John Blanke - A Black Tudor
I’ve got a photo of John Blanke on my phone, which I show regularly to unsuspecting acquaintances. It may not be the most nuanced portrait of a Black Tudor, but it’s the only one I’ve got. And visually, it does the trick of telling the story that would, as the hackneyed expression goes, take 1000 words. It’s an image that people respond to with surprise and curiosity. They’re not used to seeing someone of his complexion in historical dress, let alone on horseback and playing a trumpet decorated with the royal arms.
Seeing John Blanke for the first time conjures up a whole range of questions: the very questions that have formed the basis of my research into Africans in Tudor England. How did he come here? What was his status? Was he enslaved? What was his life like? What happened to him? And, why have I never heard of him before?
Frustratingly, the imperfect record of surviving historical evidence means we can’t answer all these questions as completely as I would like. I did my best to lay out all the known evidence of John Blanke’s life in the entry I wrote about him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Since writing that, I’ve delved further into the context of Blanke’s life, which will be the subject of the first chapter of my forthcoming book, Black Tudors (Oneworld, 2017). Although John Blanke is the only Black Tudor we have a picture of, he was by no means the only African in Tudor England. In my doctoral research into Africans in Britain, 1500-1640, I found evidence of over 360 African individuals in early modern parish registers, tax returns, household accounts, court records, letters and diaries. Although many of these records are fragmentary, some fascinating characters emerge: from Jacques Francis, the salvage diver on the Mary Rose, to Mary Fillis of Morocco and Reasonable Blackman, the Southwark silkweaver.
I’m really excited about Michael Ohajuru’s John Blanke project, because when the archival record is exhausted, we need to let our imaginations take things further. The creative potential of art, poetry and music to breathe new life into history is powerful. I hope that the project goes some way towards the larger goal of putting Black British History in the spotlight. So that seeing an African in historical dress is no longer a surprise. So that film producers no longer believe it would be historically inaccurate to cast a black actor in a Tudor role. And, ultimately, so that we can enjoy a more accurate, full-colour, vision of the British past.
Dr. Miranda Kaufmann
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies