History August 03, 2022 at 03:03 pm

The intriguing story of John Anthony, a free sailor of African heritage who came to 17th-century England on a pirate’s boat

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor August 03, 2022 at 03:03 pm

August 03, 2022 at 03:03 pm | History

The Cliffs of Dover, Wenceslaus Hollar 1607-77, © Public Domain

Black Tudors came to England largely through English trade with Africa and through the entourage of royals. There were those from southern Europe and others who came as merchants or aristocrats. Other Black Tudors also came to Europe through privateering and raids on the Spanish empire.

“If you captured a Spanish ship, it would be likely to have some Africans on board,” historian Miranda Kaufmann once said while touching on the life of the sailor, John Anthony, who arrived in England on a pirate’s boat. He would work as a free and waged sailor on board a ship from Dover called the Silver Falcon in 1619, the same year some historians say the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown. 

Other records describe Anthony as a “Blackmore” and a “mariner of the town and port of Dover”. In the 1600s, Dover, a lively port town, had a population of around 3,000. According to Kaufmann, the town was the leading member of the Cinque Ports, a trade confederation of port towns on the southeast coast of England. Its strategic position facilitated travel to France and other foreign ports.

It’s possible that Anthony first arrived in England with an English pirate called Henry Mainwaring who was based in Morocco but returned to England in the winter of 1616. Mainwaring was from an English family of high social class and had schooled at Oxford but had chosen to be a pirate. It’s likely that Mainwaring met Anthony on the Moroccan coast at Mamora or Tunis. It is also possible that Anthony was captured aboard a Spanish ship, as stated by Kaufmann.

Arriving in England in the early 17th century, Anthony, who had developed his skills as a mariner through his working relationship with Mainwaring, would work on board the small, light ship from Dover called the Silver Falcon. 

Even though the Silver Falcon was commissioned by Henry Mainwaring, it was owned by Lord Zouche, the warden of the Cinque Ports who was also a senior member of King James I’s Privy Council.

In 1618, Lord Zouche and a merchant known as Jacob Braems made plans for a voyage across the Atlantic to Virginia. They wanted to engage in the tobacco trade in Virginia so the plan was to send men to Virginia to start the business by planting not only tobacco but also corn, and to exchange commodities with the new English colony, with the aim to “discover and trade with the savages for furs” and to “fish upon the coast of Canada, and carry the said fish being salted into Virginia”, Kaufmann said.

On March 2, the Silver Falcon set sail from Dover with 25 men on board, including Anthony. But the ship never made it to Virginia following an exchange of goods for a 20,000 lb weight of tobacco with a West Indies Frigate near Bermuda. That exchange of goods was later seen as theft instead of trade. The Silver Falcon then started heading towards England but docked suddenly at a port in the Netherlands known as Flushing. It was suspected that the ship docked there to avoid being accused of piracy and of selling pirated goods.

“The traders involved clearly hoped to sell tobacco to Amsterdam merchants for a good profit,” according to Kaufmann.

“Lord Zouche and other backers were displeased. They intercepted the ship and confiscated a large proportion of the tobacco,” Kaufmann explained. “The Amsterdam merchants pulled out and the venture collapsed amidst accusations of piracy, with the tobacco left to rot.”

Amid the disputes, Anthony’s wages as a sailor were delayed and he was compelled to petition Lord Zouche for payment. Anthony does not appear in the records after this and it remains unclear what became of him although some Dover records mention one John Anthony who married and had a son called Richard. He sailed on voyages to Brazil and Italy and made his will in Lisbon in 1650.

Even before the British thought of exploring Africa, there were people from Africa walking the streets of London. While it is widely known that Africans resided in Britain since the early colonial times, evidence shows that Africans were in Britain in their numbers even before the 15th century and Roman times.

Historical records state that in the second and third centuries, Roman soldiers of African descent served in Britain, with several choosing to stay after their military service had come to an end. Viking fleets that raided North Africa and Spain in the 9th century captured Black people and took them to Britain and Ireland, according to historians Fryer, Edwards and Walvin. During the reign of King James IV of Scotland in 1488, there were many Black Moors at his court, who were working as servants, with others coming to the court as musicians or invited guests. Britain, however, witnessed its major Black community during the reign of Elizabeth I, when they worked not only as domestic servants but also as entertainers, musicians and dancers.

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