Dr Miranda Kaufmann was invited to this year’s book festival as part of guest selector Afua Hirsch’s series of events focusing on identities. Kaufmann’s work has focused on a period of history that seems to be a national obsession: The Tudors. Most of us can remember learning about Henry VIII and his wives in school and the period has been the focus of a number of period dramas and films, but few of us know anything about the world outside of the court. Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors aims to address some of the popular misconceptions about the period and about Britain’s Black history.
If asked how the first Africans arrived in Britain, most of us would assume that they arrived as slaves. Thanks to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, most of us associate slavery with Africa and imagine a country helpless to stop the onslaught of European ships pillaging its shores. The reality is a little more complicated. Even the word slave, now strongly associated with skin colour, originally came from Slav, and there were a million white slaves around Europe before the African trade began. History is, in fact, littered with records of slaves being bought and sold, and freed. The version we think of now is the uniquely cruel and entrenched form of the trade we know best. In previous centuries slavery was not necessarily life long, nor was it hereditary. Often enslavement occurred for a fixed term as a form of punishment. If it occurred as a result of capture then freedom could be bought. Importantly, most slaves were not taken all that far away from their original homes and so could return.
The severity and scale of the Transatlantic Slave Trade has created a false sense of history. Many of us are blinded by the pseudo-scientific classifications of race of that period and cannot imagine different. We are unable to look back into the decades and centuries before the trade began and not assume a vicious racism similar to more recent attitudes. Going through the records, Kaufmann found evidence of hundreds of Africans arriving and living in Tudor England. They came not as slaves but as sailors, musicians, merchants, or they came to learn English before returning home to be a trade factor. The dominance of Europeans over the African coast might have been true in the 18th century but in the Tudor period it was a very different power balance.
Kaufmann has worked not just to find records of Africans in this period but also to unpick the assumptions that have littered previous scholarship. She focuses on the lives of ten individuals from the period from a salvage diver to a royal trumpeter. She explains that the details of their lives and their positions in society are there, it just takes someone determined to look for them.
Books on history have long been dominated by an obsession with the key figures of each period. This is perhaps understandable given that Kings and Queens and those that surround them have well documented lives. There is, however, a rising interest in finding out more about those who have been previously overlooked. Hopefully Black Tudors will be just one of many books that will spend a few hundred pages cheerfully making us trip over our assumptions and pause to take another look.