My book reveals that the Tudors would have met Africans on the streets of London, or Plymouth, or Southampton, which is amazing
As a history undergraduate, I was in a lecture about early modern trade and at some point they mentioned that the Tudors started trading to Africa in the middle of the 16th century. I was really surprised by that and went to try and find out more about it in the library. I came across a reference to there being Africans in England in some Privy Council documents from Elizabeth I’s reign and thought ‘really?’ When I had started to formulate the idea in my mind, I had imagined that the first time English people and African people met, it would have been on the African coast. That the encounter might actually have taken place in England obviously changed the nature of the relationship. I was intrigued. There wasn’t a lot of material in the secondary literature, so I headed to the archives and started digging.
I always wanted my doctoral thesis to lead to a book
While researching my thesis, I found evidence of over 360 Africans in Britain between 1500 and 1640, which is why a few stories in the book creep beyond the end of the Tudor period into the reign of James I, going up to about 1625 – I think I can still claim that they were probably born in the Tudor period! I always wanted it to be a book, because it’s hard work doing a doctorate and what’s the point of researching all this stuff if it never sees the light of day beyond your supervisor and your external examiners?
It’s important for people to know that the black presence in Britain goes back long before Windrush
It’s a really important corrective to the current toxic immigration debate. I think the racist people who want an all-white Britain assume that black immigration is a recent phenomenon. If they think that there was a ‘golden age’ where everyone was white less than 100 years ago, it contributes to thinking, ‘Why don’t we just send them all back to where they came from’. Actually, it would be wonderful if some of those English Defence League people took DNA tests – it’s possible that they could even be descended from Black Tudors!
My book put fluffy toy penguins into a National Trust gift shop
I’m currently the lead historian on the Colonial Countryside Project, a child-led initiative exploring National Trust houses' Caribbean and East India Company connections with creative writers and primary school children. One of the participating National Trust properties is Buckland Abbey in Plymouth, where Sir Francis Drake lived. Chapter Three of Black Tudors tells the story of an African man named Diego, who sailed with Drake. Buckland Abbey staff read it and learned that Drake and his men ate a lot of penguins when they were going through the Magellan Straits of South America, to survive, so now they have a ‘save the penguins’ trail with cuddly penguins (also on sale in the gift shop) dressed as members of Drake’s crew, including Diego. You never know where your research is going to go!
You could easily have black characters in a period drama
There’s an ongoing debate about diversity on every level really, in the corporate world, in university departments, on television and film. Black actors have said they struggle to get roles in TV dramas because the British TV industry is obsessed with making period dramas but, as my work and that of some of my colleagues demonstrates, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have black characters in shows set in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries. The film rights for Black Tudors have been optioned by Silverprint Pictures, who want to make a TV drama series inspired by the book, so I hope that gets made and sets a precedent. I’m really open for the writers to use a bit of dramatic licence – the key thing is to make it an exciting story, or nobody will watch it! Of course I want them to be historically accurate, but at the same time there’s so many gaps in the historical record where they can be creative.
The book fits into a wider agenda, to shift the focus of black history
Black history isn’t just about slavery. White students need to learn that as much as black students do. There’s a tendency not to mention Africa in world history at all until the slave trade starts and then not to mention it again afterwards. It’s important to balance histories of exploitation and oppression with those of resistance and black agency and success, often against the odds. We all learn about the French Revolution, but what about the Haitian Revolution? I hope that teaching these broader sorts of histories from an early age will inspire a love of history in a more diverse cohort of young people, who will then make their way through the system and get to the top, which will help decolonise the curriculum and, even more importantly, reverse the massive underrepresentation of black staff and students in the UK’s history departments.
I’m not waiting for the government to change the curriculum, I’m taking action.
I recently held a day-long workshop with a dozen secondary school teachers to create some teaching resources for the classroom, which will weave Black Tudors into the scheme of work at Key Stage 3. That’s Year 8, the year before you start your GCSEs, so we’re targeting all students, before they can choose not to study history. We’re already trialing the lessons, and will present them at teaching conferences next year. The plan is to produce something that any teacher can go online and download and then use in a classroom. It seems to me that, in the short term, it’s more effective to target individual teachers than to wait for the government to change the curriculum again. Ultimately it’s the teachers who decide what happens in their classrooms.
I love finding out about people.
I enjoy the early modern period because it’s exciting and dramatic; there are seismic changes happening – the Reformation, the growth of global empires, but also because it’s personal: who the king fancied actually changed the course of history. I always loved my history classes at school. With other subjects, whether I was enjoying it or not rather depended on the teacher but with history, I was always fascinated.
As a historian, you’re trained to question your sources
These days we’re all bombarded with so much information that it’s difficult to sift through it all to find the truth. Historians learn to ask, ‘who said this, why did they say it, what did they hope to gain by saying it, and therefore to what extent can we trust it as being an accurate account of what actually happened?’ That’s a skill that is more vital than ever in today’s “fake news” world.