The mystery of human physical difference and its causes, and the exotic and at times erotic fascination with black Africans, was literally brought home to the people of Elizabethan England and Stuart Scotland as, in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Africans themselves began to visit and settle in the British Isles. The five men from Shama who arrived with John Lok were perhaps unique in the 1550s in that they had come to England directly from Africa. While they undoubtedly fascinated those who encountered them, what marked them out as special was perhaps more their ‘African-ness’ than their skin colour, for we can be certain that they were not the only black people resident in the British Isles in the mid-sixteenth century. There were people of African descent arriving and settling in various parts of Britain in the period, but they were mainly concentrated in London and the southern seaports. There remained very few of them, but as the geographic horizons of England and Scotland expanded, so did their numbers. Most appear to have lived ordinary lives, marrying and raising families, and while the majority of these black Tudor Africans were domestic servants they appear not to have been enslaved. There were slaves across fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe, but these unfortunates were drawn from various races. Despite the biblical notion of the Curse of Ham, there was no commonly recognized or popularly understood link between the condition of slavery and the people of Africa at this time – that was to come later.1

It used to be the case that the study of the presence of black people in Britain during the Tudor and Stuart ages was a neglected area. This is no longer true due to the effort of several historians (Imtiaz Habib, Miranda Kaufmann, Onyeka Nubia, Marika Sherwood and others) who have scoured the archives and uncovered the identities of literally hundreds of ‘black Tudors’.2 They have been found in parish registers, in the correspondence of the wealthy, and in legal records. Through such sources we learn of the three ‘blackamore maids’ who were said to be under the employ of the London alderman Paul Banning in 1586, and of Bastien, who was buried in Plymouth on 10 December 1583 and described as ‘a Blackmoore of Mr. Willm Hawkins’, the brother of the slave-trader sir John Hawkins.3 Eleven years later and in the same town, Mary, recorded as a ‘negro of John Whites’, was baptized; her father was said to be a Dutchman.4 These tantalizing glimpses often raise more questions than they provide answers. How did Bastien come to be buried in Plymouth? Was he a slave seized from Africa by Sir John Hawkins and gifted to his brother William? What became of Mary from Plymouth? Was she a mixed-race Afro-Dutch woman living in sixteenth-century England, did she marry and have children, was she free or enslaved?

Most black Tudors probably arrived in Britain via the Iberian and Mediterranean worlds. Some were brought to Britain by their employers. The scale of contact, trade and diplomacy between Portugal and Africa had led to the emergence in Lisbon of a large population of both free and enslaved Africans, as well as an unknown number of people of mixed heritage. Together they may have made up around 20 per cent of Lisbon’s population in the late sixteenth century. As England and Scotland’s disputes with Spain and Portugal escalated, many of the African people who found themselves in the British Isles were men and women who had been on board captured slave-trading ships belonging to the two Iberian powers.

The records of the black presence in Tudor England and Stuart Britain that do exist tell us that most black people were in domestic service and on the lower rungs of Tudor society. The archives record their births and deaths but also their baptisms and marriages, suggesting that when given the opportunity they became integrated into the society around them. But the numbers of black Tudors are too small for us to talk of a ‘black community’. There were, however, a tiny number of black Tudors upon whom the records shine a brighter light, and among them is a black man who was part of the Tudor court. His name was John Blanke, and he may well have arrived in England in 1501, as part of the entourage of Catherine of Aragon, who had come to London to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, the elder brother of Henry VIII. Arthur died in early 1502. Seven years later Henry took his brother’s widow as his wife, and acceded within days to the throne.

John Blanke makes his first appearance in the records in 1509, when a note records wages being paid to him by the court of Henry VIII. But he exists in more than just the documentary record. Incredibly he is the first black person in Britain for whom we have not just a name in the official records but also an image; we can put a face to the name. This came about because Blanke performed at the celebrations that were staged in January 1511 to mark the birth of Prince Henry, the son born to Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. The infant, who died ten days after his birth, was the couple’s second child and the second to have been lost; a still-born daughter had been delivered in January 1510, a year and a half after Henry and Catherine had married.5 The festivities of 1511 are recorded in the Westminster Tournament Roll, a sixty-foot illustrated vellum roll held today at the Royal College of Arms in London. John Blanke appears twice on the Roll, shown on both occasions within the procession riding a grey horse and wearing an identical liveried uniform to his five fellow royal trumpeters. Their costumes differ only in the fact that Blanke wears a turban of brown and yellow. He was recorded as having been awarded a special payment for performing at the tournament.

Even before the Westminster Tournament, Blanke had witnessed a number of the pivotal events in the grim but compelling drama that was the Tudor dynasty. He had been present at the funeral of Henry VII in the spring of 1509, at which he had worn a black mourning livery. In the summer of that same year, this time wearing clothes of a regal red, Blanke had performed at the coronation of Henry VIII. We learn from a document of 1509 that he had petitioned Henry VIII, requesting that he be awarded the job and the wages of a recently deceased fellow trumpeter. In a skilfully worded petition to the King, Blanke informed his monarch that his current rates of pay were not ‘sufficient to mayntaigne and kepe hym to doo your grace lyke service as other your trompeters doo’. Promising lifelong service and loyalty, Blanke made his case for promotion and reward.6Another document from 1512 reveals that John Blanke was married – presumably to an English woman of whom nothing is known. The document in question records that Blanke received a wedding gift from the King.7 ‘John Blak [sic], our trompeter’, a gown of violet cloth, and also a bonnet and a hat, ‘to be taken of our gift against his marriage’ reads the note.8 It seems likely that Blanke, who most probably came to Britain from Spain, was given a surname that reflected that life’s journey. Historians have speculated that ‘Blanke’ might be an example of Tudor ironic humour – a comic play on words based around blanco and blanc, meaning white in Spanish and French respectively.9

John Blanke’s place within the Tudor court may well have been a reflection of the studied modernity to which the Tudors and the English aristocracy aspired, as by the early sixteenth century Africans had become a recognized feature of the international, outward-looking cultures of Renaissance court life and pageantry, and a fashion for black musicians had spread across Europe. The Medici dynasty in Florence was known to have employed a black trumpeter in the 1550s, and there were Africans in the court of James IV in Edinburgh. The Shrove Tuesday celebrations held in the Scottish court in 1505 involved a dance choreographed by a black drummer referred to in the records as a ‘taubronar’ who appears to have been a favoured member of the royal court. The Shrove Tuesday celebrations involved twelve dancers wearing black and white chequered costumes.10

The presence of black people in the court of the Stuart kings was in part a reflection of that nation’s excursions into the Atlantic world. Scottish privateers had been unleashed by James IV to prey on Portuguese ships in which enslaved Africans, as well as gold and ivory, were being transported to Europe. Elizabeth I, like her father, is known to have employed Africans in her court. A ‘Blackamoore boy’ is listed in a warrant of April 1574 in which the Queen commanded a tailor to make the child a ‘garcon coat . . . of white taphata’ lined with ‘gold and silver’.11 Other Africans arrived in the courts of Europe as diplomats from various parts of Africa. Representatives of the kings of Congo began to make visits to Lisbon from the fifteenth century onwards, and in 1544 the nephew of the Congolese king paid a visit to the Portuguese capital, as did the sons of other elite Congolese families who were sent to Lisbon to further their educations.

John Blanke was a man with marketable skills and talents, which enabled him to earn a (presumably) comfortable living and command a certain degree of social status. Details of his life, and the images of him that appear on the Westminster Tournament Rolls, are preserved in the archival records due to Blanke’s close proximity to power. Most black Tudors were not so fortunate in life and exist only as fragmentary passing references in parish registers and other documents. Another comparatively fortunate black Tudor, about whom we know a little more, appears in the records three decades after the last mention of John Blanke. Jacques Francis, like Blanke, had a connection with the court of Henry VIII. He was a salvage diver, twenty years old and from Arguin Island, in what is now Mauritania.

Francis was a slave employed by Peter Paulo Corsi, a Venetian salvage expert, who brought him to England around 1546. Corsi and his team had been tasked by Henry VIII with salvaging guns from the wreck of the Mary Rose, the great Tudor flagship that had sunk in the Solent in 1545, probably after tacking too sharply with her lower gunports open. Jacques Francis was the lead diver in the salvage operation, but records of him and his time in England survive not because he was employed on such a high-profile project but because in 1547 he found himself testifying in a court of law. When Corsi was accused of illegally salvaging metals from another wreck by a group of Italian merchants, Francis was called to give testimony in defence of his master in the High Court of Admiralty. It is significant that the testimony of Francis was admitted into an English court. He was a foreigner, a non-Christian, and an African marked out by difference in skin colour. Furthermore, he was enslaved. Yet his testimony was accepted and his humanity acknowledged by the court at a time when the testimonies of thousands of white English villeins (bonded serfs) would not have been admissible in court. One of Corsi’s accusers, the Venetian merchant Anthony de Nicholao Rimero, attempted to have Francis’s testimony disregarded, on the grounds that he was ‘a morisco born where they are not christenyd and slave to the sayd peter Paulo ym And therefore . . . no Credite nor faithe ought to be geven to his Sayenges as in other Strange Christian cuntryes hit ys to no suche slave geven.’12 Rimero’s appeals were rejected by the High Court of Admiralty.

How did the people of Elizabethan England and Stuart Scotland regard the Africans who arrived in their nations during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries? What rights did they accord them? Were there then, present and detectable within those societies, forms of what we today would recognize as racism? For many years historians regarded an order of the Privy Council, dating from 1596, as compelling evidence that black people were unwanted and unwelcome in Elizabethan England, and that steps were taken, with the full support and active encouragement of the state and the Queen, to remove them from the nation. The order granted Caspar Van Senden, a German merchant from Lübeck, ‘lysence to take up so muche blackamoors here in this realm and to transport them into Spain and Portugall’ where Van Senden intended to sell them into slavery.13The licence was addressed to the mayors and sheriffs of England and may have had the support of Privy Councillors, as they may have considered it a cheap way of settling a debt.

Van Senden had secured the release of eighty-nine English subjects from Spanish and Portuguese custody and had incurred costs in doing so. Rather than directly compensate him, it seems that the debt owed him by the state was to have been settled by the granting of a licence that, in theory at least, entitled him to kidnap and sell a number of black people resident in England. However, Van Senden’s arrangement – initiated during a period when a number of bizarre schemes were able to acquire a degree of official backing – proved fundamentally impractical. The licence stipulated that the ‘blackamoors’ within the English realm, most of whom were servants, could only be deported if the permission of their masters was first secured. As no compensation was to be offered them for the loss of their servants, this was an insurmountable obstacle.

In 1601, a second and more strongly worded petition was drafted. It stated that ‘the Queen’s majesty, tendering the good and welfare of her own natural subjects, greatly distressed in these hard times of dearth, is highly discontented to understand the great number of Negroes and blackamoors which (as she is informed) are carried into this realm’.14 To address this problem the licence affirmed that the Queen ‘hath given a special commandment that the said kind of people shall be with all speed avoided and discharged out of this her majesty’s realms; and to that end and purpose hath appointed Casper van Senden, merchant of Lubeck, for their speedy transportation’.15 It appears that this second licence was never issued as a proclamation and may have been drafted by Van Senden himself. And the merchant’s plan to deport and enslave black Tudors came to nothing.16 Yet for decades these two documents, unearthed from the archives and seemingly unambiguous in their content, were (understandably) regarded by historians as strong evidence that a policy of forced deportation targeted at black people had been officially sanctioned, and that such a policy reflected widespread antipathy towards Africans. In reality Van Senden’s scheme was a failed profit-making venture proposed by a foreign merchant, rather than the smoking-gun proof of rampant racism towards black people in Elizabeth’s England.17 This, however, is not to say that there was no intolerance shown to black people in early modern Britain.

Elizabethan and Stuart attitudes to what we today call race were complex, often contradictory, ever-shifting and developing. A range of reactions towards black people, their skin colour and ethnicity, appear to have operated concurrently. While within the everyday English spoken in Elizabethan times the colour black was laden with negative associations, many of the black people who appear in sixteenth-century parish registers were evidently accepted into the Church. Some got married – presumably to white spouses – and had children. Their skin colour evidently did not prevent them integrating into the society around them, and the black Tudors we have already met, John Blanke and Jacques Francis, were able to hold positions of relative prestige within the same society.

Similar contradictions are evident in the fact that while English slave-traders, engaged in the enslavement and transportation of Africans, operated freely from Andalusia and occasionally from English ports, slavery within England itself was illegal. In 1587, twenty years after Sir John Hawkins had made a fortune carrying captured Africans to Spain’s New World colonies, a Spanish resident of England, Hector Nuñez, filed a complaint with the Court of Requests detailing how a black man he had purchased as a slave and brought into England was unwilling to recognize his enslavement and ‘utterly refuseth to tarry and serve’. Nuñez was exceedingly disappointed that the English common law offered him ‘no remedie . . . to compel’ this ‘Ethiopian’ to submit to his demands.18 That strange duality in attitudes which many foreigners were to regard as an acute form of hypocrisy was to be characteristic of British attitudes towards the rights, status and humanity of Africans in later centuries.

One arena in which the complexities and contradictions within English attitudes and beliefs were played out was the Elizabethan stage. Shakespeare, like most of his educated countrymen and women, was captivated by the new accounts of Africa, Asia and the Americas that emerged during the latter years of the sixteenth century. Richard Hakluyt’s bestselling Principal Navigations was published in 1598 – the year when Shakespeare wrote Henry IV, Part 2 and started Much Ado About Nothing – and it is probable that Shakespeare read Hakluyt, conceivably the much-expanded three-volume version that emerged in 1599–1600. Shakespeare, it appears, also read the Berber author Leo Africanus’s book Geographical Historie of Africa, published in English translation in 1600, which described the supposed habits and cultures of the people of Africa and tended to conflate the habits and appearances of the people of North Africa with those of sub-Saharan Africa. Leo Africanus is often considered to have influenced Shakespeare’s characterization of Othello.19

Despite there being clues encoded within the plays as to what Shakespeare was reading, it is impossible to get a full sense of how he or his audiences at the Globe regarded the black Africans about whom they had read in Hakluyt, or the black people they now encountered in the capital. It would be a mistake, however, to see Shakespeare’s plays through the optic of the forms of racism and racial thinking that emerged only later in the seventeenth century, when England and Scotland became more deeply involved in the Atlantic slave trade and New World slavery. It is sometimes forgotten that Shakespeare’s writing career (roughly 1589 to 1613) pre-dated both the start of the English slave trade and the establishment of English colonies in the Americas. Sir John Hawkins’s first slaving expedition took place just before Shakespeare’s birth, and his efforts petered out while the young William was just a boy. Shakespeare’s death in 1616 came three years before the traditionally accepted date for the start of slavery in the English New World. Shakespeare did live in an age in which slavery was practised by the Spanish and Portuguese in the New World, and in Mediterranean Europe, including in Italy, where many of his plays were set. Yet in sixteenth-century Europe slaves were white as well as black. Indeed one of the fears that haunted the dreams of the English was the dread of being enslaved by Barbary corsairs, slave-trading pirates from Islamic North Africa. Not only was slavery not a condition solely associated with Africans in Shakespeare’s time, but ideas of race and racial difference were profoundly different from those that were to develop during the age of the Atlantic slave trade. We can, for these reasons, be certain that Shakespeare’s audiences did not come to the Globe with anything resembling a modern understanding of the idea of ‘race’, and what was meant by the word ‘race’ in early modern England remains to some extent unclear, despite having been the focus of a huge amount of scholarly debate. It was a word Shakespeare did use in his plays, but only sparingly. The word ‘race’ did not mean to Shakespeare and his contemporaries what it means to us. It had a tendency to shift its meaning and at times overlapped with notions of purity and pedigree.

What Elizabethans and early Stuarts did understand were ideas surrounding skin colour. Shakespeare’s audiences had a fascination with human blackness that was influenced by older, medieval, ideas about the meanings of the colour black and its symbolic relationship with its opposite, white. Blackness in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was associated with the night, the supernatural and the diabolical. The devil was depicted as black in innumerable medieval paintings, and continued to be portrayed as such in Elizabethan and Stuart woodcuts. The blackest everyday objects were described as being ‘as black as a devil’, and on occasions the skin of the devil was said to be as black as that of an African. To call someone black in Shakespeare’s England was to insult them, not by any linkage with race, but because the colour itself was pregnant with negative symbolism.20

Whiteness by contrast was the marker of purity, virginity and even divinity, concepts that were never more loaded with meaning than in the years during which a Virgin Queen who whitened her skin with lead-based make-up ruled England. Elizabeth’s whiteness was flatteringly commented upon by foreign visitors. Elizabethans, therefore, quite naturally asked if the blackness of the African’s skin was a marker of his or her inner character. Were Africans imbued with the negative traits associated with the colour black? Another concern stemmed from the belief that extreme heat, as was found in Africa, unbalanced the supposed four humours of the body and rendered men more volatile and vengeful – an aspect of a theory known to historians as ‘geohumoralism’. Might this be true of black men born under the heat of an African sun?21 Human blackness was therefore not merely an interesting conundrum to be debated by travellers and philosophers like George Best and John Lok, but a live and pressing issue.

The ways in which Shakespeare interpreted these ideas and intellectual currents has been the subject of a huge amount of scholarship and is too vast a subject to be addressed here. But it is clear that Shakespeare himself was fascinated by the creative possibilities inherent in the symbolic clash between black and white. On stage, black skin – albeit applied with heavy theatrical make-up – was a potentially potent visual device. Yet Shakespeare’s exploration and, in Othello, subversion of these ideas and themes was only possible because his audience was aware of the same tensions, notions and enigmas. It was because it understood the references and stereotypes involved that Shakespeare was able to challenge and confound them.

The words that Shakespeare puts in the mouths of his black characters suggest that they too are aware of the tensions and debates around blackness, and operate in a world in which attitudes towards their skin colour might differ widely from one encounter to another. On occasion, they pre-emptively request tolerance, aware that they may meet prejudice and intolerance.22 On other occasions, they are met with warmth and apparent acceptance to which they easily adapt. Racial intolerance was clearly present, both on the stage and in the society that was reflected on it, but such negative attitudes towards Africans were not so ubiquitous as to make other relationships and interactions between black and white people impossible or improper. Most of all in Shakespeare there is contradiction. He repeatedly reflected and refracted what must be presumed to have been a prevailing attitude of his age: that Africans were unattractive and ugly. ‘Away you Ethiope,’ shouts Lysander at Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while in Much Ado About Nothing Claudio’s love for Hero is so great that it would sustain him even if she had black skin. ‘I’ll hold my mind were she an Ethiope’, he exclaims in Act 5. Shakespeare, however, suggests that there were those who regarded Africans as attractive. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus refers to ‘the old saying’ that ‘Black men are pearls in beauteous ladies’ eyes.’

Shakespeare’s greatest black character, Othello, is so complex a figure that whole libraries have been written about him. Othello can be read as a critique of black male sexuality and as an exploration of the ideas and taboos surrounding racial mixing. Those taboos are scrutinized in some of Shakespeare’s most vivid language, which played heavily on sexual ideas that evidently titillated his audiences, who after all had been informed by Hakluyt that Africans were indiscriminate in their sexual encounters and rejected the institution of marriage. But Othello cannot be understood only in terms of the racial attitudes of the Elizabethan age. Othello’s characterization and his role in the play are also reflective of contemporary debates about Islam and the power of the sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire; the enemy Othello leaves Venice to confront are the Ottoman Turks. What is striking about the play is the depth of Shakespeare’s apparent empathy for Othello even as he destroys that which he loves.

In Principal Navigations, Richard Hakluyt made an earnest appeal to his countrymen. Alarmed that the Spanish had such a formidable head-start in Africa, he urged Protestant England to commit its energies to establishing colonies in the New World. Unless the English staked their claim and began to draw on the riches of the Americas, Hakluyt warned, the Spanish would ultimately become too wealthy and too powerful to resist.23 Until the establishment of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia in the early years of the seventeenth century, the English had no permanent colonies in the New World, and had played only a minor part in the Atlantic slave trade. Since the three expeditions of Sir John Hawkins in the 1560s, only a handful of English sea captains had attempted to break into the slave trade, and the few English slaving ventures that had been launched had been opportunistic, ad hoc or piratical.

If any single factor explains why all this changed, and why the fate and prosperity of the British Isles became so firmly tied to Africa, that factor would be sugar. When Englishmen did at last found viable colonies on the smaller and less significant islands of the eastern Caribbean, all of which were prudently distant from the Spanish centres of power, those early settlers discovered that more than any other crop, cane sugar had the capacity to make them rich.

Those first waves of English planters were no more pioneers of New World sugar cultivation than Sir John Hawkins had been the inventor of the slave trade. As was so often the case, in these formative decades the English (accompanied later by Irishmen, Scots and Jews) were copying rather than inventing; taking methods and practices developed by others and applying them within their own modest colonies. From Dutch colonists in Brazil, the English borrowed the agricultural skills required to grow sugar cane and the technological knowledge to process the cane juice into sugar and molasses. The adoption of the new crop and the new technologies required to process it taught the English that sugar was inordinately profitable but demanded huge amounts of labour.

The first stages of the settlement and development of the island of Barbados, England’s wealthiest West Indian possession, were achieved using white indentured servants and a small number of imported Africans. Indentured servitude was a harsh and often abusive form of apprenticeship, in which poor men and women from the British Isles sold their labour for a period of between seven and nine years. In return, they were given passage to the colonies and food and shelter during the term of service. The more fortunate were also paid wages at the end of the service and were given either a cash payment or a parcel of land upon which they could build a new life. At its best, indentured service made possible forms of social mobility that were unfeasible and almost unheard of in Britain itself. This, at least, was the theory. In ruthless frontier societies like Barbados, many servants were abused and exploited, never receiving their promised rewards and being subject to cruel punishments. Some did not survive their terms of service. Indentured servants were dispatched not just to the West Indies but also to North America, where in Virginia and Maryland English colonists had established tobacco plantations that were almost as labour-hungry as the sugar estates of Barbados. In the first half of the seventeenth century, more than half of all the immigrants who arrived in the North American colonies were indentured servants. However, as labour became more scarce in England after the Civil War, the system of indentured servitude could no longer provide the tobacco planters of Virginia, the Carolinas and Maryland or the sugar planters of Barbados with the manpower required to cultivate their estates.

In Barbados, the nature of sugar itself made the demand for an expanded and dependable source of labour especially urgent. Not only was the cultivation of sugar labour-intensive – more so than tobacco, processing the canes into sugar was time-sensitive and semi-industrial, requiring the establishment during harvesting of something akin to a production line. The fresh-cut cane had to be rapidly transported from the fields to the ‘factory’, where the cane juice was extracted by heavy rollers. From there it was rushed to the ‘boiling house’, where the juice was heated and the solution reduced, leaving the raw sugar.

The intensity of sugar production, combined with the decline in the numbers of indentured servants immigrating into the island, provided the planters of Barbados with the economic rationale for the transition towards African slavery. By the 1640s the Barbados planters were abandoning other crops in favour of sugar and were well on the way towards discarding indentured labour. By 1680 there were thirty-eight thousand slaves on Barbados. By the end of the seventeenth century there were fifty thousand. The island was being divided up among wealthy landowners as the English Caribbean entered the hands of men with the funds, credit and contacts required to become established in the sugar business.

In 1661, the sugar planters who dominated the Barbados Assembly passed the Barbados Slave Code, also known as the Barbados Slave Act, which combined a number of previously separate laws and ordinances to formalize slavery as a legally sanctioned and regulated institution. The Slave Code represented a tacit acceptance by the planters that the decline in the numbers of white servants and the booming sugar industry had made it inevitable that the island should become and remain a society in which black slaves were the majority.

In 1637 there were only two hundred Africans on Barbados out of an island population of six thousand. By 1660 the majority of Barbadians were black Africans, and consequently much of the Slave Code was focused on measures to prevent uprisings and revolutions among the enslaved. Slave owners were called upon to monitor their human property and carry out regular searches of the cabins that they lived in, in order to prevent weapons falling into their hands. A system of passes was instituted that required all slaves absent from the plantations upon which they worked to have a ticket that accounted for their absence and explained the reasons for their journey. Those unable to produce the necessary document were to be subjected to a ‘moderate whipping’.24

Critically, the Barbados Slave Code drew clear distinctions between white ‘servants’ and ‘negro’ slaves, and it used the terms ‘negro’ and ‘slave’ interchangeably. To be black on Barbados was to be a slave. The Slave Code denounced black people as ‘heathenish brutish and an uncertain dangerous pride of people’, whose nature required that they be subject to rigorous and ‘punishionary laws’.25 The code set out a long litany of punishments, most of them brutal and exemplary, to which only black slaves could be exposed. Mutilation of the face, slitting of nostrils, branding of cheeks and foreheads and castration were all deemed acceptable punishments for Africans. The list of offences for which the approved punishment for black people was death was expanded to include petty theft and the destruction of property. When white men, even the lowliest indentured servants, committed similar crimes they were subject to far less harsh punishments, often penalized by having their terms of service extended by a number of years.

Most importantly, indentured servants, despite the abuse that many endured, remained under the protection of the English common law. They retained the right to trial by jury, which was specifically denied to ‘negroes’. The Barbados Slave Code determined that ‘brutish slaves deserve not for the baseness of the Conditions to be tried by the legall tryall of twelve Men’.26

In this way and others the Slave Code divided Barbados society along the lines of race. All white men of all classes were accorded rights that were systematically denied to black people. The planters, who had long held the white poor in deep disdain, especially Irish indentured servants and the convict labourers, understood that white racial unity was an insurance policy that might protect them in the event of a slave rebellion. They were therefore willing to deliberately blur the distinctions of classes in order to bring racial differences into sharper relief. The Atlantic slave trade had taken Africans from numerous and widely differing cultures and ethnic groups and defined them en masse as ‘negroes’. Now the pioneers of English plantation slavery, driven by their desperate desire for security, ushered all Europeans, irrespective of their ethnic or social backgrounds, into the new category of ‘white’; a term that had to be explained to newly arriving Europeans who were unfamiliar with the workings of the new slave society. The model quickly spread to other islands.

The decline of Spain and Portugal in the seventeenth century opened the way for predatory rivals to stake territorial claims across the New World. The French, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and the north German states, as well as England, all jostled to obtain territories in the West Indies. For the English, the waning of Spanish power made it possible for the Barbados blueprint to be applied elsewhere. When the English Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell went to war with Spain in the 1650s, the English seized the island of Jamaica. Twenty-five times the size of Barbados, Jamaica was a vast and glittering prize. As it was cleared and parcelled out into sugar estates, the slave population soared. Many of the first and most eager English settlers on Jamaica were Barbadian planters who had the skills but not the acres to make their fortunes. The same semi-industrial processes of sugar cultivation were imported into Jamaica along with the Barbados Slave Code, which was copied almost verbatim. The Jamaican Slave Act of 1696 barely deviated from a slave act passed in Barbados eight years earlier. Where the two islands differed was that Jamaican planters proved more reluctant to execute slaves accused of petty offences. This was not because the men who ran Jamaica were more moderate or humane than their countrymen in Barbados, but because in its formative decades Jamaica struggled to secure enough black slaves to meet the demands of its booming plantation economy.

Something similar took place in the English colonies of North America. Like the settlers of Barbados and Jamaica, the tobacco farmers of Virginia and Maryland, who had clustered around the Chesapeake Bay area, had established their plantations using indentured labourers – English and Irish, both men and women. The increasing availability of African slaves meant that here again, over the course of the seventeenth century, there was a shift away from the indentured servitude of whites and towards the enslavement of growing numbers of black men and women.

In 1619, at the first English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, ‘20 and odd Negroes’ had been landed – an event that is often regarded as the symbolic beginning of African slavery in North America. The Africans in question were landed by the Dutch warship the White Lion. The vessel was on a privateering mission and had intercepted a Portuguese slave ship, the San Juan Bautista. The twenty Africans brought ashore at Jamestown had been taken from the hold of the Portuguese slaver and had not been trafficked directly from Africa by English traders, for the English, even now that they possessed embryonic colonies in the New World, had yet to properly enter the slave trade. The few English slave-trading missions that had taken place were at this point small-scale and ad hoc.

In 1626 two traders from London and Southampton, Maurice Thompson and Thomas Combe, arrived in the island of St Kitts with sixty enslaved Africans. Eleven years later Nicholas Crispe, a trader who had been granted a licence to transport slaves from the Guinea Coast by Charles I, had the ship Talbot fitted out ‘to take nigers and to carry them to foreign parts’.27 There are records of a handful of other English missions, but in the first half of the seventeenth century most English mariners had rightly concluded that privateering offered an easier route to wealth, and continued to prey upon the treasure fleets that ferried gold and silver to Spain from her New World colonies, rather than on the people of Africa’s Atlantic coast. Then, within the span of a single decade, the English abandoned their earlier reticence and launched themselves wholeheartedly into the slave trade.

The restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 placed upon the throne a king who understood the potential profitability of an English slave trade that could provide the English colonists of the West Indies and North America with African captives. Charles II and his inner circle, which included the King’s brother James, Duke of York, and his cousin Prince Rupert, regarded the joint-stock company as the perfect instrument with which to profitably establish such a trade. The first company to be focused upon the African trade was the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, founded in 1660. Its charter stipulated that the company would have the ‘whole, entire and only trade for the buying and selling bartering and exchanging of for or with any Negroes, slaves, goods wares and merchandises’ to be found in Africa.28 The company operated until 1667, by which time it had delivered to the English planters of the New World colonies sixteen thousand African slaves, yet was heavily in debt.

The following year a new joint-stock company, the Company of Gambia Adventures, was formed and given the right to trade to the north of the Bight of Benin. It was in 1670, under the Gambia Adventures, that the first fortress on Bunce Island was constructed. Two years later in 1672, King Charles II established the Royal African Company, which was given a huge scope of operation including the ‘full power to make and declare peace and war with any of the heathen nations’ that lay within its zone of operations. It also had the right to call upon the Royal Navy to search and seize the vessels of ‘interlopers’ – independent English traders who attempted to trade along the African coast, from Morocco to Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, over which the company claimed British monopoly rights.29

The Royal African Company was responsible for transporting and enslaving more Africans than any other company in British history. More than any other institution it established Britain as a key player in the transatlantic slave trade, setting her on an upward trajectory that, by the eighteenth century, would enable her to become the dominant slave-trading power in Europe. Its most significant years of operation were between 1672 and the early 1720s, during which it dispatched over five hundred expeditions to Africa. Within a decade of the Royal African Company’s formation, the English share of the Atlantic trade had increased from 33 per cent to 74 per cent, mainly at the expense of the Dutch and the French.30 Over the whole of its existence the Royal African Company dispatched into slavery around a hundred and fifty thousand African men, women and children.31

In a strange mirroring of the situation that had prevailed on the African coast in the 1550s and 1560s, the Royal African Company used its ships and coastal fortresses to defend its monopoly from interlopers, just as the Portuguese had attempted to do in the face of English incursions over a century earlier. In the late seventeenth century, the illegal traders were not foreigners but Englishmen, the so-called ‘separate traders to Africa’. These independent merchants were men determined to break into the African trade and defy the right of Stuart monarchs to claim the entire trade for the benefit of themselves and their supporters. The Royal African Company confiscated both ships and cargoes and imprisoned the interlopers, some of whom died while incarcerated in the company’s African fortresses. The historian William A. Pettigrew has chronicled how the separate traders took on what they called the ‘African Monster’ and launched a political campaign against the Royal African Company, demanding that access to the slave trade be made a right of all Englishmen. In their envisioning of English freedoms, the right to trade anywhere, with anyone and in any commodity was placed among those natural freedoms that the separate traders claimed had been bestowed upon all Englishmen. Stone-blind to irony, they argued, audaciously and amorally, that the right to enslave Africans was a defining feature of English freedom. Seeking to influence public opinion, they clamoured that the trade in enslaved human beings should be for the benefit of the whole country, rather than just the monarchy and the cabal that surrounded them, and energetically propagated this view through a war of pamphlets, lobbying and persuasion.

From time to time, the voices of the West Indian plantation owners and the tobacco farmers of Virginia and Maryland were raised in support of these contentions and in opposition to the monopoly of the Royal African Company.32 For England to thrive, for her balance of trade to be healthy and for her power to be extended into the Atlantic world, the slave trade had to be deregulated and privatized, they reasoned. Without such a move, the sugar and tobacco plantations of the Americas had no viable future, and England would no longer be able to supply the nation with those highly desirable commodities. Few people disagreed with the economic case, and fewer still concerned themselves with the plight of the enslaved Africans whose commoditized bodies were placed at the centre of a debate about the nature of English freedom.

To the individual traders the Royal African Company was a tyranny. To the owners of plantations in the English West Indies its greatest failure was its inefficiency. Despite enormously increasing the English market share in the Atlantic slave trade, the company had demonstrated itself largely incapable of meeting the growing demand for enslaved Africans in Barbados and on the tobacco estates of the North American colonies. After many years of campaigning and political lobbying, the royal monopoly was weakened, and in 1712 finally abandoned. The company to which Charles II had awarded a charter to run for 1,000 years in 1672 was effectively disbanded after eighty years, finally being wound up in 1752.

Now the independent traders were turned loose upon the shores of West Africa. These private slave-traders, operating in a newly privatized and deregulated economy, between them increased the scale of the trade beyond anything the Royal African Company as a lone monopoly company had been able to achieve. Between 1673 and 1688, the years during which the Royal African Company had been able to largely enforce its monopoly, the company had managed an average of twenty-three slave-trading voyages per year. After the end of the monopoly, in the years between 1714 and 1729 the independent traders dispatched an average of seventy-seven expeditions.33 One estimate puts the increase in the carrying capacity of the trade after the end of the royal monopoly at around 60 per cent.

The elbowing aside of the Royal African Company, precipitated in part by the fall of the Stuart monarchy itself during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was the opening act in the era of the Atlantic slave trade and the one that we know most about. Thus began the period of the so-called ‘respectable trade’, in which the merchants of Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and other small British cities – the so-called ‘outports’ – vastly enriched themselves and their cities.

The effects of the end of the monopoly were felt just as acutely on the other side of the Atlantic. Finally, the plantation owners of Barbados, St Kitts, Jamaica and the North American colonies could be supplied with enslaved Africans on a scale large enough to allow for their exponential expansion and enrichment. In the tobacco-producing regions of North America, the newly secured availability of expanded numbers of enslaved ‘Negro servants’ allowed the plantation owners to begin to make the full and irrevocable transition away from white indentured servitude and towards the full reliance on African slavery. This transition was to be written into the laws of Virginia in the following decades, in a series of slave laws that formalized the binary, black and white, nature of Virginia society. Like Barbados, the North American colonies became full slave societies.

The English domination of the North Atlantic slave trade led eventually to enormous and devastating transformations within the societies on the coasts of West Africa. During the same decades, the sugar economy remade the Caribbean, transforming previously rather idyllic, heavily forested islands into closely managed, highly artificial landscapes constantly being reshaped and reworked by vast armies of enslaved people whose origins lay three thousand miles away. The plantation led to new methods of management and new principles for the organization of workers. A flurry of books on estate management appeared in print. The sugar estates of the West Indies became, at this early stage, more advanced than the proto-industrial factories that were just beginning to appear in Britain.

Also appearing in Britain were the West India planters themselves. Enormously enriched, infamously ostentatious, they left the West Indies in order to express their incredible wealth upon a larger stage. They bought property, invested in land and married off their sons and daughters to the old landed aristocracy. The phrase ‘as rich as a West Indian’ entered common usage, and the excesses and conspicuous consumption of the returned West India planter became the subject of satire as well as the source of envy.34

Another side effect of the expansion in the sugar economy and the slave trade that was noted by anxious social commentators was the hundreds and then thousands of black people who were shipped into Britain by returning plantation owners and the captains of slave-trading ships. In the last decades of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century, Africans arrived as slaves and as free people in greater numbers than in any previous period. From those decades onwards, the black presence in Britain has been unbroken and continuous. The presence of these black Georgians became a recognized symbol of the burgeoning new age of globalism, prosperity and brutality.

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