John Blanke: Illustrative of Europe's expanding connectivity
The presence of a black musician at the English royal court in 1511 is illustrative of Europe’s expanding connectivity with the rest of the world at that time. Some Africans in Dr. Miranda Kaufmann’s book Black Tudors (Kaufmann, 2017) travelled directly from West Africa, some via the Maghreb, Iberia and the Caribbean.
Contacts between societies in history had various motives - exploration, migration, trade, war, proselytization - and led to various forms of exchange - goods, technologies, ideas, religions, diseases, crops, etc. - that drive change in history. The Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, and the Scientific/Industrial Revolutions since 1500 centred on Europe, both occurred in times and places of exceptional connectivity (Christian, 2004). These are central arguments of the Rap History of the World (Day, 2013).
Africans made important contributions to Europe’s expansion. The production by African slave labour in the Americas of key inputs of the Industrial Revolution such as sugar and cotton is well known. But free and unfree African labour was also vital in American colonial societies - in food production, trades, shipbuilding, navigation, translation, military, and more (Kamen 2003, Davis 2006).
Other trans-Atlantic migrants included disease organisms. First, Europeans brought a host of Old World diseases which devastated Amerindian populations. From the 1640s, African mosquitos established malaria and yellow fever; henceforth, only African labour could survive in Caribbean environments (McNeill, J.R. 2010, Day 2017). European indentured labour ended, slavery became linked exclusively with race, and race stigmatised.
The stories of John Blanke, and other Black Tudors, suggest that 16th century England was indifferent to skin colour racial difference, also that slavery was considered wrong on principle. Given what followed, we are struck by the non-linearity of the history of ‘progressive’ ideas and humanist moral values. We need better explanations for their rise and decline.
Finally, as a skilled artisan, JB reminds of the neglected history of African civilizations; the Mali Empire was the largest of the Sahelian Kingdoms which flourished c. 9th-16th centuries. These featured considerable sophistication including trade, town, cities, literacy, taxation, armies, and administration.
Christian, David, Maps of Time (2004)
Davis, David Brion, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006)
Day, Philip, Rap History of the World (2013)
Day, Philip, Disease and Big History: A Dark Side of Interaction (2017)
Kamen, Henry, Empire: How Spain Became a World Power 1492-1763 (2003)
Kaufmann M., Black Tudors: The Untold Story (2017)
McNeill, J.R., Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010)