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.]


Unknown said...

Glad to see that you and Bob are going to address this important issue in both your textbook and document reader.
One cautionary note: Michael Woods’ assertion that “it was not possible to be a slave in England” is not supported by a careful review of the historical record. Prior to the Somerset ruling in 1772 there had been judicial decrees declaring “Negroes were free as soon as they set on English Ground,” and Granville Sharp and other abolitionists vigorously asserted this position. However, prior to the Revolutionary era there was no judicial consensus on the status of blacks in England. In his Somerset ruling Justice Mansfield merely ruled that slave masters in England lacked the power to detain and deport their slaves. As I have noted in my article “Unkle Somerset’s freedom: liberty in England for black sailors” Journal for Maritime Research 13:1 (May 2011): 21-36, “Although Somerset’s lawyers sought to ‘keep slavery an ocean away’ from England, a master’s right to service by a bondsman continued after Somerset to include the master’s right to enforce that service. Somerset imposed only one restriction on that right: the prohibition against forcible transportation from England.”
As for the question of whether blacks in England were “free at best to be servants or some sort of exotic entertainer,” some blacks were able, as James Walvin has demonstrated, to establish economically independent lives. At the same time it should be noted many of the poor blacks on the streets on London after the American Revolution were black seamen who used their maritime skills to flee enslavement in the Americas but found little economic opportunities in England. An example of an ex-mariner working as an “exotic entertainer” in London would be Billy Waters ( So, while London may not have been a “concrete slaveship’ for all blacks, it hardly can be described as “freedom street.”
Charles Foy
Assistant Professor
Eastern Illinois University

balkanization said...

Great follow-up, and more proof of the difficulties for the textbook writer, I suppose. If that is the case for the late 18th century, perhaps it would even more be the case that bondsmen-made-free was a possibility not the norm for London Blacks a century or two earlier? I guess I am trying to divine the norm for, say, Blacks in England c. 1700, allowing for "some blacks" able to achieve all sorts of things. The relation between constraints and agency, perhaps?

Unknown said...

very good post love it

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