There exists a common presumption that the only occurrence of black people in England before the 19th century was as indentured servants, or even slaves (Kaufman, 2012). However, there is ample evidence to show that black 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 the south-west in early 1643, the Royalists accused him of resorting to the worst kind of men to fill his ranks, 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). Labelled Turks, their release from prison was taken as proof that they were former pirates.
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 Algeria to Egypt, as vassals of the Ottoman Empire. Though commonly referred to as ‘Blackamoors’ in the period, the Berbers are not Negroid (as our current use of the term ‘black’ specifies) but Arabic in appearance. The Barbary pirates preyed on English shipping almost at will during the early seventeenth century, the Turkish Sultan having granted his Barbary 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 these raids on the British Isles occurred in 1631, when pirates (referred to variously as Turks or 'blackamoors', the names were largely interchangeable) raided Baltimore on the south coast of Ireland, seizing almost all its men, women and children and selling them into slavery in North Africa.
The people of south west England lived in fear of North African pirates, and is doubtlessly why the Royalists gleefully reported that Parliament was recruiting such men as soldiers. However, despite an element of propaganda, there was 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), the term 'Ethiopian' perhaps indicating a men of Negroid features. Royalists were not adverse to recruiting similar men into their cause, with twelve "Black Moore" sailors serving alongside seventy-eight English mariners aboard the 26-gun privateer John at Bristol in 1645 (Lynch, 117). Moreover, 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). The presence of a black servant in Wiltshire should not be surprising: Wardour Castle is only thirty miles from Poole. The case of Arundel's servant is another instance of African people in 17th century England living in close proximity of the southern and western sea ports.
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, after which the demand for coffee from English plantations led to an escalation in the enslaving and transportation of men, women and children from west Africa (Fryer, 14, 22-23).
When John Lilburne stood trial in 1637 for distributing banned puritan texts it was declared, as an assertion of freedom of speech, that "England was too pure an Air for Slaves to breathe in" - that slavery was impossible 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" (Kaufman, 2012). In the Civil War period many black people living in this country were financially independent and owned property. Some pursued trades, such as Reasonable Blackman, a Southwark silk weaver. "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 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 each of the above individuals had their African origins all but erased, and their names re-jigged into anglicised forms.