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.

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