Thursday, May 14, 2015

Christian Blacks in Tudor England

In Tudor England, the theater was a popular form of entertainment, and black people were involved in that, too, as in so much else. Records indicate that the majority of blacks were engaged in construction and music. We don't have records of black actors. What we do see is that, almost without exception, blacks and Asians are usually depicted in a negative light. Shakespeare's Othello is a standout exception, but there's a big difference between Othello and other black characters - he's a Christian. Without that, he's not considered the equal of the other people in the play. This early drama about love and race is only possible because, as a Christian, Othello is elevated to the level that the love between he and a white lady is at all believable to the audience (not that this would have been widely accepted, but as we've seen, James IV of Scotland most likely had a black mistress).

In fact, being converted to Christianity was a sign that the black person in question was of especial value to his or her employer - a cut above the pagan Africans, a sign that he or she had special favor. Sir Walter Ralleigh baptized his black cabin boy. This was also, probably, an attempt to sort of "outflank" Islam, which had cut off trade routes to the Orient and unwittingly sparked the age of European exploration and colonialism.

Converting blacks and Asians to Christianity gave Europeans a sense that their exploitation of military weaker, technologically inferior people was a good thing. That's a cynical view, but history bears it out. Like so much, though, it's not black-or-white. A good many Christians felt that by converting blacks and Asians they were lifting them up and saving their souls. You can say that's condescending or wrong-headed but I don't know if you can say it's evil.

Most of the evidence we have of blacks in Tudor England comes from church records - and these deal only with Christians. These show that there were thousands of Christian blacks living in England under the Tudors, more so in Elizabeth's reign - so much so that she saw the need for the racist proclamation and policy of forced expulsion that started off this series of blog posts.

In a cemetery in London, there is a grave for "Antony, a Poor Old Negro." He died at age 105 and was laid to rest as a Christian. Who was Antony? What did he do for a living? How did he live to be 105 in an age when most poor people were lucky to make it past 50? We'll never know.

And after five consecutive posts about it, I think that's about all I have to say about black people in Tudor England.

1 comment:

  1. what a bunch of interesting stuff. May in a book and give to our "black" folks some day. Really great stuff.