Towards ‘Race’ and slavery: bridging the gap between the Tudors and the so-called ‘Respectable Trade’

The debate surrounding the construction of ‘race’ in the early modern period is a complex and rapidly expanding field of historiography. The very usefulness of the term ‘race’ within the field is in and of itself debated. The term ‘race’ in the early modern period could at once refer to lineage, family or status and not skin tone or physical difference à la modern definitions. Identities might be forged from place of origin, status or religion.

Before the English Transatlantic Slave Trade:

In the past decade the work of Habib, Oneyka, Kaufmann, Olusoga and Brotton have highlighted the connections between England and North and Sub-Saharan Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and earlier). They have brought to our attention the lives of black porters, artisans, circumnavigators, divers and court musicians living in Tudor and Stuart Britain. Most importantly they have shown these people were free. Recent scholarship such as that of Miranda Kaufmann has highlighted the falsity of the oft-quoted belief that Elizabeth I followed a policy of expulsion of Africans living in Tudor England thus disproving takes which often see the 1596 and 1601 ‘Blackamoor’ letters to be evidence of a nascent racism. However, we should not forget that attitudes towards Africa and Africans would harden through the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries into the racial attitudes that would allow for both the development of the subsequent British Empire and slave trade.

Africa had long loomed large in the western imagination and the writers of early modern England had a wealth of Ancient and Medieval texts to draw upon. Africa was a fantastical place; in Ethiopia it was said freezing rivers existed alongside intense heat; that the rivers of Africa were spiced and perfumed; that diamonds and gold littered the earth; that the legendary (and immortal considering the length of the tales popularity) Christian King Prester John might be found. Africa was a land of luxury and plenty but also a place of strangeness. Ancient and Medieval texts (as well as the famous Mappa Mundi) drew upon tales of monstrous races such as the Blemmyae with faces upon their chests or anthropophagi who ate human flesh. Early modern authors discussed tales (which are reminiscent of similar later texts about Native American culture) that African men knew no social distinction and even held their women in common.

With these tales alongside black presence in Europe and the arrival of groups such as the Moroccan delegation in 1600 Africans and African skin became a recurring theme in literature. The contrast between black and white skin became a handy trope when discussing beauty. Writers also began to puzzle as to the reasons for physical differences between the peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa. The existence of mixed marriages in England allowed writers such as George Best to puzzle as to what complexion the children of such marriages might be despite the ‘good complexion’ of the mother. Marriage between Europeans and Africans is of course a key source of tension in Shakespeare’s Othello which sees the eponymous hero both exalted for his military prowess, provided with high estate in Venetian society and yet simultaneously subjected to brutal insult as a consequence of his marriage to Desdemona. Othello’s story illustrates the complexity of the position of Africans in European society and English thought. For whilst there was no link in English law, culture and custom between skin tone and social inferiority or slave status that did not mean people of African origin where not eroticised or exoticized or would not face prejudices.

Towards the Slave Trade:

Perhaps the zenith of complexity comes when we approach the development of English/British transatlantic slavery. In 1569 the Cartwright case stated that the air of England was ‘too pure an air for slaves to breathe in’. Consequently, Hector Nunes a member of the Portuguese Marrano community of London found that too his ire he could not force a man of ‘Ethiopia’ to work for him for free in the 1580s. Yet whilst England did not allow for slavery in common law it would be wrong to think that slavery was an alien concept to the English. Evidence shows that English merchants had interloped and had been involved with the Spanish trading of slaves as early as the fifteenth century.

Sir John Hawkins holds the dubious legacy of being a pioneer of the English transatlantic trade. In 1562 Hawkins voyaged to Sierra Leone whence he hijacked 301 Africans from a Portuguese ship before sailing to the modern-day Dominican Republic to sell them. Hawkins was following a line of thought shared by travel writer and geographer Richard Hackluyt that African slaves be very ‘good merchandise in Hispaniola’. Further slave trading attempts by Hawkins occurred in 1564 and 1567 were backed by Leicester, Cecil and Elizabeth. His ambitions to make a fortune via the capture of Africans upon the ‘Guinea Coast’ is illustrated by his 1565 coat of arms featuring a bound African figure. That the transatlantic trade proper was not developed at this time but rather took off in the 1640s is arguably not for want of trying but as a consequence of the monopoly of the Portuguese over West Africa and Portuguese and Spanish ships’ domination of the Atlantic and Caribbean seas. All this meant that the market was incredibly difficult to break into.

So far, so complex. We have a lack of a modern concept of ‘race’ but a burgeoning English involvement in the trade in enslaved Africans. We have a national hero, Sir Francis Drake who at once can trade in slaves whilst also allying with the Cimarron – escaped slaves – against the Spanish in Panama. This complexity has allowed historians to argue that ‘racism’ was not the driving cause of the English transatlantic trade put instead became a post-facto justification.

The first viable English colony was established in Virginia in 1607, though it would take the harrying of the starving times and the arrival of tobacco with the colonist John Rolfe to make the colony viable. Within twelve years the first enslaved peoples – from modern day Angola – arrived in the colony. These peoples arrived not as a result of English transatlantic trading but instead via English and Dutch privateering. Such privateering would provide enslaved workers to other colonies such as Bermuda, St Kitts, Barbados, the Leeward Islands and the ‘forgotten’ first slave economy (being so called as it was the first colony in which the enslaved outnumbered indentured labourers and other colonists) of Providence Island. Yet, in the early years of the English colonies indenture provided the bulk of labour. Uncomfortably, we can largely tie the expansion of the English transatlantic trade to economics. In the initial years of colonisation to invest in an indentured labourer was cheaper than to invest in enslaved labourers.

Just as George Best had puzzled with the complexion of the children of mixed-marriages in the 1580s by the mid-1600s English writers had begun to question the origins of black skin and its possible symbolic meanings. The writings of Sir Thomas Browne known for his wit and scientific enquiry (according to a recent In Our Time) provides a window into this darker undercurrent in English thought. In his 1646 encyclopedia the Pseudodoxia Epidemica Browne devotes an entire chapter to the ‘Blackness of Negroes’. Written as a sort of rhetorical dialectic between audience and author Browne provides us with a whistle-stop tour of popular explanations for what we today might call racial difference: the climate and heat of Africa, the sun, purposeful burning of the skin with fats (something also believed of the Native Americans), differences in diet and water, maternal impression (children being effected in the womb) to finally falling upon a theory of increasing popularity – that the people of Africa were descended from Ham. In Genesis Ham is cursed so that his progeny will be ‘servants of servants’. It is of note that in Medieval thought some had thought Ham’s descendants had been Asian or the ancestors of villeins or the Jewish community. The relocation of the ‘Hammites’ to Africa became increasingly popularised with the movement toward New World slavery.

The transition to wide-scale slave economies and English transatlantic slavery is a multi-causal story. The shift from an obsession with gold to a shifting commercialisation that valued the production of staple crops (coffee, tobacco, ginger, indigo, rice and most importantly sugar) to feed shifting tastes back home ensured an increased demand for labour. Labour which needed the specialist skills and knowledge held by the peoples of West Africa. By the middle of the seventeenth century the availability of indentured labour was decreasing, and higher-survival rates meant that in colonies such as Virginia there was a concern surrounding the availability of land to provide these servants once they’d served their terms. Coupled with the weakening monopoly of the Spanish and Portuguese over the west coast of Africa and Caribbean-sea meant that from the 1640s an English transatlantic trade was being developed. This sparked a revolution in labour in the English New World that would see many English colonies come to be predominantly slave economies. Barbados would see the enslaved population grow from 9,504 to 40,000 within less than three decades.

Racially based societies developed haphazardly across the English New World with the expansion of enslaved populations. From the 1630s onwards colonial governors grappled with the position of enslaved peoples in colonial society. By the 1660s and 1670s in the Caribbean and North American colonies had utilised a patchwork of common law practises surrounding villeinage and vagabondage to codify slavery in English colonial law. Slavery became an inherited status passed from mother to child.

Black skin, despite a population of black freemen and women and mixed marriages in colonies such as Virginia even until the 1650s, became an accepted signifier of enslaved status. Laws regarding the behaviour of the white indentured and black enslaved populations became increasingly disparate in their severity. Latent concerns surrounding popular rebellion and co-operation in such enterprises between the indentured and enslaved populations saw the colonial elites of the New World begin to shift to race as a signifier of position as opposed to status. Racism became a tool in what we in the modern era might call a crude strategy of ‘divide and conquer’. The word ‘white’ as opposed to ‘Christian’ came increasingly to be used in law so that it was clear that even the lowest status white colonist was far superior to the enslaved. In the very words of the law the enslaved were cast as ‘ferocious’, ‘heathenish’ and ‘brutish’. Miscegenation laws in Virginia made colonists who had interracial relationships subject to exile and banishment and the population of freemen and women came to be increasingly stripped of legal and political rights and treated as pariahs. When ideas of race and slavery did come to exist in English colonial law these laws were brutal, harsh and arguably delineated society and privilege along racial lines in a harsher way than had existed in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires.

To read the Barbados, Jamaican or Virginian slave codes or to read chapter ten of the sixth book of Browne’s Psuedodoxia Epidemica is a powerful reminder to borrow from the introduction of Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Reader that the idea of ‘race’ is one of the most powerful yet also fragile markers of social difference. In the words of Stuart Hall ‘race’ and ‘racial difference’ are not immutable concepts but “a narrative, a story, a history” that we have been told as a wider society and worse that we came to believe. Race is an imagined construct. Ideas of characteristics, deficiencies and superiorities attributed to skin tone (‘whiteness’, ‘blackness’, ‘redness’) were developed, puzzled through and then galvanised in the context of colonialism and to justify transatlantic slavery.

When we see news stories such as; the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police or the death of Belly Mujinga; when we read about disproportionate Covid-19 deaths or other impacts of institutional racism we need to remember that we are seeing the long consequence of racial ideas set into motion in the context of early modern colonialism. We need to remember that the ‘UK is not better than the US’ as I have seen asserted on twitter, but as the US ideas of race and racial identity are deeply entrenched within the history and development of English identity. These ideas it seems to me are still so entrenched in our wider society that I sometimes wonder if we will ever get past them. Professor Kehinde Andrews has recently argued that only a revolution could see us move beyond race. I can see where he is coming from.

Works called upon (in no particular order):


Sources from Loomba, A., and Burton, J., ed Race in Early Modern England: A Reader


Andrews, K.R., ‘The English in the Caribbean 1560 – 1620’ in K.R. Andrews, N.P. Canny and P.E.H. Hair ed The Westward Enterprise: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic and America 1480 – 1650

Blackburn, R., The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights

Bradley, P.T., British Maritime Enterprise in the New World: From the late Fifteenth-century to the Mid-Eighteenth Century

Dabydeen, D., Gilmore, J and Jones, C., ed The Oxford Companion to Black British History

Gaskill, M., Between Two Worlds: How the English became American (I’m especially thankful for the third year course I studied on which this text is based)

Guasco, Michael, Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Kaufmann, M., Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Kidd, C., British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World

Kupperman, K.O., Providence Island, 1630 – 1641: The Other Puritan Colony

Mann, B.H. and Tomlins C., The Many Legalities of Early America

Morgan, E.S., American Slavery: American Freedom

Nubia, O., England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society

Olusoga, D., Black and British: A Forgotten History

Wood, B., The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies


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