Friday, October 26, 2012

Black Early Modern London: Why It Matters

from Malcolm Balen, The Secret
History of the South Sea Bubble

(London, 2003), 199
My early modern England class Thursday began with a discussion about whether or not a textbook should mention Black Africans in Elizabethan or Stuart London if the total number is a very small percentage of the city's population (see previous post). Students were not sure. Then we discussed documents in Key and Bucholz, ed., Sources and Debates, ch. 5 - about apprentices, petitions of the poor over grain prices, women seizing grain, and JPs responding by punishing at least a token number of engrossers/regrators. I asked whether or not the editors should have included in the sourcebook such an ephemeral piece as the anonymous note encouraging apprentices to rise (doc. 5.1, 1598). One student argued against including it noting that these apprentices did not affect events and laws (indeed, they probably did not follow up on their threat). But each document discussed indicated a dialog or at least a dance between rulers and ruled. The agency of women grain rioters and poor petitioners sometimes provoked a change in the actions of the lawmakers and law enforcers, at least in the short run.

So we come back to Blacks in early modern England. Before the 18th century, how did they impact the narrative? For starters, we can note that they were there, and writers and engravers noticed that they were there. And, to the extent that is true, we need to rethink English identity, and how what they thought about themselves affects the narrative.

To give one example, Jacobite-fancier, Eveline Cruickshanks makes the following comment about the appearance of 200 Black Surinamese marching with William of Orange along with Finlandiers in bearskins up to Exeter afer landing in November 1688: "[w]e can merely guess the feelings of various sectors of the population." (The Glorious Revolution, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Macmillan, 2000, 26). By which she means (and she must mean something, as the book is too short for meaningless statements to survive), that such exotics were completely outside the ken of simple, traditional-minded Anglo-Saxons. Thus, is there any further proof needed that this was a foreign invasion, an outside force of occupation from "the Other"?  Perhaps. But, if the English were used to the occasional Black boy servant, Black hair dressers, even Black sailors throughout the cities and, indeed, in smaller coastal ports, then her observation falls flat. The idea that the English would have no idea what to make of foreigners, and Black foreigners at that, would certainly be ludicrous in the late-18th century, and probably doesn't apply to the late-17th century either, and might not apply to the late-16th century.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Black Early Modern London: "Concrete Slaveship" or "Freedom Street"?

John Blanke, black trumpeter at Henry VIII's court
Royal Trumpeters, including
black trumpeter John Blanke (1511)
A bit unusual to bring in Aswad or the incomparable Ken Boothe to the rarefied world of early modern historians (instead of Freedom Street, the London reference should probably be Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue," but never mind). But the excuse is an announcement regarding an episode of Michael Woods' "The Great British Story," which focuses on race (“Britain’s First Black Community,” BBC News Magazine, July 20, 2012). The video itself is not available in my area, but the piece has some interesting detail about the presence of Black Londoners, especially in the Elizabethan period, some 25 in St Botolph Aldgate alone (Wood draws from Guildhall Library's set of parish register entries "Black and Asian people discovered in records held by the Manuscripts Section"). The story provided for the entire early modern period is sketchy, at least it includes little detail for the 17th century. But, by the end of the period, "[b]y the 18th Century, it is thought as many as 20,000 black servants lived in London."

May Fair, London (1716, detail)
So where is this story of Black Londoners in our own textbook, Robert Bucholz and Newton Key, Early Modern England 1485-1714: A Narrative History, 2nd ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), or in any major textbooks of the period? We discuss the African slave trade, but the only mention that I recall of anything to do with Blacks within the British Isles is mention of Ferdinando Gorges, known as "King of the Blacks," who retired back to Herefordshire with profits from Caribbean plantations in the late 17th century. As we have been contracted for third editions of the textbook and sourcebook, let me assure you that conversations about this will be had, betwixt Bob and Newton.

But, returning to Aswad and Boothe, the meta-narrative of this story is not clear. Did Blacks in early modern London experience Freedom Street, or a new subaltern situation in the Concrete (sic) Slaveship of the London streets? Note, again, two sentences from the Wood article/announcement:
Bacchus and Venus: or, a select
collection of near 200... songs and catches
in love and gallantry
courtesy of Angela McShane)
  • "Employed especially as domestic servants, but also as musicians, dancers and entertainers, their numbers ran to many hundreds, maybe even more.
    And let's be clear - they were not slaves. In English law, it was not possible to be a slave in England (although that principle had to be re-stated in slave trade court cases in the late 18th Century, like the "Somersett" case of 1772)."
Was the entire period some sort of incipient Somersett case, where setting foot on English soil made one free? Or, were they free at best to be servants or some sort of exotic entertainer?
Perhaps the numbers are too small to make a final judgement. But, then, all the more reason to be sure that the meta-narrative of "it was not possible to be a slave in England," meets the reality of the baptism of "Thomas Sambo, Mr Heywood’s black boy," 29 October 1710.

[Update: followup here.]

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Announcing the early modern blogosphere

Colleagues on my floor find the term early modern blogosphere somewhat humorous - was there a blogosphere in the early modern period? But, of course, the term early modern itself didn't exist during the period, nor was it applied to the era more than sporadically before the 1960s (and Tudor historians think they have problem because of recent claims that their term is anachronistic). Moreover, at least two famous early modern Englishmen, Samuel Pepys and now Daniel Defoe have been blogging away over the last decade. Pepys, alas, has finished, but Defoe appears to be hard at work blogging, or is it re-blogging his Review.

Anyway, a draft of Newton Key, “Crowdsourcing the Early Modern Blogosphere,” which is scheduled to be published in historyblogosphere: Bloggen in den Geschichtswissenschaften, ed. Peter Haber and Eva Pfanzelter (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, forthcoming, 2013), has been posted in an open source peer review version. It is available at for review and comments (the site will ask you to register before you can enter comments, but you can do so quickly with minimal detail) through mid-December 2012.

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This work by Newton Key
is licensed under a
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