Back in Shakespeare’s day, even before the British thought of exploring Africa, you would have met 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.
Historical accounts show that several Africans, including a drummer and a choreographer, were present in Edinburgh during the celebration of Shove Tuesday in 1505.
Names such as the following were mentioned:
‘Blak Margaret’, who was given a gown costing 48s in 1513.
‘Blak Elene’ or ‘Elen More’, who was given five French crowns in 1512.
‘Two blak ladies’ staying at the Scottish Court were also presented with 10 French crowns as a New Year gift at a cost of £7, and
A ‘blak madin’ who attended Queen Margaret was given four-and-a-quarter ells (just over five yards) of French russet.
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.
The lead character in English poet, playwright and actor, Shakespeare’s Othello was also black.
It is important to note that these black people, who had grown in their numbers, were not slaves, as it was impossible to be a slave in England at the time.
They were largely free people, who even went ahead to marry native English people.
For instance, in 1599, in St Olave Hart Street, one John Cathman married Constantia, who was described as a black woman and servant, according to records.
A Moor Christian, James Curres also married Margaret Person, a maid.
There were also Africans who were baptised, buried and recorded in parish records in London, Leicester, Plymouth, Southampton, Barnstaple, Bristol, Northampton and other places across the country.
They included men, women and children such as “Christopher Cappervert, a blackemoore”, who was 28 years old when he died.
He was given a befitting burial in the St Botolph without Aldgate area of London on October 22, 1586.
There is also the baptismal record of Mary Fillis, dated June 3, 1597, who was described by parish records as a “black moore… dwelling with Millicent Porter, a semester”.
Mary had been in England since she was six years old and had originally come with her father from “Morisco” (Andalusia) in Spain.
Other names were:
Domingo – “a black neigro servaunt unto Sir William Winter”
Suzanna Peavis – “a blackamore servant to John Deppinois”
Symon Valencia – “a black moore servaunt to Stephen Drifyeld a nedellmaker”
Cassango – “a blackmoore servaunt to Mr Thomas Barber a marchaunt”
Isabell Peeters – “a Black-more lodgeing in Blew Anchor Alley”
Anne Vause – “a Black-more wife to Anthonie Vause, Trompetter”
John Comequicke – “a Black-Moore so named, servant to Thomas Love a Captaine”
Africans were not only found in England’s provinces, as some were living in the Tudor court, mingling with the high and mighty in society.
An example was Iberian Moor Catalina de Cardones, who arrived in England in 1501 with her employer Catherine of Aragon, later Henry VIII’s wife and queen.
Catalina served her employer for 26 years as the lady of the bedchamber and later got married to a “Hace ballestas”, a crossbowman also of Moorish origin.
John Blanke, the “blacke trumpeter”, was another African who inhabited the court. He was employed by Henry VII and Henry VIII from 1506–12.
Historical accounts state that Blanke played a huge role in the Westminster Tournament celebrations of 1511 which commemorated the birth of Prince Arthur, the son of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII.
Elizabeth I also had one African in her personal entourage, described as “a Blackamoore boy”, who is mentioned in a warrant dated April 14, 1574.
The warrant granted a set of fine clothing for the boy who would work with the queen till the following April.
Interestingly, some black women at the time worked as prostitutes alongside the whites, particularly, in Southwark, and in the brothel area of Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell.
Queen has had enough
The English government started raising concerns with the increasing presence of black people in around 1600.
“The queen is discontented at the great numbers of ‘negars and blackamoores’ which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her Highness and the King of Spain, and are fostered here to the annoyance of her own people,” excerpts of a letter from the queen had said.
The plan was to have these groups of Africans treated as slaves and exchanged for white English prisoners held captive in Spain and Portugal but this did not materialize.
The size of these Africans continued to grow and in the 17th century, large numbers of people from India, particularly, Bengal added to their numbers.
Some of the black Britons, such as the likes of Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano would in the 18th century gain recognition as having some of the finest works in music, prose and poetry.
By this period, as many as 20,000 black servants were living in London. Though this figure was not as huge as compared to the whole population, their role in shaping the history of England can never be underestimated.