Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann was shortlisted for our 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, along with five other non-fiction works that promote global cultural understanding. The book tells the story of ten Africans, tracing their tumultuous paths in the Tudor and Stuart eras in a reassessment of our national story and what it means to be British.
Diego lived in Nombre de Dios, a small unfortified town of some one hundred and fifty houses on the Atlantic coast of Panama. He was enslaved in the household of Captain Gonzalo de Palma, the High Admiral and Captain General of the town. Like most Africans brought to the Caribbean by the Spanish at this time, he was probably from Senegambia, the region of West Africa that lay between the Senegal and Gambia rivers. Prisoners of war, they were sold to Portuguese and Spanish merchants, and shipped across the Atlantic. Some were employed in rural areas on farms, sugar plantations and in silver and gold mines. Those who lived in ports, towns and cities worked in every conceivable service role: dockworkers, cooks, carpenters, seamstresses, cobblers, blacksmiths and laundresses, to name a few. Indeed, one Spanish official noted that ‘we cannot live without black people; it is they who are the labourers, and no Spanish person will work here’.
Nombre de Dios was where the Spanish treasure fleet docked every year to collect silver that had been brought from Peru. The treasure first travelled by ship from Lima to Panama City, on the Pacific Coast, and was then carried across the isthmus of Panama by mule-train to Nombre de Dios, whence it was shipped to Seville.
At three o’clock in the morning of 29 July 1572, under a bright moon, Drake and his men attacked the town. By the shore, twelve men waited aboard four pinnaces; smaller, lighter vessels, so named because they were originally made of pine: the Lion, the Minion, the Bear and a fourth unnamed vessel, to ensure a safe retreat. Out of the darkness, a figure appeared on the shore:
one Diego, a negro… came and called to our pinnaces to know whether they were Captain Drake’s? And upon answer received continued entreating to be taken on board, though he had first three or four shot made at him, until at length they fetched him.
Diego warned the English that their raiding party was in great danger. The town was full of people. What’s more, about eight days earlier, the King had sent some one hundred and fifty soldiers to guard Nombre de Dios against the Cimarrons [the name given to those Africans across the Americas who escaped their Spanish masters and established settlements in the hinterland. The Panama Cimarrons were some 3,000 strong and regularly attacked Spanish settlements and silver trains]. This wasn’t actually true; Spanish sources show that no reinforcements were sent to the town until after news of Drake’s attack. Diego must have been exaggerating the danger to persuade the English to leave the port, with him aboard, forthwith. But they believed him and sent some men to warn those ashore. His information ‘agreed with the report of the Negroes’ whom they had taken at the Isle of Pines a week earlier; the English routinely interrogated Africans they encountered to gain intelligence of this kind. This particular group had been set ashore on the mainland so ‘that they might perhaps join themselves to their countrymen the Cimarrons, and gain their liberty’. But Drake took care to leave them far enough from the town that they could not warn the Spanish of his approach.
The main account of the adventure, Sir Francis Drake Revived, compiled for Drake by the preacher Philip Nichols in 1593 from the notes of Drake himself and some of his crew, takes pains to portray Diego as insisting on being taken aboard but this impression is contradicted by a Portuguese pilot who met the African some years later. He reported that Diego had been taken prisoner by Drake from a frigate near Nombre de Dios.
It is not unthinkable that an African might want to join the English at this time. In 1572, there were no English colonies. Those who boarded English ships would, if they survived the considerable dangers of the voyage, be taken to England, where rumour had it that all men were free; something spoken of across the Atlantic world. It was in the same year that Diego joined Drake that Wolof Juan Gelofe and the English sailor William Collins had their conversation in a Mexican silver mine. In response to Gelofe’s comment that there were no slaves in England, 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 Drake’s country ‘negro labourers’ were free. 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'. Such talk might well have reached Diego’s ears, and encouraged him to seek out Drake’s ships.
From Black Tudors: The Untold Story, Oneworld Publications, copyright © Miranda Kaufmann 2017
Miranda Kaufmann is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies. She has appeared on Sky News, the BBC and Al Jazeera and written for The Times, Guardian and BBC History Magazine.