From Symarons, Maroons and Iberian Africans to the African Ink Road – Book Review

This review is adapted from an original piece published in the Centre’s journal Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World.

Book review: Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, their Presence, Status and Origins, Onyeka (Narrative Eye and the Circle with a Dot, 2013)

Review by Jo Manby

In Blackamoores Onyeka presents the results of exhaustive research, which challenges accepted British history and allows Black, or African, people living in Tudor times to take their place in our country’s historic social fabric.

Image of the book front coverBlack people in this period of history have previously been considered an anomaly, and their status automatically assumed to be as slaves. Onyeka’s efforts restore these people and their circumstances to a degree of visibility.

As he writes in his Preface, ‘if we cannot see England clearly, do we imagine her as a book with white pages and no black letters in?’ (p.5). He quotes Arthur Schomburg, who, speaking in 1921, said that African history represents ‘the missing pages of history’ (p.5).

Onyeka began his research in 1986; five years later he decided to focus on the Tudor period, developing ‘acute concerns about how English history was being presented in books such as those by the historian Geoffrey Rudolph Elton’ (p.5). Such books did not acknowledge that Africans were present then; a silence and indifference among historians that Onyeka seeks to overturn.

In Chapter 1, Onyeka discusses the relative lack of visual images of Africans in Tudor England, but also their presence in public documents such as the Letters of 1596 signed by Elizabeth I and a Proclamation from 1601 apparently written by the Queen. These are important because they ‘raise issues that are pertinent to the status of Africans throughout the entire Tudor period’ (p.41). The Letters and the Proclamation ‘contain rhetoric directed against Africans’ (p.52), but Onyeka concludes at the end of the chapter that ‘the evidence infers that even those Africans who were servants had a position akin to that of indentured workers… but they were not regarded as “property” in the same way as a slave is’ (p.98).

The ‘meaning of the words used to describe the race and ethnic origins of Africans in Tudor England’ (p.100) and the issues arising from this are the main subjects of the second chapter. Onyeka questions the claim of several historians that those people referred to as “Moors” in Tudor documents ‘are not “dark skinned” or “black Africans”’ (p.100). He argues that despite a traditional view of the blackness of Africans as being considered negative by Tudor contemporaries, ‘there are also positive stories about Africans that Tudor writers could and did refer to, and that these are likely to have neutralised any negative fantasies’ (p.102).

Together with a deluge of footnotes – Onyeka’s bibliography is nothing if not extensive – there are colour illustrations such as Peter Paul Rubens’ Studies of the Head of a Negro (c.1615), painted with profound sensitivity and humanity.

Painting of a black man's head in four diferent positions

Peter Paul Rubens, Four Studies of the Head of a Negro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chapter 3 covers Africans from Continental Europe in Tudor England, including Africans who came from Spain and Portugal; Iberian Africans living in Jewish households; and Iberian Africans in England in the latter part of the sixteenth century. One way of tracing these people is their presence on the coats of arms of European aristocratic families. The entourage of Katherine of Aragon included Africans. At least one of these Moorish women can be named, as Catalina de Cardones, who is referred to in contemporary documents as a ‘More’ (p.198). Because Katherine’s daughter, Mary I, grew up with Catalina and other Iberian African attendants, ‘it is not surprising that Mary herself had an African in her employment… “Fraunces Negro” or “Fraunces ye negro”’ (p.199).

Chapter 4 explores the presence, origins and status of West Africans in Tudor England, such as Jacques Francis. An example is the “noble” West-African depicted in Sir Francis Drake’s diadem, given to him by Elizabeth I in 1586 or 1588. The man’s image ‘looks detailed and intricate and… appears to have been created from a live subject’ (p.250). He could have been a man called Diego Negro, a Symaron or Maroon, who came to England with Drake on 9 August 1573.

In this chapter, there are also fascinating details such as what UNESCO has called the “African Ink Road” – ‘literally a network of pathways by land and sea across the continent of Africa and beyond, that knowledge and commerce travelled along’ (p.282). Onyeka completes this remarkable volume with a case study of an African man, Henrie Jetto, whose descendants are alive today, resident in Pembrokeshire, Worcestershire and Yorkshire.

Find this book in the History section of the Resource Centre library: HI.1.04/ONY

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