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.