- Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible
This rigorously evidentiary and theoretically informed study of "black lives" in the British Isles from the turn of the sixteenth century through the seventeenth century focuses on those persons, most of African descent, written out of the history of early modern England prior to its official monopoly over the transatlantic slave trade. This erasure has occurred, Habib argues, because narrowly positivist, even persistently colonialist, methodologies have failed to acknowledge the imprints of these lives in the archives or to recognize their voices in its inscriptions. His sources include lists of royal expenditures, private household accounts, parish records, tax rolls, travel narratives, philosophical treatises, religious tracts, news sheets, land surveys, legal cases, letters, diaries, and wills. He catalogues these sources in an appended "Chronological Index of Records of Black People, 1500-1677," often providing extended quotations from otherwise inaccessible sources. This resource alone makes his study a foundational achievement upon which all subsequent analyses of early modern black lives, racial formations of black and white, and English global imperialism must be based.
Habib challenges those scholars who have conceded that the "black presence" in England prior to the acceleration of the formalized slave trade was miniscule, albeit significant (8-9). Instead, he addresses the opacity of early modern naming practices by establishing plausible connections through accumulated evidence, some of it certain, that variants of Moor and Black generally refer to individuals of African descent. His meticulous tracing of the locations where black persons tended to live (and die, as per burial records) likewise enables plausible identifications. His contextual analysis of trends in continental Europe, such as the frequency of certain trades among resident Africans, reinforces these identifications where certain identifications are not possible. Habib also pursues detailed explications of discursive sources and contemporary portraiture to limn the histories that emerge out of his more quantitative method.
This approach uncovers individuals of African descent residing in England and Scotland during the early sixteenth century who were positively valued, although mostly for augmenting the prestige of royal courts in ornamental roles. Moreover, it shows how the development of "micro communities of Africans" in early seventeenth-century England allowed some individuals to live in a condition [End Page 1379] of "indifferent inclusiveness" (116, 145). This "benign neglect" allowed for a marginal degree of assimilation, generally through intermarriage, into English society (121). It is only in the mid-seventeenth century, when the English Republic secured its colonial foothold in Jamaica and Barbados, that the term black becomes interlinked with slave, with landmark legal cases during the late seventeenth century enforcing the English definition of slavery as racial and "perpetual" (185).
Although these records clearly speak of "black lives" in "protocolonial" England (241-42), do the voices of these individuals, all subalterns, speak as well? A court case from the late sixteenth century presents the voices of two black females, albeit through the proxy of a white male, revealing how "their very virtuality is their usefulness in law" (111-12). Adding to such virtual voices is the more clearly delineated discourse of "Dinah the Moor," whose sessions with the "Baptist spiritualist," Sarah Wight, were recorded at a double remove by "the Baptist preacher Henry Jessey" (209). References to the resistance of kidnapped Africans throughout this period further demonstrate "the indentation of a black voice [that] may have survived its inscription" through "a sequential vocalization of struggle against captivity followed by despair" (232).
Habib's concluding chapter broadens the definition of "black lives" to encompass persons from the West Indies, East Indies, and Near East, all terms he scrutinizes for their colonial provenance. Yet he does not mention the Persian and North African embassies in seventeenth-century England, whose elite members were also subject to shifting English definition of blackness but whose diplomatic roles granted them immunity from some of its debilities. How did the presence of these individuals shape the discourse of blackness in early...