When I tell people I study Africans in Renaissance Britain, they often reply: “Oh, you mean slaves?” Despite the fact that Black History Month – currently being celebrated – is now in its 25th year, and that it’s more than 60 years since the Windrush brought the first postwar Caribbean migrants, it’s clear that many wrong assumptions about the black presence in Britain are still made.
It seems the emphasis on the horrors of slavery, including the commemoration of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act’s bicentenary in 2007, can leave many, especially the young, with a very bleak image of black history. The assumption that Africans in 16th- and 17th-century England must have been slaves is not only wrong, but dangerous.
… It was not legally possible to be a slave in Tudor and Stuart Britain and the hundreds of black people present in these isles during those centuries were not treated as slaves either. Africans such as Jacques Francis and Edward Swarthye were allowed to testify in court – a privilege denied to slaves in ancient Rome and the American south, as well as to English villeins.
This seems relevant to the discussion I’ve been seeing about the realism of putting African-descended folk in British history and fantasy stories.