Were there slaves in Elizabethan England?

Slavery wasn’t legal in Elizabethan England – but it wasn’t exactly illegal either. So were there slaves in Elizabethan England? Professor Emily Weissbourd investigates…

The ship ‘Jesus of Lübeck’ was used in John Hawkins’ infamous early slaving voyages, some of which were sponsored by Elizabeth I. (Image by Alamy)

In 1587, a priest and chronicler named William Harrison famously declared the absence of slavery on English soil: “For slaves and bondmen, we have none… if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land they become so free of condition as their masters.”

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The sentiment is uplifting – but the truth was much more complicated. Were those brought into England by slavery in the 16th century really so easily freed? And what about the profits made from the slave trade by English merchants and nobles – and even Queen Elizabeth I herself?

Were there slaves in Elizabethan England?

Harrison is correct that slavery wasn’t legal under Elizabeth I’s reign, but it wasn’t precisely illegal either. In fact, there was no legal code that addressed slavery at all. In countries with legalised slavery, including Spain, Portugal and Italy, extensive records exist of the countries’ enslaved populations, often in the form of documentation of sales. In England, such detailed records do not exist. There are, however, records of enslaved people, many of them Black Africans, who were brought into Elizabethan England, often by English privateers and merchants returning from abroad, or by immigrants from other countries.

An intriguing petition lodged in Elizabeth I’s Court of Requests, which handled civil and mercantile complaints, illustrates the ambiguous legal status of those brought into England through the slave trade. In 1587, the influential Portuguese-born merchant and physician Hector Nunes filed a complaint. He stated that an English sailor had recently sold him a slave – an “Ethiopian” recently brought back from the Spanish colonies. (The term “Ethiopian” could refer in this period to any black African.) To Nunes surprise, however, his newly purchased slave “utterly refuse[d] to tarry and serve,” and Nunes discovered that he had no recourse under English law to compel the man’s continued enslavement. Nunes asked the court to either force the man he had purchased to serve him, or to compel the slave’s seller to refund his money. Unfortunately for history, there is no record of a reply to his request.

Enslaved black people were being bought and sold in Elizabethan England

On the one hand, the petition tells us that at least one enslaved person was able to make a bid for freedom on the basis of English law (or lack thereof). On the other, it clearly establishes that enslaved Black people were being bought and sold in Elizabethan England. As historian Miranda Kaufmann has shown, some Black people in Elizabethan England were able to establish independent trades and integrate into local communities. Many others, however, as research by Dr Gustav Ungerer and Professor Imtiaz Habib has revealed, spent their lives in “service”. Was this slavery?  Burial records, often the only extant evidence of Black lives, often record Black people (generally referred to as “blackamoors”) as “servants” to wealthy merchants and nobles; whether they were paid wages or knew that English law did not compel their continued enslavement is not clear

How did the English Crown profit from slavery?

By the time Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1558, the Portuguese Crown had been selling enslaved African people for more than 100 years, first in Europe (primarily in Spain and Portugal) and then in the so-called ‘New World’, where enslaved Black labourers joined indigenous populations decimated by conquest and disease. England was a peripheral player in Europe’s early imperial ventures, but English pirates and privateers did not only plunder gold from Spanish and Portuguese ships; they also kidnapped enslaved Africans.

An 18th century depiction of slave compounds maintained by Portugal, France, England and the Netherlands in what is now Nigeria. The English Crown profited from slavery for centuries. (Image by Alamy)
An 18th century depiction of slave compounds maintained by Portugal, France, England and the Netherlands in what is now Nigeria. The English Crown profited from slavery for centuries. (Image by Alamy)

While many of those enslaved were sold in the Spanish colonies, others were brought to England. The English crown did not oppose these early attempts to establish an English presence in the slave trade. On the contrary, Elizabeth herself sponsored John Hawkins’ infamous early slaving voyages, along with prominent nobles including The Earl of Pembroke and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; Sir William Cecil was also involved as an advisor. After profiting from one of Hawkins’ voyages, the queen and her nobles sponsored another. And when this relationship ended, it was not for ethical reasons. Rather, the voyages ceased altogether in only because Hawkins’ last slaving voyage (1567–69) was an unmitigated disaster, both financially and for Anglo-Spanish diplomacy. Nonetheless, Hawkins went on to a distinguished career as treasurer of the navy.

The voyages of early English slave traders such as John Hawkins were sponsored by the crown. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
The voyages of early English slave traders such as John Hawkins were sponsored by the crown. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

More directly, Elizabeth attempted to reward two merchants for their service to the crown by granting them licences to abduct Black people serving in English households. In the licences she granted to Edward Banes and Caspar van Senden in 1596, Elizabeth permits them to take up a limited number of “blackamoors” from England, presumably to be sold into slavery. The licences claim that there are too many Black people in England already, and instruct the “masters” of these Black people to surrender them to the merchants as a reward for their service to England. For many years, scholars argued that these letters were proclamations of expulsion from Elizabethan England; recent research, however, indicates that they were instead an attempt to pay off debts without dipping into the Crown’s coffers.

These letters, like Dr Nunes’s complaint about the “Ethiopian” slave he purchased, highlight the tenuous legal status of Black people in Elizabethan England. The word “slave” does not appear in either of the warrants issued by Elizabeth, but the Black people mentioned within them are treated as valuable property rather than as individuals.


Listen: historian Claire Jowitt explores Francis Drake’s role in the English slave trade, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Did Elizabeth I and the English nobility own slaves?

There was at least one Black person in Elizabeth’s household. His or her presence is recorded by a single line in an account book, which lists an elaborate coat for a “little blak a more”. The item’s detailed description suggests that this person, perhaps a child, would have accompanied the queen as an “exotic” curiosity. Such displays were typical among royalty in the period. In one particularly horrifying example, in 1589 James VI (not yet king of England as James I) commanded “four naked blackamoores” to dance in the snow in front of his carriage as part of the celebration of his marriage; all four died several days later, presumably from exposure.

By the time Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1558, the Portuguese Crown had been selling enslaved African people for more than 100 years. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
By the time Elizabeth I assumed the throne in 1558, the Portuguese Crown had been selling enslaved African people for more than 100 years. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Household account books and burial records indicate that a number of other prominent English nobles were attended by Black servants. Unsurprisingly, this list includes several of the nobles who were involved with Hawkins’ slaving voyages, including Robert Cecil, Francis Drake and Robert Dudley: a reminder that, whatever their legal status in England, these Black attendants were brought into England by slavery.

Slavery was not legally sanctioned in Elizabethan England. But this fact did not prevent many Elizabethans, including the queen herself, from treating Black Africans as slaves: commodities in a marketplace rather than thinking and feeling humans. Elizabethan complicity in the early slave trade is as much a part of history as celebrations of “merry old England” and “Good Queen Bess”. It is our responsibility to tell a more complete story, one that acknowledges the long and devastating history of racialised slavery.

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Emily Weissbourd is an assistant professor in the English Department at Lehigh University. She is the co-editor, with Barbara Fuchs, of the collection of essays Representing Imperial Rivalry in the Early Modern Mediterranean  (University of Toronto Press, 2015)