It is generally believed that black people first came to England as slaves. That assumption is a common misperception and one that historian Miranda Kaufmann is working to correct with her first book, Black Tudors: The Untold Story. This remarkable book explores the heretofore unknown history of black people in 16th century England—individuals who lived freely and not as slaves.
The Henry Tudor Society calls Kaufmann’s book “illuminating and extraordinarily in-depth.” She explains that “people of colour were christened, married and buried by the church in England, and were paid wages just like any other 16th-century person. They formed integral parts of the communities they lived in, and provided services that were often welcomed, and in many cases, essential.” She paints vivid portraits of specific lives, including a sailor, a silk weaver, a salvage diver, a porter, a cook, a merchant, and a trumpeter for the royal court. In all, she found over 300 stories.
These lives were not without diversity and hardship including discrimination. But The Guardian suggests “it does seem that Black Tudors are no worse off than white ones.” One important detail she notes as a “significant form of acceptance” is that “Africans were being baptised and married and buried within church life.” While at Oxford, Kaufmann was planning to write her thesis on Tudor sailors’ perceptions of Asia and America. In the course of this research, she found evidence of black Tudors and realized the topic was far more important. One question she found herself struggling with as she got deep into the history of black individuals living as equals in 16th century England was, “How did we go from this period of relative acceptance to becoming the biggest slave traders out there?”
Kaufmann hopes her research will inspire more stories to be told about this remarkable piece of history. “Hopefully this research will inspire producers to get multiracial stories on our screens,” she says. All too often, black stories are erased from historical movies. The recent film Dunkirk is one example of this. We can only hope that Kaufmann’s look at the lives of these free Africans in Tudor England will somehow make it to the big screen soon. Period pieces are still enormously popular and there is growing evidence that films with diverse casts and telling diverse stories are more successful at the box office. Any of the portraits of black Tudors in Kaufmann’s books could be fictionalized and turned into an epic story. Black Tudors: The Untold Story is available in US bookstores.