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Out of Africa: Stories of pioneering black women in Early Modern England

Dr Miranda Kaufmann, a senior research fellow at the School of Advanced Study's Institute of Commonwealth Studies, provides a glimpse into the lives of some of the pioneering women she came across while researching the overlooked stories of Africans in 16th and early 17th-century England. The resulting publication, 'Black Tudors: The Untold Story' has been shortlisted for the 2018 Wolfson History Prize, which recognises and rewards the best historical writing produced in the UK.   

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Miranda Kaufmann discusses her new book, Black Tudors

The presence of African women (and men) in 16th and early 17th-century England shows that black British history stretches back centuries. They lived in a world where skin colour was less important than religion, class or talent – before the English became heavily involved in the slave trade, and before they had properly established colonies in the Americas. The stories of these women demonstrate resilience, resourcefulness, and a desire to integrate. 

African women, like African men, came to England in three ways. Some arrived from Africa with English merchants, like Mary Fillis who arrived from Morocco aged six or seven in 1583 or 1584. Some arrived from southern European countries with larger black populations, like Mary and Grace, servants to the Portuguese doctor Hector Nunes. Or, they came as a result of privateering, where English ships captured Spanish or Portuguese vessels with Africans on board or raided Spanish ports in the New World. An example is those who joined Francis Drake’s ships when he raided the Caribbean in 1585-6. 

Advancement

Once they arrived in England, most women became domestic servants. In larger households, they had specific roles, like Grace Robinson, a laundress at Knole in Kent. In smaller homes, they had a wider range of tasks, but still had the opportunity to acquire certain skills. By the time she was twenty, Mary Fillis was working for Millicent Porter, a seamstress in East Smithfield. There, she would have learnt how to sew, which may have enabled her to make her own living after her mistress died in 1599. 

Some women became independent, perhaps after being left a bequest by a former master or mistress. One example of such independence is Cattelena, described as a ‘singlewoman’, living in Almondsbury, Gloucestershire, in the 1620s. An inventory of her possessions made after her death valued them at £6 9s 6d. The most valuable was a cow, an extremely useful resource. 

Acceptance

Baptism indicates that African women were accepted into the community. We know more about the 1597 baptism of Mary Fillis than most because the parish clerk of St. Botolph’s Aldgate wrote a long description of the event. We learn that Mary was the daughter of ‘Fillis of Morisco’, a Moroccan basket weaver and shovel maker. When the curate of St Botolph’s asked her ‘certain questions concerning her faith’, she answered him ‘very Christian like’, and when he asked her to say the Lord’s Prayer, and to ‘rehearse the articles of her belief’, she ‘did both say and rehearse very decently and well’.  

This performance would have required a good understanding of the English language, and serious instruction. A large congregation of ‘divers others’ may be due to the curiosity of parishioners, but it also represents a ritualised welcoming of the new convert into the community. The words of the prayer book ordained that the convert be ‘grafted into the body of Christ’s congregation’. 

Marriage

Besides this acceptance, another reason Mary Fillis may have wanted to be baptised is so that she could get married. While some African women married African men, most had relationships with Englishmen. This was due to the relatively small number of Africans living in England at this time. Some of these relationships were marriages. 

In 1600, ‘Joane Marya a Black Moore’ living in Bristol was ‘now the wife of Thomas Smythe’. There is more evidence of extra-marital relationships. ‘Grace, a blackamoore’ was accused of ‘living incontinently with Walter Church’ in Stepney in 1632. In 1606, Mary ‘a negroe’ told the Bridewell Court that ‘one John Edwards… had the use of her body twice & she is with child by him’. At least 26 illegitimate children were born to black mothers between 1578 and 1640. There is very little evidence of African women working as prostitutes at this time. There is more evidence of African men visiting English ‘whores’.  

One exceptional woman who did work as a prostitute in 1620s Westminster was Anne Cobbie, a ‘tawny Moor’. This description suggests she had relatively light skin, and so perhaps was from one of the ‘Barbary States’ of North Africa or, even, given her English surname, the mixed-race child of a black Tudor and an Englishman or woman. It was said that men would rather give her a ‘piece’ – a gold coin worth 22 shillings – ‘to lie with her’ than another woman five shillings ‘because of her soft skin’. 

Freedom

In 1569, an English court ruled that ‘England has too pure an air for slaves to breathe in’. As William Harrison explained in his Description of England (1587): ‘such is the privilege of our country… that if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become as free in condition as their masters’.  

This explains why Cattelena was able to own property, why women like Mary Fillis were baptised and welcomed into their parish communities, and why Anne Cobbie was able to receive money for her services. Though their lives were hard, they were free. 

With fewer enduring prejudices, African women were able to develop skills and even gain independence using assets bequeathed to them. Their stories challenge the traditional narrative that racial slavery was a direct import to colonial Virginia from Tudor England, and force us to re-examine what caused perceptions to change so radically. 

Dr Miranda Kaufmann   

Twitter: @MirandaKaufmann 

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