BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Britain’s Hidden Black Histories

AUTHOR: KELLE PEARCE

Did you know that the first record of Black dwellers in Britain was right here in Cumbria?

An inscription dating from between 253-258 AD was discovered in the Cumbrian village of Burgh-by-Sands, which is close to a fort along the Western edge of Hadrian’s wall. It is documented that a unit of Roman soldiers originating from a North African province called Mauretania (today’s Morocco) was based here, and it’s thought that this unit could have been up to 500 soldiers.

Carlisle Burgh-by-sands, Britain’s first known African Roman settlement, image from ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’ BBC series and book by David Olusoga. SOURCE: BBC

Another 125 miles away in York, the largest group of Roman graves from the 4th century was excavated in 1901. Modern science has since shown that approx 20% of them were long distance migrants and many were of African heritage.  

“We’re looking at a population mix which is much closer to contemporary Britain than previous historians had suspected. In the case of York, the Roman population may have had more diverse origins than the city has now.”

Hella Eckhardt, senior lecturer at the department of archaeology at Reading University.

The most famous discovery in these Yorkshire graves was the ‘The Ivory Bangle Lady’. Her skeleton has not only physically proved the existence of black African ancestry in British Roman settlements, but in her burial sarcophagus (grave) were jewellery and riches that also proved she was a very wealthy woman from the top end of York society. This contradicted all assumptions that were made, particularly in the 1900’s, that all Black people in Britain were of a low status or enslaved.

To understand some of the history of Britain’s first recorded Black inhabitants, and how they came to be here, we need to learn more about the Roman Empire. (Remember though that the earliest human remains found in Britain evidence that he had dark skin! You can find out more about Cheddar Man here)

If we look beyond what we are taught in school about the Romans- which brings to mind for most of us a vision of White soldiers, Gladiators, and the likes of Julius Caesar- we find an Empire that in it’s design was incredibly multicultural.

At its peak, Roman territories stretched from north-western Europe, to North Africa and into the Near East. Through trade, military movements, and civilian migrations people travelled within the Empire, and by the 3rd century AD there is evidence of the first African people making their way to Britain. 

Delving deeper still, historic records show that whilst the Romans were certainly brutal in their approach, there was no evidence of discrimination by skin colour in the Empire. 

Alongside these discoveries of Black Romans in Britain is the example of the famous Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, who was Born in AD 145 in the Roman Libyan city of Leptis Magna in Africa- and who is widely believed by historians to have been a Black man. Here in Cumbria there is evidence that Carlisle – Roman name Luguvalium – may have been visited by Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus and his wife Julia Domna. An inscription stone paying tribute to an Empress was among the artefacts found in an archaeological dig in the city. 

Frank Giecco, Archaeologist with Wardell Armstrong. SOURCE: Herald & Times Group

There are lines recorded in Roman literature, including this one by the famous poet Cattalus: 

“Nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere, nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo.”

“I’m not overly anxious, Caesar, to please you, Or to know whether you’re a white or a black man.”

In short, evidence shows that Roman societies were in many ways much more diverse & accepting than the ones that were to follow.

In 2017 Classicist Mary Beard faced a ‘torrent of aggressive insults’ after she came to the defence of a BBC educational cartoon that depicted a Black Roman soldier. With so much evidence that this is likely to be a true representation of Roman society, why would many find it so difficult to accept the idea of Black people in Roman history? 

2017 BBC Educational cartoon depicting a Roman family, causing BBC to be falsely accused of ‘Blackwashing History’.
SOURCE: BBC

It’s very important for us to understand that the concept of ‘Race’ did not exist in the Roman Empire at all. The concept was created by White Europeans in order to categorise people within boundaries that allowed the colonization of countries and ultimately to attempt to justify their brutal enslavement of Black Africans.  Modern-day anthropologists and geneticists have proven that racial classifications are not in any way based on scientific evidence, and in fact much of the ‘science’ that has even filtered through into today’s stereotypes can be linked back to propaganda that began in this period.

 

 

If we move forward through history from the Romans and ‘the early Modern period’ which takes us from the Middle ages towards the industrial revolution, we can start to look at Britain’s Black Tudor population.

Tudor’s are up there on the list of subjects that most Brits remember from Primary School, and they attract a level of curiosity and fascination that is reflected in few other chapters of British history. Their marriages, affairs, battles for power and religious reforms have been depicted in multiple films, TV series and fictional adaptations, making the likes of Henry the VIII part of popular culture.  

Portrait of a ‘Moor’ by Jan Mostaert, early 16th century, the first known European painting of a Black man. SOURCE: rijksmuseum.nl

But the existence of Black Tudors has been missing in both entertainment and education, their presence  unknown and largely untaught throughout the curriculum. There’s no definitive reason why; archives reveal a diverse range of Black Tudor experiences from sailors through to the royal household, along with a visible record of them in many Parishes and families.                                                                                  

“We have existed in Britain and been pioneers, inventors, icons. And then colonialism happened, and that has shaped the experiences of black people- but that is not all we are”                                              Lavinya Stennett, founder of The Black Curriculum.

The most documented example of a Black Tudor is John Blanke, a black trumpeter who is shown alongside his white counterparts on a tapestry commemorating the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’, a lavish event for a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France in 1520.                                                             

John is known to have been a respected court musician. A letter which still survives in the National Archives shows that he wrote to Henry VIII for a promotion upon the death of a more senior trumpeter- he was successful and had his wages doubled.                                                                                                    Upon his wedding he received the gift of a new wedding outfit from the King, which signified royal favour and showed his status within the royal household.                                                                                          John’s wedding is presumed to have been to a white Catholic Englishwoman, so he would have converted to Christianity if he hadn’t already. 

Black trumpeter John Blanke, detailed on a tapestry commemorating the Field of Cloth of Gold, 1520. SOURCE: THE TIMES

Black trumpeter John Blanke, detailed on a tapestry commemorating the Field of Cloth of Gold, 1520

Church records can show us more examples of Black Christians from this period. Such as Anne Vause, ‘a black-more’, who was buried at St Botulph’s Church, Aldgate, 1618.                                                                Or Mary Fillis who was baptised in the same Parish in 1597- Mary was born in 1577 in Morocco, she arrived in London around 1584, working for John Barker, a merchant and sometime agent for the Earl of Leicester. 

Black Tudors weren’t confined to London. The baptisms and burials of Africans, or the children of Africans are shown in villages in Cornwall, Cambridgeshire, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Kent, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Suffolk and Wiltshire.                                                                                        One of these was an independent, unmarried woman known as Cattelena. She lived alone in the Gloucestershire village of Almondsbury until her death in 1625. From an inventory which survives, we know that her most valuable possession was a cow. This not only supplied her with milk and butter but allowed her to profit from selling these products to her neighbours. The fact that Cattelena had these possessions and an independent income is confirmation once more that Black people in 16th Century Britain were living free, and that they were integrated into Parishes and communities. 

Whilst undoubtedly a small percentage of the population- approximately 360 on record- the stories of these Black Britons contribute to a wider view of our multicultural history. In the 1500’s, skin colour was less important than religion and class. 

“History isn’t a solid set of facts, “It’s very much about what questions you ask of the past. If you ask different questions, you get different answers. People weren’t asking questions about diversity. Now they are.”               

Miranda Kaufmann, author of ‘Black Tudors: The Untold Story.

The knowledge that Black and Brown people were an accepted part of society in one of the most formative periods of Britain challenges the theory that negative racial attitudes were ingrained long before slavery became a reality, and can promote discussion about how we view British History as a whole.

These hidden Black stories are just a few of the examples of the importance of decolonising education, and how including Black histories can give an entirely new perspective on subjects that have long been assumed to be all White narratives.

 

SOURCES + FURTHER READING

Black and British: A Forgotten History Book by David Olusoga Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Black Tudors: The Untold Story. Maria Kaufmann, Published by Simon and Schuster, 5 Oct 2017

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/29/tudor-english-black-not-slave-in-sight-miranda-kaufmann-history

https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/john-blanke/#gs.7o7fvi

http://www.blacktudors.com/ten-black-tudors.html

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/06/01/yes-black-tudors-lived-fascinating-lives/

https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/the-missing-tudors-black-people-in-16th-century-england/

https://variety.com/2020/tv/global/britbox-uk-southwark-black-tudors-drama-miranda-kaufman-book-1234804154/

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/black-african-tudors-england

https://theconversation.com/mary-beard-is-right-roman-britain-was-multi-ethnic-so-why-does-this-upset-people-so-much-82269

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0113mp1

https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-history-of-black-britain-roman-africans

https://blackpresence.co.uk/first-black-person-england/

https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-history-of-black-britain-roman-africans

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/06/mary-beard-twitter-abuse-roman-britain-ethnic-diversity

https://blackpresence.co.uk/black-romans/

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/roman-britain-black-white/

https://talesoftimesforgotten.com/2019/09/07/was-septimius-severus-a-black-roman-emperor/

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/feb/26/roman-york-skeleton