained throughout.
The main reason there has been a focus more on the contextual background is that the only sources that these black people existed in Britain are things like court and parish records. The issue with this is that it doesn’t add a wider context about how they would have been treated or viewed by those around them. It is for this reason that Kaufmann does add so much other information. This may put some people off, and there is no denying that there is some speculation amongst this, but I think the point of this book is to be expand historical thinking towards including those with different ethnical backgrounds. In this respect, it did well to answer some of the complex questions we may have about the book’s topic.
In general, I enjoyed this book and it left me wanting to know more about those black men and women who lived during this time period. I am not usually much of a fan of Tudor history, but this is certainly something I did enjoy. It brought something entirely new to the field and I hope that others authors take note of that and that there can be more research into black history during this period.