Tudor Africans: What's in a Name?
Onyeka explores the changing meanings of words for Africans in Tudor England.
In her 1995 book Things of Darkness the historian Kim Hall says the African in Early Modern England is ‘too accidental and solitary to be given a historical statistic’. But in Tudor England Africans are described in parish records. For example, the burial of ‘Christopher Cappervert a blackemoore’ at St Botolph without Aldgate in London is listed on October 22nd, 1586; while ‘Mary Fillis, a black more, being about xx years old and dwelling with Millicent Porter, a seamester’ was baptised on June 3rd, 1597. In Plymouth, ‘Bastien, a Blackmoore of Mr Willm Hawkins’ was buried on December 10th, 1583 and ‘Anthony, John, a Neyger’ was buried on March 18th, 1587. In the same parish there are baptism records on May 2nd, 1593 for ‘Helene, daughter of Cristian the negro svant to Richard Sheere, the supposed father binge Cuthbert Holman, illeg.’
As these examples show, Africans are referred to by a variety of words such as Blacks, Moors, Blackamoores, Negroes (Negars, Negras, Negyers, ‘Neygers, Nigers, Nigros) and Ethiopians (Aethiopians). Why was such a range of words used and what were their different meanings? William Shakespeare offers a pointer in Juliet’s famous lines ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet’ (Romeo and Juliet Act II, Scene II). This speech written in the 1590s reflects an idea rooted in the Classical ‘laws of identity’ espoused by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, who believed that all living things had their own intrinsic identity, no matter what they were called. Humanist scholars of the 16th century, such as John Colet, William Grocyn and Thomas More, had a similar idea which they called ‘substantiality’.
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