Race Matters

Africans in Tudor England

PICTURE CREDIT: THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES

It is a common assumption that there were no black people in the UK before those who arrived as a result of British colonisation in their countries of origin. Dr. Miranda Kaufmann’s research, featured in our online resource Our Migration Story, tells a different story, however. For example, we know from historical evidence, such as the letter in the source above, that there were Africans living in England during the Tudor and early Stuart period.

The letter was sent by a Portuguese doctor, Hector Nunes, to the Queen to protest against the fact that he had been duped into buying an African man, not realising it was, at the time, illegal to keep slaves in England. Nunes asks for the Queen to either force John Lax, from whom he bought the African man, to repay the money that Nunes spent or to force the African man to serve him for the rest of his life. 

We do not have a record of the outcome either for the African man or for Hector Nunes. However, the petition provides evidence of two related migrant groups present in the UK during the mid-to-late 16th century: Portuguese conversos or Marranos (Jews, ostensibly converted to Christianity) and Africans. Hector Nunes came to England from Portugal in the 1540s to avoid persecution for his Jewish faith by the Portuguese Inquisition (see also: ‘Blood libels, castration and Christian fears: opposition to Jewish citizenship’). There were at least 80 Portuguese Marranos in Elizabethan London.  

The “Ethiopian Negar” referred to in the petition (translated in full below) was probably not from modern-day Ethiopia, as the term 'Ethiopian' was used broadly by the Tudors to refer to Africans. The African man is said to have come to England from “Santo Domingo in Nova Spayne”. 'New Spain' was a name given to the Spanish Empire in South America and the Caribbean, so this man had recently arrived from Santo Domingo in the modern-day Dominican Republic. The Africans living in the Spanish Caribbean at this time mostly originated in ‘Senegambia’, the region of West Africa that lay between the Senegal and Gambia rivers.

Frances Drake's attack on Santo Domingo

As Nunes' petition dates from 1587, the African man is most likely to have arrived in England with Francis Drake, who attacked the city of Santo Domingo in 1586. On this voyage, Drake ransacked the ports of São Tiago in the Cape Verde Islands, Santo Domingo, Cartagena in Columbia and San Agustin in Florida. At every one of these ports, enslaved Africans, both men and women, ran away from their Spanish masters to join the English. An underlying cause of this migration was the war between England and Spain, 1585-1604, during which the English attacked Spanish ports where Africans were living and captured Spanish ships that had Africans on board. The Spanish and Portuguese had been transporting Africans across the Atlantic as slaves since the early 16th century.

According to a Spaniard named Pedro Sanchez, Drake ‘carried off 150 negroes and negresses from Santo Domingo and Cape Verde – more from Santo Domingo’. Africans in Santo Domingo may have believed they would find freedom in England, where it was illegal to keep slaves at the time. We know that one enslaved African named Juan Gelofe had remarked to William Collins in Mexico in 1572 that England must be a good country because there were no slaves there. Many of these Africans, like many of the English, died when a terrible storm hit the fleet while they were anchored at Roanoke in Virginia in mid-June 1586. John Lax, the Cornish sailor referred to in Nunes’ petition, may have met the African man referred to in the petition on the voyage, or shortly after Drake’s fleet arrived in Portsmouth on 28 July 1586. He was somehow able to persuade him to travel to London with him, where he then sold him (illegally) to Hector Nunes.

Other Africans in Tudor England 

Although they are not mentioned in this document, we also know there were other Africans in the Nunes household in England at this time. They had probably come from Portugal: 10% of the population of Lisbon was African at this time. There were at least 350 Africans in England during the Tudor and early Stuart period (1500-1640).  It is difficult to know exactly where in Africa they came from because Tudor records rarely note this, usually referring to them as ‘blackamoors’ or using other vague ethnic descriptions like the ‘Ethiopian Negar’ in this document.  That said, most of them probably came from North and West Africa, the regions that had most contact with Europe at this time. They settled across the country, with individuals appearing from Edinburgh and Hull to Plymouth and Truro, but with larger numbers ending up in the port cities of London, Southampton, Bristol and Plymouth. Some came as a result of privateering, captured from Spanish or Portuguese ships or cities, some in the households of royalty or merchants from southern Europe, some came back with English merchants trading to Africa. Many worked as domestic servants, but some became financially independent, like Reasonable Blackman, a silkweaver in 1590s Southwark. 

For the full migration story, and links to further resources on Africans in Tudor England, see the Our Migration Story online resource.


Full modern English translation of the Hector Nunes's petition, as pictured above:

To the Queen’s most excellent Majesty,

Your petitioner and faithful subject Hector Nunes, doctor of Medicine, most humbly complains unto your highness that one John Lax of Fowey in your highness’s county of Cornwall, Mariner, having an Ethiopian Negar [Negro] lately brought from the port of Santa Domingo in New Spain beyond the seas in or about the month of October now last past came unto the said petitioner [Nunes] and offered to sell the same Ethiopian unto your said petitioner as is the custom in Spain and Portugal and other Countries beyond the seas. And the said petitioner not knowing the laws and customs of this your realm of England, but thinking the laws to be the same here as in his own country (in Portugal) where he was born, bargained with the said John Lax and bought the same Ethiopian and for him paid unto the said John Lax the sum of four pounds and ten shillings of the full money of England. But now if it please your highness, the said Ethiopian utterly refuses to tarry and serve your said petitioner during his life according to the bargain made by the said John Lax with your said petitioner, so that he your said petitioner is likely to lose both the said Ethiopian and also his four pounds, ten shillings. In consideration of this and because your said petitioner has not any ordinary remedy at and by the course of the Common Law of this realm either to compel the said Ethiopian to serve him during his life or to recover his four pounds ten shillings again of the said John Lax. And thereafter for that your said petitioner being a foreigner and born out of this realm was ignorant of the laws here, may it therefore please you to grant unto your said suppliant your grace’s writ of public seal to be drafted unto the said John Lax commanding him thereby personally to be and appear before your highness’s committee of your honourable Court of Requests at a certain day and under a certain penalty there by your highness to be committed and appointed there and then to make promises upon his corporal  oath [an oath ratified by corporally touching a sacred object, usually the gospels] And further to stand to and abide further order and direction in this matter as to your highness’s said committee [of the Court of Requests] shall form to stand with equity right and good compliance. And your said petitioner according to his bounden [sworn] duty does pray unto Almighty God for the prosperous state and long continuance of your highness.                                   

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