About 45 minutes into the third episode, Brave New World, Dr. Mortimer dives into what he calls "the darker side" of Elizabethan human nature. Warning the viewer that they will likely be shocked and appalled by the racism and prejudice of Elizabethan Englishmen, he embarks upon a brief but devastating denunciation of the treatment of Africans in Elizabethan England.
The most shocking records, he says, "suggest that rich men are lending out their black female servants to friends and neighbours for sexual novelty and experimentation." Our modern moral outrage at such practices would "baffle" Elizabethans, we are told. But a quick glance at the church court records, where hundreds of cases of fornication were routinely punished every year, shows that the Elizabethans would be equally appalled at such behaviour.
But what is Dr. Mortimer's evidence for this scandalous assertion? He quotes from the baptismal register of St. Andrew's, Plymouth, 2nd May 1593, which reads:
"Helene, daughter of Cristian the negro servant to Richard Sheere, the supposed father beinge Cuthbert Holman, base "
There is no indication in this record of the kind of nefarious activity that Mortimer suggests. Elizabethan parish registers are peppered with records of illegitimate children, born to both African and Englishwomen. Indeed some 4% of all children were born illegitimate in the late 16th and early 17th century. Furthermore, the majority of children born to servant women out of wedlock were fathered by a fellow servant. This was sometimes spelt out in the records: for example in St. Keverne, Cornwall, ‘Constance the base child of a blackmore ye reputed father John the servant of John Langford’ was baptised in January 1605.
Far from being free to sexually experiment, Elizabethan Englishmen regularly found themselves in court and paying for their amatory actions: in January 1603, Roger Holgate, servant to Thomas Browne, a hatmaker, confessed to the Bridewell Court that ‘he hath committed with his fellowe a blackmoore in the house the abominable synne of whoredome’. He was punished and, more importantly ‘kept till he put in sureties to discharge the cittie and parishe of the childe and children’.
Dr. Mortimer does not mention that Cristian had at least one other child, as on 14 April 1594 ‘Cristian, daughter of Cristian, Richard Sheer's Blackmoore’ was buried in the same parish. This time, no father is named, and the child may have died before she could be baptized, or may have been an older child, baptized elsewhere with the name ‘Christian’.
Unfortunately neither Sheere nor Colman have left many records in Plymouth- the only reference I found was to Sheer hiring out a horse in 1591. Holman could just as well have been Sheer's servant, as his friend. Further research into these individuals is required if we are to fully understand Christian's experience of Elizabethan Plymouth.
Her experience should also be viewed alongside those which tell a more positive story, such as this St. Philip's and St. Jacob's, Bristol baptism record of 18 August 1600:
"Richard a Bastard, the sonne of Joane Marya a Black Moore & nowe the wyffe of Thomas Smythe Byllysmaker[a manufacturer of bills, a type of weapon] was baptized."
Besides the transformation of Richard Sheere of Plymouth into some sort of racist pimp, Dr. Mortimer further comments that made my hackles rise. Although I realise that the exigencies of filming and editing can result in valuable qualifying clauses being left on the cutting room floor, having spent years of my life researching Africans in Britain, 1500-1640, I could not stand by and let some of the resulting statements go unchallenged.
Dr. Mortimer's comment, "Before the slaving expeditions of the 1560s, there were only a handful of black men and women in England" suggests that Africans largely came to England as a result of the slave trade, which is not true. A successful slave trading operation would result in Africans arriving in the Americas, not England. In fact, Africans were more likely to arrive in England as a result of (non-slave) trade with Africa, privateering voyages, or via Europe. Mortimer refers to Francis Drake in the preceding segment of the programme, but without mentioning how some of his privateering voyages brought Africans to England, or the significance of the black man's head on the Drake Jewel which he wears round his waist in the portrait we see.
Mortimer asserts that "the majority of black men and women are to be found serving in the houses of the powerful", however, there is more evidence of Africans living in merchant households, and even in the homes of seamstresses and beer brewers, and indeed the majority of Africans in England are not recorded as having masters at all. Some were financially independent, working as craftsmen, like Reasonabel Blackman, a silkweaver in 1590s Southwark.
Mortimer suggests there were efforts to deport "as many [Africans] as possible" in 1596 and identifies a "rising tide of racism, as attitudes that were once based on curiosity and ignorance turn hostile". However, as I showed in my article about Caspar Van Senden, the merchant who was given permission to take Africans to Lisbon, the events of 1596 were less of a deportation act and more of a money-making scheme cooked up by a foreign merchant and a bankrupt politician. Far from reflecting a rise in racism, the fact that these men were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts, shows that the position of Africans in Elizabethan society was stronger than Mortimer suggests. His main evidence for racism in Elizabethan society comes from Shakespeare and Reginald Scot. However, literature is devised to entertain and is prone to exaggeration. The more prosaic evidence of the archives, which show that Africans were baptised, married Englishmen and women, were paid wages, or were able to earn their own living, and were allowed to testify in court, shows that they were treated much better than Dr. Mortimer suggests. The subject is fascinating, and not only deserves, but requires, a programme, or even a series, of its own to properly explore its complexities.