"too pure an Air for Slaves to breathe"
African Soldiers in the British Civil Wars
African Soldiers in the British Civil Wars
A European artist's depiction of a North African corsair: "The Eastern Warrior, or the Barbary Pirate", Pier Francesco Mola (1650), Musee du Louvre.
The notion that the only black people living in England before the 19th century were indentured servants or slaves has been difficult to dispel (see Kaufmann, 2012). However, there is ample evidence to show that African people were leading independent lives in England two hundred years before the end of slavery, and that they played an active role on both sides during the English Civil War.
When the Earl of Stamford took command of parliament's forces in south-west England in early 1643 his Royalist opponents accused him of resorting to the worst kind of people to fill the ranks of his regiment, and of dredging the local gaols for recruits: "when the Earl of Stamford was last at Exeter he tooke divers Turkes out of Launceton goale [sic] and listed them (forsooth) for King and Parliament" (quoted in Peachey & Turton, 23). Accusatory and disparaging as this assertion is, the presence of Turkish men in a Cornish town at this date is nevertheless quite plausible.
North African 'Barbary' pirates were a terror of the British south west in the 1640s and had been for generations. The Barbary (more properly 'Berber') peoples inhabited the southern Mediterranean seaboard from Morocco to Egypt as vassals of the Turkish Ottoman Empire – hence the name 'Turk', by which they were commonly known in England. Barbary pirates preyed on English shipping almost at will during the early seventeenth century, the Turkish Sultan having granted his subjects license to attack all Christian shipping and to enslave any non-Muslims that they captured. In the seven years between 1609 and 1616 they took nearly 500 vessels and made repeated attacks against coastal villages in Devon and Cornwall, as well as regular incursions into the Bristol Channel and venturing as far as the Dover straits. Perhaps the most notorious of their attacks on the British Isles occurred in 1631, when they raided the village of Baltimore on the south coast of Ireland, seizing almost all its men, women and children and selling them into slavery in North African ports.
The Royalists were understandably gleeful to report a prominent Parliamentarian like Stamford allowing such men to bear arms: an army that recruits the nation's enemies into it ranks can hardly have the people's well-being at heart. However, despite an element of propaganda, there was at least a kernel of truth in the Royalist report. We know of at least one "Turke" serving in the garrison at Exeter because his name appears in the city's siege accounts (Stoyle, 245 n.13) and there were other minority ethnicities to be found in parliament's ranks. Theophilios Palaelogus, a lieutenant in the Earl of Essex's army of 1642, claimed descent from the Emperors of Byzantium, while the ranks of General Edward Massey's western brigade was said to include Ethiopians, Egyptians and Mesopotamians when it was disbanded at Devizes in 1646 (Stoyle, 92; Sprigg, 315). Royalists were not adverse to recruiting similar men into their cause either. Twelve "black moore" pirates served as crew aboard one of the King's ships at Bristol in 1643 (Stoyle, 93) - blackamoor, moor and Ethiopian were interchangeable in this period and meant someone of Negroid appearance (Onyeka, 2012). Charles I's commander in Cheshire, Lord Byron, argued that the Royalists should actively recruit from other nations: "I know no reason why the King should make any scruple of calling in the Irish, or the Turks if they should serve him" (ibid., 71). Byron clearly thought that ethnicity should be no bar to serving in the King's army.
Further evidence of black people in the south west during the Civil War can be found in the relation of the siege of Wardour Castle, Wiltshire. Captured from the Royalists in May 1643, Wardour's new parliamentarian governor, Edmund Ludlow, reportedly “took a servant of the Lord Arundel's (a blackmoor)”, who was resident at the castle (SEEME, Black History References). Wardour Castle is only thirty miles from Poole, so the case of Arundel's servant is another instance of African people in 17th century England living close to the southern and western sea ports.
Wardour Castle under siege, from the 1685 publication Mercurius Rusticus
In all probability the black soldiers who were encountered on both sides in the English Civil War were neither pirates nor slaves, but free men. Although England's role in the transatlantic slave trade began as early as the 1560s (Kaufman, 2012), the presence of black slaves in England (collared and tagged with their master's name and address) appears to be unknown before the 1670s, at a time when the demand for coffee from English plantations led to an escalation in the slave trade (Fryer, 14, 22-23).
When John Lilburne stood trial in 1637 for distributing banned puritan texts he declared, as an assertion of free speech, that "England was too pure an Air for Slaves to breathe in" - that slavery was not possible in England as long as common law was upheld (Martone, vol. 1, pp.200-203). An African slave named Diogo reported that when he had been captured by an English pirate in 1614 and taken to England he "immediately became free, because in that reign nobody is a slave" (Kaufmann, 2012). In the Civil War period many black people in England were financially independent and owned property. Some, such as Reasonable Blackman, a Southwark silk weaver, pursued skilled trades. Others were valued for their qualities in service: "James the Blackmoor" earned his board and lodging as cook to the Earl of Tavistock during the 1640s, and was paid £4 a year on top of his keep. In 1625 a black woman by the name of Cattelena, living at Almondsbury in south Gloucestershire, was wealthy enough to possess a cow, which surely places her above the servant class in terms of affluence (Kaufman, 2012). It is noticeable, however, that many such people we know of had their African origins all but erased, and their names re-jigged into anglicised forms and many Africans gained English names by accepting, and being accepted into, baptism in the English church. By the 1690s the black presence in Wapping, a centre of maritime trade, was noteworthy enough for the area to be known as 'Little Barbary': a derogatory term, perhaps, but which may also be taken as evidence that definite, black communities had begun to appear by the end of the century. That black people had begun to integrate with the English population by the time of the Civil War is beyond doubt: interracial marriage is evidenced in Depford in 1613 when Jane Johnson married Samuel Mansur, a man with a noticeably Egyptian surname and who was described as "a Blackamore" (Vizram, 7). Moreover, more than 30 instances of children with mixed Anglo-African parentage have been identified in English parish registers up to 1642 (Kaufman, 2012).
The African soldiers in Massey's brigade were given passes to leave the country at the end of the Civil War, suggesting that they had been mercenaries rather than settled Englishmen. Nevertheless, the above evidence shows that Black people were firmly established in England by the time of the English Civil War, and had been for generations. Many were financially independent and some played their part in the Civil Wars, not as slaves or servants but as free people.
"B. E." A Dictionary of the Canting Crew. London (c.1690)
Bidisha, “Tudor, English and Black, and not a Slave in Sight”, The Guardian, (29/10/2017) [online]
Fryer, P. Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press (1984)
Martone, E. (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Blacks in European History and Culture. Connecticut: Greenwood Press (2009)
Onyeka, "Tudor Africans: What's in a Name?", History Today, 62, 10 (10/10/2012)
Peachey, S. & Turton, A. Old Robin's Foot: the Equipping and Campaigns of Essex's Infantry, 1642-1645. Partizan Press (1987)
SeeMeWiltshire: Capturing Living Stories [website] http://seemewiltshire.co.uk
Sprigge, J. Anglia Rediviva. Oxford: University Press (1854)
Stoyle, M. Soldiers and Strangers: an Ethnic History of the English Civil War. London: Yale University Press (2005)
Kaufman, M. “Slavery shouldn't distort the story of black people in Britain”, The Guardian (17/10/2012) [online]
Vizram, R. Asians in Britain: 400 years of history. London: Pluto Press (2002)