Wednesday, April 29, 2015

More Black Elizabethans

Now for some more about black (that is, African) Elizabethans. According to church parish registers of births, deaths, and marriages from 1597, we find that out of about 1 million names, some 2,000 are most likely names of Africans. For some of these, we only have a clue, such as the last names Negro, Swart, or Black. Not exactly proof. But most of these specifically identify the subjects as African (and some Asians).

There also seems to have been some cultural exchanges going on. Sir Walter Raleigh, the great explorer and favorite of the Queen (who'd lose his head under the next ruler of England) left a cabin boy and sailor in Guiana (South America) and took back to England three black men in exchange. We know the name of one, a boy, Charles, who asked to be baptized (one wonders whether the cabin boy and sailor left in Guiana had pissed Raleigh off somehow). Two of them ended up with Raleigh in the Tower of London many years later, and so were probably loyal servants.

Most blacks in Tudor England were domestic servants. In fact, it appears that for a time in the mid to late 1500s, it was a status symbol to have an exotic servant.

Black people who were especially skilled were also valued. Henry VIII's favorite ship, the Mary Rose, was sunk by the French in Portsmouth bay. Later, Henry hired a diving specialist - who happened to be a "Blackamoor" - to search the wreck for its cargo. Much after the Tudor period in the 1660s, we see the lighthouse keeper at Harwich was black. That was an important, highly sought-after job.

Next time, we'll learn about a mysterious black lady in the court of King James IV of Scotland - a lady who seems to have been very special to him indeed. 

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