Black Tudors: The untold story

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Read 25/01/2019-03/02/2019

Rating 3 stars

Miranda Kaufmann’s re-examination of Tudor society in relation to the place black people occupied in it is described on the cover, in a quote from David Olusoga, as cutting edge as well as accessible and human.

I didn’t get off to a great start with it. It certainly had an edge to it that threatened to cut my willingness to engage with it, as well as an aspect of accessibility that grated. I considered abandoning it after the first chapter and again 60 pages from the end, when it sent me to sleep three times in as many paragraphs. I did finish it, but not soon enough.

I decided to read Black Tudors because it appears on recommended reading lists, it’s a recent addition to the literature on black experiences in Britain, and I’m trying to educate myself about diaspora communities and their existence in British history because it’s something I never encountered in school or at university. So far, the book I’ve gained most from is Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, which is about the inherent racism of white privilege. Olusoga’s Black and British gave me historical perspective on the last 400 years of black experience in Britain, and is, for me, currently the definitive work on black history in the UK. Most recently, I read BRIT(ish), Afua Hirsch’s examination of identity and what being British means. All three of these books have the same core theme but add very different perspectives and I found each one of them necessary in giving me a more rounded view of what it means to be black and British.

Significantly, the three books I’ve read so far are all by black writers. Kaufmann isn’t black. She’s your more typical academic and going into the book I worried about her right to authority on the subject. That’s a change for me. Prior to reading Olusoga’s history, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to question the right of someone white to write a history of black people’s lives. History is history, right? It’s owned by all of us. I’m increasingly uncomfortable with white privilege, though. It’s something that I now notice more in my own world of work, where diversification projects, aimed at engaging diaspora communities with the collections held in archives, are frequently headed up by white practitioners, even when projects are framed as opportunities to diversify the workforce as well as the audience. Of course, it’s true that the heritage sector is mainly made up of white people, and we are the access route to the collections, but it does sometimes feel as though we’re patronising communities rather than genuinely giving them control over their own histories.

Kaufmann’s introduction didn’t do much to ease my anxiety. I found her a little glib at times, and also impatient with viewpoints that don’t capture the complexity of history. Everything she says is factual – that not all Africans in Britain were slaves, that the focus on the Transatlantic slave trade skews understanding towards every person of colour ever arriving in Britain being enslaved, that slavery existed before the Transatlantic trade and involved the enslaving of Eastern Europeans by their Western neighbours as well as the enslaving of white people by North African Barbery pirates. There was something in her delivery, though, that set my nerves on edge. Almost as though, in trying to add perspective to the long history of black people making Britain their home, she was dismissing that huge chunk of history that was abhorrent. There was an air of, “It’s okay, Britons weren’t always bastards to people of colour!” about it for me. It is important to remember that there was a time when white Britons were curious about the wider world and more accepting of people who came from other countries, but there’s a way of framing it. Kaufmann raises the slavery issue in an attempt to provide context for the Tudor way of life, pushing back against the nationalist portrayal developed by the Victorians to bolster their vision of Empire. She says this co-opting of Tudor history has enabled slavery to cast a long shadow back in time. She’s right when she says that modern issues of concern about immigration and whether institutional racism is endemic, both things that stem from the Transatlantic slave trade and the white British unwillingness to acknowledge it, shape the questions we ask about the past, and also right when she says that modern issues mustn’t predict or prejudice our conclusions about that same past. It’s the lack of consideration of what these questions and conclusions mean to the diaspora communities concerned, and the use of phrases like “immigration and the question of whether institutional racism is endemic to society bedevil political discourse”, as though these issues are an irritating fly to be slapped down, that bother me about her approach.

And then she starts the first biography of a black Briton in the book, the trumpeter John Blanke, with an imagined monologue of what he was thinking in the moment his image was captured on the Westminster Tournament Roll. What has Hilary Mantel done with her imagining of what Thomas Cromwell thought and felt? Am I a history snob? As Afua Hirsch identified in BRIT(ish), history needs to have integrity. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in the Guardian while I was reading Black Tudors, in relation to historical drama-comedies like Vice and The Favourite, fake history does no favours to true history. No matter how well intentioned, no matter how adding an imagined story might make facts more accessible for people who don’t really do history, it opens history up to people picking and choosing what they believe. It contributes to the news that was reported on Holocaust Memorial Day that large numbers of people don’t believe that the Holocaust happened.

It’s also patronising and presumptuous. How on earth can a white woman living in the 21st century possibly know what a black man living in the 16th century felt about his life?

And all of those thoughts about this book were after a mere seven pages.

That imagined monologue trope continues throughout the book and for me was never less than toe curling.

The book is structured into profiles of ten black people known to have lived in Britain between 1485 and 1603, the period referred to in British history as Tudor. Some of the profiles are more engaging than others. She has chosen people for whom there is a decent archival record. The earliest African resident in Britain that can be identified in official documents is John Blanke, who first appears in the record in December 1507 and is depicted pictorially in 1511 on the aforementioned Westminster Tournament Roll. The last person featured in the book is known only at the moment of her death in 1625, through a probate record inventorying her possessions. The very paucity of the surviving documentary evidence means that in many instances, Kaufmann relies on supposition and conjecture to pad out the narrative, or she swings away entirely from the black Tudor experience and focuses on general Tudor history. Sometimes it works and a sense of the context of the time the person was living in is achieved, sometimes it feels like what it is, guesswork and gap filling. A lot of history is both of these things, of course, but sometimes guesswork and gap filling doesn’t adequately meet the remit of history.

My sense of anxiety around Kaufmann’s stance on whether racism existed in Tudor times continued as she variously tries to explain away derogatory remarks about black people, their physical appearance, their reliability as witnesses and their ‘other’-ness as the equivalent of bantz, and the brief engagement in slave trading led by John Hawkins as little more than a business opportunity that Britain wasn’t really committed to, so no real harm done, eh? I also wasn’t impressed by her argument that, because there is no written evidence that the Tudors were racist, they couldn’t have been racist. Lack of documentary proof doesn’t decide a matter either way. I’d imagine, too, that in Tudor times as in our times, little acts of everyday racism wouldn’t be written down anywhere. In Tudor times, you only appeared in written records if you were rich or if the system needed to document you in some way. If you weren’t a landowner, merchant or noble, chances are the things your neighbour said about you went unrecorded.

There seemed to me to be an amount of apologism behind her stance that boiled down to an impatience with everything negative in black history being seen as racism, and also an element of protesting too much about the lack of racism in Tudor society. I would venture to say that white people don’t get to decide on what makes something racist. We’re unreliable.

She does eventually explain what this bias is about when, in her conclusion, she expresses why it’s important to mine the records of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for references to black residents in England.

Because anyone who assumes that all Africans in British History have been powerless, enslaved victims must be challenged. The Black Tudors actively pursued their own interests and were free to do so.

I still stand by my sense that Kaufmann doesn’t make this case well in the body of the book, and would have done better to start with this statement and so give context to her apparent bugbears through the rest of the book.

I did appreciate learning about these individuals and the lives they most likely led. Kaufmann writes best when there is more archive material to draw on and less need to fill in the gaps. Overall, though, this definitely felt like a PhD thesis turned into a book with superficial revision for audience needs. It was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize in 2018, a prize that celebrates excellence in historical research combined with readability for the general public. I found it pretty dry at times. I don’t doubt the excellence of the research. I’m not convinced about its appeal to a popular audience. It did a good job of sending me to sleep on many occasions, and history is how I make my living.

The significance of the book, and the reason I read it to the end, is found in Kaufmann’s conclusion.

Africans were ‘heard and seen’ across England, from Hull to Truro, throughout the sixteenth century and thereafter. And yet their presence has been forgotten. In 1999, an eminent Liverpool professor, expert in the history of British and Portuguese West Africa, asserted that: ‘Black Africans were hardly at all known in England itself, Anglo-African contacts being almost exclusively within Guinea.’ He was wrong. The presence of Africans in Tudor England was common knowledge at the time, and it needs to become common knowledge again.

For that reason alone, this is a book worth reading. I just wish that it had lived up to the buzz that has been generated around it, and been less dry.

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