Africans played key roles on biggest English warship, Mary Rose

Stephen Nartey September 27, 2022
The Mary Rose warship -- Photo Credit: Geni

The Mary Rose was considered King Henry VIII’s favorite ship because it was the largest state-of-the-art warship of the English navy in the 1500s. It survived three decades as one of the most powerful war machines before it sank at sea in 1545 in a battle with the French navy.

But, a development that has caught the interest of historians and archaeologists is the presence of Africans on the warship and their roles. According to The Guardian, there were members of the crew who had North African ancestry after analyses were conducted on the skeletal remains exhumed from the wreckage.

Reconstruction of some crew members by researchers shows one of the Africans on Mary Rose had the duty of ensuring the warship was watertight. Analysis of his skull showed he is of African origin, he is well built and in his early teens.

A further scientific study of the DNA of King Henry’s teeth revealed details correlating with genes found in samples extracted from Moroccans and other communities in the East part of Africa. The DNA also corresponded with samples taken from North Africa.

One of the lead researchers from the University of Portsmouth, Dr. Sam Robson, said there is a high possibility King Henry’s mother may have African ancestry though the details are sketchy. She added that bone analysis of other teeth suggests one of the crew members had his upbringing in parts of the world where the weather was hot possibly North Africa.

The researchers extracted his remains from the main deck under a cannon where he was believed to have been trapped after the warship was defeated by the French. The researchers described his role as the archer Royal and placed him as an elite member of King Henry’s regiment.

The researchers picked a sword from his skeletal remains as well as a comb and leather wrist guard with the inscription of the arms of Catherine of Aragon and Royal arms of England. The food particles analyzed by the research team found they were not sourced from the coast.

In her book, the ‘Black Tudors: The Untold Story’, Dr. Miranda Kaufmann said the evidence emerging from Mary Rose suggests a ship that accommodated ethnically diverse people. She said the presence of the Moroccans suggested that they may have joined the Mary Rose when merchants began trading with North Africans. They are believed to have been with the ship through Spain and Portugal playing the role of sailors, craftsmen and artists.

In her book, Blacksmoores, writer Dr. Onyeka Nubia confirmed the racial diversity on the warship. She said the English being receptive to other cultures was not a sensitive subject in the 18th century.

She added that as much as the evidence on Mary Rose is not representative of the England society, it provided a defining insight into the freedom enjoyed by people from different cultures.

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