History of Blacks in Britain: Elizabeth I kicks Moors out of England


Elizabeth I Motives for Expulsion of Blackamoors from London

Jun 30, 2010 Valerie Williamson

Blackamoor Jewel Elizabeth 1 Gift to Drake - Public Domain

Blackamoor Jewel Elizabeth 1 Gift to Drake – Public Domain
Did race discrimination by colour begin in England with Elizabeth I’s use of ‘blackamoores’ as prisoner exchange currency after the failed Spanish Armada?

The presence of Africans in early modern England has remained a subject in its infant stage of studies, suggests drama historian, Gustav Ungere (2008). As late as the 1980s, historians clung to the view that there is no way of establishing how many coloured persons had been taken to or had settled in early modern England, he states. Some evidence is gradually emerging from historical research; Ungere used Spanish documents to assist his discussion.

African Black History in Elizabethan England

One reason why the black populations of London are difficult to establish is lack of public record. With no tax on the import of slaves, such as operated in other European countries, and anyway a government monopoly on the trade of Africans from Guinea as house servants, it was 1588 before attempts were made to formalise their presence.

Most black servants were slaves, but some were freed men, the majority from Guinea, but a few Moors from north Africa, so Ungere’s researches show. It was the Moors that gave rise to anxiety, perhaps because many had strong ties with Spain, with which Elizabeth was at war, but also because Moors were Muslims.

In what inventories of servants remain from grand households of the time, no discrimination is made between servants by colour, except where they are pictorially represented. Queen Elizabeth I may have instigated the change in that.

Elizabeth I Proclaims ‘Too Many Blackamoores in London’

In 1596, Queen Elizabeth issued an “open letter” to the Lord Mayor of London, announcing that “there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie,” and ordering that they be deported from the country, documents in the National Archive show. At the time the letter had little effect, but Elizabeth’s skilled use of rhetoric may be considered to have stirred a sense of racist differentiation and to have begun the development of a vocabulary of discrimination.

One week later, she reiterated her “good pleasure to have those kinde of people sent out of the lande” and commissioned the merchant Casper van Senden to “take up” certain “blackamoores here in this realme and to transport them into Spaine and Portugall.” Finally, in 1601, she complained again about the “great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm,” defamed them as “infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel,” and again authorized their deportation.

Emily Bartels, whose research is through evidence in literature of the time, believes that this discrimination remained a religious rather than racist one. Bartels also suggests that the increasing number of foreigners arriving in London were the result of privateers capturing Spanish ships, and that Elizabeth in fact wished to use their affiliations with Spain as currency in prisoner exchange. Many English prisoners lay in foreign gaols, and the ‘blackamoores’ were her bargaining tools.

Shakespeare Black Characters Reveal Racism in Elizabethan England

Critics have only speculated about the identity of these subjects – first called “blackmoores” and in the last letter “Negars and Blackamoors” – and, in efforts to underscore the racial politics significantly at issue here, have named them “blacks,” “black servants,” “Moors,” and “Africans,” Bartels says, suggesting that these terms are more vague than specific in a contemporary sense.

That race discrimination existed in England in the reign of Elizabeth I is underlined, Ungere suggests, by Shakespeare. “In 1594 Shakespeare confronted the Elizabethans with the dramatic figure of Aaron, a literate African trained in the classics. Shakespeare’s characterization of Aaron presented a striking departure from the established discourse of black inferiority. The novelty was calculated, in the first place, to unsettle the average Elizabethan theatregoer.”

Histories of racism and multicultural approaches to understanding it, do appear to stretch at least back into the sixteenth century. The imbalance of power that came to characterise English exploitation of the slave trade and establishment of the infamous trade triangle at the centre of the economic system certainly stems from the political turbulence of that era.

Sources:

The National Archives Online Exhibition: ‘Black Settlers in Tudor Times’

Bartels, Emily C. (2006) ‘Too many Blackamoors: deportation, discrimination, and Elizabeth I’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 March

Ungere, Gustav (2008) ‘The presence of Africans in Elizabethan England and the performance of Titus Andronicus at Burley-on-the-Hill, 1595/96’ Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, Vol. 21

Other Articles by Valerie Williamson on Race & History:

Black British History Teaching Strategies Challenged

Battle to Represent Black British History and Race Resistance

 

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