‘Moor’ and ‘blackamoor’ are two English terms that were highly influenced by Iberian and Italian designations of Northern African peoples. Mouro (Portuguese) and moro (Castilian, Italian) derived from the Latin Maurus, an inhabitant of Mauretania, the Roman designation for the region of Maghreb. These terms became popular in naming the medieval Berber and Arab Muslim conquerors of the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily. The lengthy duration of the Iberian Reconquista, the reconquest of Muslim territories by local Christian kingdoms, and the increasing commercial exchanges between Christian Iberia and Northern Europe, including England, contributed to the dissemination of the term in the middle ages. The long Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula led to the use of ‘Moor’ to identify Muslims in general. In the Philippines, the Muslim communities of Mindanao were called moros by the Spanish authorities. The accounts of late medieval Portuguese travellers, explorers and merchants often used ‘Moor’ for Muslim, although distinctions remained: despite such terms as ‘Arabian Moors’ or ‘Turkish Moors’, both also usually described as mouros brancos (white moors), while Berber and sub-Saharan Muslims were frequently distinguished between mouros da terra (moors from the land) or mouros negros (black moors). Mouro and moro also became terms associated with specific physical features, as the Portuguese and Spanish term moreno, literally brunette or swarthy, suggests. This complex relation between ethnicity, geography and religious was also present in the evolution of ‘blackamoor’.
The label ‘blackamoor’ in England put colour at the heart of identity. To ‘wash the Ethiop white’ or ‘wash a blackamoor white’ was a popular maxim expressing futility, adapted from Jeremiah 13:23 (KJV): ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skinne? or the leopard his spots?’ In his 1600 translation of the North African humanist scholar Leo Africanus’ Description of Africa, John Pory described the ‘principall nations’ of Africa as including ‘the Africans or Moores, properly so called; which last are of two kinds, namely white or tawnie Moores, and Negros or black Moores’. ‘Tawnie Moores’ were North African Muslims, such as the Moroccan ambassador Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, who visited the Elizabethan court in 1600, and whom Pory mentioned in his dedicatory preface of The Description of Africa. ‘[B]lack Moores’ were the large numbers of individuals who ‘are thought to be descended from Cham the cursed son of Noah; except some Arabians of the lineage of Sem, which afterward passed into Africa’. Grammars and dictionaries of the time made similar associations: ‘a black More, or a man of Ethiope’; ‘The Negro’s [sic], which we call the Black-mores’.
While the full-fledged articulations of race did not exist until the institutionalisation of slavery in the late seventeenth century, there were taxonomies in place, dating to classical antiquity, that qualified the nature of people based on their physical characteristics. People are ‘naturally subordinate’ to qualities of their ‘country of birth’, Ptolemy wrote. One should not call, say, ‘the Ethiopian white or straight-haired, and the German or Gaul black-skinned and woolly-haired ... [or] the Greeks savage of soul and untutored of mind’. Yet in the sixteenth and most of the seventeenth centuries, these classifications at least acknowledged that other ethnographic peoples, while perceived to be inferior to Europeans, were nonetheless human. This idea did not survive the growth of institutional slavery, as Britain became a dominant player in the slave trade. Walter Ralegh’s statement, in his Historie of the worlde (1614), is remarkable, knowing what came a generation or two later: ‘if colour ... made a different Species, then were the Negro’s [sic] which wee call the black-mores, non animalia rationalia, not men, but some kinde of strange beastes’.
Only a very small number of Africans lived in Tudor England, but the significance of this population ‘outweighed numbers’, in that Africa, Africans, and popular ideas on blackness, all played an important role in political economy and moral literature. Black often represented malignity, death, or wickedness; witches and dark-skinned figures were associated with the devil, and in a didactic world of contraries and comparisons, blackness stood in opposition to the purity of whiteness. ‘Every vertue is commended by his contrarie’, George Whetstone wrote, ‘...[b]lack best setteth foorth White’. Such thinking became a way not only to cast ‘aspersions of darker-skinned peoples’, but a means ‘of emphasising the whiteness, beauty, and virtue of Europeans in general and the English nation in particular’. Of all European languages, it was English that used the same word – ‘fair’ – to denote beauty and light skin. This relationship between skin colour and moral traits recurred often, not only to condemn blackness but equally the sins of English men and women. In 1653, the puritan Thomas Hall quipped that vain women who primped their hair or wore makeup should be scorched under the sun until they had the ‘hue of the Black-moores’.
Notions of blackness and whiteness, of dark and light, should not distract from the actual African presence in England. It is likely that the metaphorical attributes of blackness were increasingly popular because the English began to encounter other ethnographic peoples more frequently. Imtiaz Habib has found records of 448 individuals in the Tudor and Stuart era who were likely African, stressing that this is likely not a complete number. Parish records, and the increasing administrative oversight of the Tudor Crown, make it possible to trace the births, deaths, and baptisms of dozens of ‘blackamoors’, particularly in London parishes. One ‘Christian Ethiopia[n]’ was baptised in London in 1602, and ‘Richard a Blakmore’ in 1609. Burials included ‘Peter a blackmore ... from Mrs Locksmiths’ in 1616, and ‘Barbaree, servant to Mr Smith’ in 1623. In an Admiralty case in 1548, a black Guinean diver was called to testify on his owner’s behalf, though the prosecution complained that his testimony was unlawful because he was a slave. Work by Habib and Miranda Kaufmann has revealed that Africans in England occupied a range of occupational roles, often as skilled labourers – Henry VIII had a black trumpeter in his retinue, while other Africans served as royal pages, laundresses, maids, or goldsmiths. Africans in the household of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, may have been some of the first in England, and Africans continued to live and work in the households of Spanish and Portuguese merchants and traders living in London into the seventeenth century.
In 1596, Elizabeth I ordered that all ‘blackamoors’ be expelled from the realm, proclaiming that ‘there are of late divers blackamoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to [sic] manie’. Five years later, Elizabeth issued another complaint that ‘great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors ... are crept into this realm’ and were ‘infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel’. Though these were royal proclamations, there is no evidence to suggest that Africans were actually deported from England at the time. Merchants and members of the elite who had Africans in their households showed little reluctance to part with them. Emily Bartels has suggested that Elizabeth’s proclamations had more to do with an increase of foreigners arriving in London more generally as a result of privateering and war with Spain than with any prejudice based explicitly on skin colour, where ‘blackamoors’ became bargaining tools in larger issues of trade and commerce.
At the same time, while the English vehemently refuted slavery and held that no slaves existed in England, the ‘blackamoor’ was not free from exploitation or manipulation. While some Englishmen did express sympathy towards Africans or Native Americans, this was ‘more likely to be a product of their hatred for the Spanish’, where the ‘supposed cruelty of the Spaniards, not the injustice of slavery’ explained why the English often denounced slavery in the Atlantic. The English Jesuit Thomas Gage, who lived in Central America in the late 1620s and 1630s, noted that sugar plantations in Mexico were maintained by hundreds of ‘blackamoor slaves’. Although these were owned largely by the Spanish, English merchants and traders to the Americas and Caribbean expressed few qualms in participating in the trafficking of human beings, a practice initiated by Elizabethan pirates like John Hawkins and Francis Drake. John Pory, translator of Leo Africanus’ Description of Africa, praised Africanus’ wit and learning in the preface to his work, and noted that Africanus’ conversion to Christianity made him a worthy source even if he was also North African (or perhaps Spanish). Yet Pory was not translating a history of Africa to engender awareness of another continent in its own right. Pory’s patron was Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick. Warwick sought to use Bermuda as a privateering base for attacking Spanish ships, and had knowingly purchased Angolan slaves from the Spanish to help with tobacco cultivation in the English colony by the mid-1610s.
The English were complicit, then, in keeping the status of blackamoors as undefined as possible. Above all, English merchants were responsible for the larger number of Africans appearing in England in the Elizabethan period. Africans arrived mostly ‘as a result of England expeditionary forays into Africa and the Western Atlantic in search of new commodities and markets’, where pirates, privateers, and merchants — often with royal backing — recognised that trading in people was profoundly profitable. Between 1531 and 1567, the English conducted 16 trips to the West African coast, or stopped in Africa on their way to America. Amid the search for ivory and gold, human trafficking emerges in small, often offhand references: ‘the English in anno 1554 tooke away 5 Negroes’. A ‘fellowe came aboord our shippe without feare, and ... demaunded, why we had not brought againe their men, which the last yeere we took away ... we made him answere, that they were in England well used, and were there kept till they could speake the language, and then they should be brought againe to be a helpe to Englishmen in this Countrey’. Ivory was much esteemed, and its colour was not incidental: ‘the whiteness ... thought to represent the natural fairnesse of mans skinne: insomuch that such as went about to set foorth (or rather corrupt) naturall beautie ... were reproved by this proverbe ... To make ivory white with inke’. In this case, the beauty of whiteness was explicitly related to ivory as a valuable commodity gained through exploration in Africa.
The contexts in which individual Africans arrived in England is important in determining how the person may have been treated, and in what capacity. In the 1670s, English policy-makers were still aware that ‘Negroes’ were ‘usually bought and sold among merchants’; since these Africans were often purchased from the Spanish, who did use slaves, some scholars have called all Africans in England slaves. However, until the codification of colonial slavery in the 1660s, which also saw the creation of the Royal African Company in England, the status of Africans can perhaps be likened more closely to those of servants. As Elizabeth’s proclamations indicated, concerns over African migrants were tied to fears of taking jobs from English men and women, suggesting that English and African labourers worked similar jobs. This should not, however, imply a pervasive equality. On a household or parish level, this may have been the case, and English trade negotiations with high-status African princes or ambassadors were conducted using the language of friendship. The Africans who arrived in England as household labourers, however, were often fetishized by the elite as ‘curiosities’. ‘Blackamoors’ in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries begin to appear in elite portraits, lavishly attired in sumptuous livery, while white servants are almost always absent. Africans had been depicted in European and some English coats of arms since the crusading of the middle ages. The coat of arms of Sir Thomas Sondes incorporated ‘three blackmores heads’, and a carved African head is still present in Throwley church today. The presence of black figures, often children, are included in such portraits as those of Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby d’Eresby (date unknown, c. late sixteenth century); Anne of Denmark (1617); Charles I and Henrietta Maria (c. 1630-2); and Prince Rupert, Count Palatine (c. 1630s). Lady Ralegh, wife of Sir Walter, possessed African servants in the 1580s, perhaps some of them having served under Ralegh as crew members on his Atlantic voyages.
The daily experiences of blackamoors in England are difficult to reconstruct. Often, they appear nameless in the historical record, given only the label ‘blackamoor’ or ‘negro’. Parish records indicate that most Africans living in England had been baptised and practised Christianity, meaning the names that do appear for them are usually their baptised name: Peter or Mary, for example, or ‘Phyllis ... [daughter of] a Moroccan basket and a shovel maker’ who ‘was desyrus to becom a Christian’. George Best claimed in 1578 to have ‘seene an Ethiopian as blacke as cole brought into England, who taking a faire English woman to wife, begat a son in all respects as blacke as the father was, although England were his native country’. In the late seventeenth century, poets envisaged Anglo-African sexual encounters, as in Henry Rainolds’ ‘A Black-moor Maid Wooing a Fair Boy’. ‘Stay lovely Boy, why fly’st thou mee ... I’m black ‘tis true: why so is Night,/ And Love doth in dark Shades delight’. The poem played on light and shadow, on night as an equaliser in the act of love, blurring distinctions between white and black bodies. Beyond literary fantasy, however, traces of African women appear more as prostitutes than integrated members of the commonwealth. When Dennis Edward wrote to Thomas Lankford in 1599 asking ‘to enquire and secure my negress; she is certainly at the Swan’, he may have been referring to Lucy Negro, a well-known prostitute. Rose Brown, another London prostitute, was known to have ‘dyvers & many blackamores and other persons resort to her house’. The use of African women as sexual objects is ominously suggested in the Red Dragon logbook, recounting a late Elizabethan voyage to Africa and Brazil. ‘The 30 day being syndaye After dynner our capten went down to the lower poynt of the ryver to A towne’, Thomas Hood reported. ‘All the men ran Away And we toock A woman And brout hur Abord’. The African woman does not resurface in the records after being brought on board by the crew after the raid.
Performing Africa and blackness in England evoked a much different world that the experience of Africans on board ships and in the London households. Shakespeare’s two moors — Aaron in the early Titus Andronicus, written between 1588 and 1593, and the eponymous Othello, written around 1603 — represent two ends of the spectrum, in terms of both their social and moral status. Beyond the world of the popular theatre that Shakespeare inhabited, plays and city pageants often equated the figure of the African with wealth and the allure of global expansion. ‘Africana’ can be found in The Masque of Blackness (1605), written by Ben Jonson, and the masque of Solomon and Sheba (1606), as well as in civic pageants like Thomas Middleton’s The Triumphs of Truth (1613). Court masques could be unruly affairs — Sir John Harrington recounted that the performers in Solomon and Sheba were so drunk they were unable to complete the performance without being sick — and Dudley Carleton expressed little amusement at the ladies of court appearing with black skin. ‘Their black faces and hands, which were painted and bare up the elbows’, Carleton described, ‘was a very loathsome sight and I am sorry that strangers should see our court so strangely disguised’. It is clear that the shame at the performance was not in the misrepresentation of other peoples, but in maintaining the reputation of the English among other European powers. Dudley mentioned that the French and Spanish ambassadors were all present, so that the masque conjured more a vision of incompetence than legitimacy. A sketch of Inigo Jones’ costume designs survive, depicting a ‘Daughter of Niger’, her skin black and wearing robes in hues of blue, yellow, and cream. The figure is a graceful sight, but this is to be expected when embodying a royal and European figure.
The ‘present-absentness’, to use Habib’s term, of ‘blackamoors’ in early modern England beyond the performative may not always be about slavery, but it is intimately and inextricably connected to the burgeoning colonial world and imperial aspirations of the English. ‘Here we saw a little Turke and negroe which are intended for pages to the two young ladies’, the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in 1662. In 1667, he noted that Mingo, Sir William Batten’s African servant, had appeared in Batten’s will. Batten requested that Mingo become lighthouse keeper, retaining the sum of 20l a year. Mingo’s relatively stable position in Batten’s household, and Pepys’ frequent and not altogether negative depictions of him, were indicative of a world that was soon to change. The Virginia slave laws in 1662 and 1667 were the beginnings of stricter legislation against Africans based on the need for human labour to produce the vast quantities of tobacco and sugar that North America and Caribbean colonies supplied to Europe. Tobacco advertisements presented intermingling Africans, Native Americans, and English planters in shared moments of sociability, smoking pipes or even, at times, working alongside each other. Yet the imagery of benign brotherhood emerging in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was not indicative of the collapse of a world dependent on African labour, but a sign of its success. Looking beyond art, commerce, and elite fashions, surviving evidence offers the briefest of glimpses into integration for African individuals on a parish level. Does this, as Habib has suggested, signify a moment in which ‘blackness’ emerges as an ‘English social category’? There is no evidence of any Africans identifying themselves as such; but unfortunately, there is little trace of Africans expressing their interior thoughts at all. While highly problematic, it is the realm of literature and fantasy that becomes the place where some level of humanising Africans can be imagined, if not reflected in reality. The celebration of ‘black beauty’, though a transgressive poetic trope, envisaged a space where blackness was not a defect: ‘What th’world calls fair is foolish, ‘tis allow’d/ That you who are so black, be justly proud’. Taken in context, however, these poems continued to perpetuate the ‘blackamoor’ as fundamentally different.