- Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann
Black Tudors is Miranda Kaufmann's first book and an ambitious attempt at capturing the lives of early modern black Britons. Kaufmann sets out to answer three questions: "Why and how did [Africans] come to England? How were they treated? What were their lives like?" (3). And she argues, in substance, that racial difference did not influence the treatment of Africans in Tudor England: "When Africans arrived in England as ambassadors, they were treated as such, but when they arrived aboard a captured ship, they found themselves at the bottom of the pile. Those who had skills, such as musicians, sailors or craftsmen, fared better. In many ways their lives were no worse than those of the vast majority of Tudors: 'nasty, brutish and short,' but this was the result of having no social standing, not of having dark skin" (5–6).
Kaufmann comes to that conclusion by reconstructing the unavoidably fragmentary biographies of seven African men and three African women who lived in England from the mid-sixteenth century to the 1620s. Some of her case studies will be familiar to readers: they include Reasonable Blackman, the silk weaver who lived in Southwark in the 1580s; John Blanke, the trumpeter famously represented in the Westminster Tournament Roll; Diego, the circumnavigator featured in Sir [End Page 263] William Davenant's operatic tableau The History of Sir Francis Drake; and Dederi Jaquoah, the prince of River Cestos, who was christened at St. Mildred Poultry in 1611 and might have informed Shakespeare's Caliban, as Roslyn Knutson suggested nearly thirty years ago. Yet most of the case studies considered in this book will be new, even to specialists. They include Jacques Francis, the salvage diver who worked for an Italian merchant in Southampton in the 1540s; Anne Cobbie, "the tawny Moor with soft skin" (219) who worked in a brothel in 1620s Westminster; and Cattelena of Almondsbury, the independent single woman who made a living off of her cow and died in 1625 in the county of Gloucester. To reconstruct their biographies, Kaufmann meticulously combed "parish registers (which record baptisms, marriages and burials) and other church records, tax returns, household accounts, legal records, wills and inventories, diaries, letters, State papers and voyage accounts" (273). Her careful archival work provides new data that scholars interested in early modern racial formations will certainly find valuable.
I particularly appreciated the attention that Kaufmann paid to gender and geographic variety as she picked her ten case studies. Focusing on three women, and on cases that are not limited to London but range from Southampton to Plymouth, Dover, and the countryside, she paints a diverse picture of Black Tudor life. Black Tudors also has the merit of studying the African presence in England in a resolutely transnational framework, by placing the lives of the protagonists against a background that includes the expansive networks of the slave trade in the Iberian Atlantic starting at the end of the fifteenth century; the existence of the Freedom Principle in contemporary France; and various commercial, diplomatic, and military exchanges or rivalries between England and Spain. Kaufmann helps widen the geographic lens of early modern race scholarship—an ongoing endeavor in the field. Finally, Black Tudors includes a good selection of well-known but conveniently gathered iconographic documents, which, together with clear and lively prose, make the book extremely readable.
Indeed, Kaufmann—who has published several short pieces related to her work in British media outlets, including the Times Literary Supplement, The Times, The Guardian, and the BBC History Magazine—is writing largely for a nonspecialist audience. Without a doubt, our troubled times need more public intellectuals and more outreach projects aimed at bridging the gap between the public sphere and scholarly conversations on race and racial history. For this reason, it is regrettable that Kaufmann does not engage here with the specialized work produced in the interdisciplinary field of early modern race studies over the last thirty years, and does not position her work in relation to her most...