The Air of Freedom

Before the British Empire and the Atlantic slave trade, Africans lived freely in Tudor England.

Juan Gelofe, an enslaved 40-year-old Wolof man from West Africa, had a conversation with an English sailor, William Collins, in a Mexican silver mine in 1572. Juan remarked that England ‘must be a good country as there were no slaves there’. Collins confirmed: ‘It was true, that there they were all freemen.’ Spanish officials sang the same tune: in 1586 Pedro de Arana wrote to the Spanish House of Trade from Havana, commenting that in Francis Drake’s country ‘negro labourers’ were free.

When the question arose in an English court of law in 1569, it was resolved ‘that England has too pure an Air for Slaves to breathe in’. This was consistent with the absence of any legislation on the status of slavery under English law. Parliament never issued any law codes delineating slavery to compare with the Portuguese Ordenações Manuelinas (1481-1514), the Dutch East India Ordinances (1622), France’s Code Noir (1685) or the codes that appeared in Virginia and other American states from the 1670s.

Instead, arrival on English soil set one free. As William Harrison put it, in his Description of England  some 20 years later:

As for slaves and bondmen, we have none; nay such is the privilege of our country by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes, 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, whereby all note of servile bondage is utterly removed from them.

Although this was designed to show England in the best possible light, there is a ring of truth to it. Besides agreeing with what was rumoured abroad, it is echoed in the experiences of Africans in England. In the early years of Henry VII’s reign, the king set free Pero Alvarez, an African man who had come to England from Portugal. This act of manumission and its validity in his kingdom was confirmed by King João II of Portugal in 1490. Over a century later, Diogo, an African taken to England by an English pirate in 1614, later reported to the Portuguese Inquisition that, when he laid foot on English soil, ‘he immediately became free, because in that Reign nobody is a slave’.

The absence of a written law would not make it impossible for Africans to be treated as slaves in practice. If they were referred to as slaves, bought and sold, subjected to brutal whippings and other harsh physical punishments and did not receive any payment or other compensation for their labour, it would be fair to conclude that they were enslaved. There is no evidence, however, of this sort of treatment. In the only known case involving an African and a whipping, it is the African who held the whip.

Africans were paid wages for their labour. John Blanke, the court musician who played for Henry VII and Henry VIII, was paid eight pence a day in 1507. This doubled in the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, after Blanke successfully petitioned for a pay rise. John Anthony, a sailor based in Dover, was paid £30 wages plus interest in 1620 for his work aboard the Silver Falcon. ‘James the Blackamoor’, cook to the Earl of Bath in Tawstock, Devon, was paid wages of £1 a quarter, or £4 a year.

Wages were not the only way in which servants of all ethnicities were paid. Harry Domingo, a ‘moir’ employed by the Burgh of Aberdeen in the early 17th century, was paid for specific tasks, such as ‘sounding the trumpet at the proclaiming’ of letters ‘from the council’, rather than receiving a regular wage. Some worked only for board and lodging, with clothing often being provided at the household’s expense. ‘Nageir the Moor’, who worked for Lord Regent James Stewart, Earl of Moray, had various outfits made for him in the late 1560s, including a cloak lined with velvet at the neck. Others received the occasional cash reward, such as the six shillings given to ‘the blackemor’ by a member of the Cecil family in 1622.

Africans were also welcomed into the Church of England, which baptised, married and buried them. This was a sign of acceptance into a highly religious society. Over 60 Africans were baptised in England between 1500 and 1640. We also know of ten marriages and almost 100 burials in this period. Both marriage and Christian burial required baptism, so we can add these numbers together to enlarge the size of the African Christian population.

A final indicator of freedom was that Africans were allowed to testify in English courts of law. In 1548 Jacques Francis, a salvage diver who recovered items from the wreck of the Mary Rose, testified in a High Court of Admiralty case. Edward Swarthye, a porter working for Sir Edward Wynter in Gloucestershire, was a witness in a Star Chamber case in 1597. Throughout history, enslaved or unfree people have been prevented from testifying, partly due to the concern that they would be forced by their circumstances to say whatever their masters told them to say. This was certainly not the case when an African boy gave evidence that led to his master’s execution in 1609. The villeins or serfs of medieval England could not give evidence in court. In the early years of the American colonies, Africans were able to give testimony, but once their slave status was confirmed this right was removed. In 1732 the state of Virginia declared that black men and women ‘are people of such base and corrupt natures that their testimony cannot be certainly depended on’.

There is a tendency to assume that all Africans in Britain before 1833 must have been enslaved, but the evidence from the early modern period turns that on its head. Before England fully established colonies or got wholly involved in the slave trade, the Africans who set foot on English soil were free.

Miranda Kaufmann is the author of Black Tudors: The Untold Story (One World, 2017).