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History explorer: Africans in Tudor and Stuart Britain

As part of our series in which experts nominate British locations to illustrate historical topics, Miranda Kaufmann visits the Golden Hind in Brixham to tell the story of an African who died serving Francis Drake...

Portrait of Miranda Kaufmann. (Image by Jeni Nott)
Published: April 26, 2014 at 3:52 pm
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This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine


After knighting Francis Drake in 1581, Queen Elizabeth commanded that the Golden Hind, the ship in which he had circumnavigated the globe – the first Englishman to do so – be lodged in a dock in Deptford as “a monument to all posterity of that famous and worthy exploite”.

Drake’s ship was broken up a century later, but the replica docked in the pretty Devon harbour of Brixham transported me, with a creak of timber and a whiff of salt and tar, back to the world of those Elizabethan sea dogs. Drake’s story, of course, has been told many times. What is far less well known is the story of the Africans who sailed aboard the Golden Hind.

Drake’s voyage was not merely a feat of navigation. He and his crew returned home rich with treasure plundered from the Spanish – so much, in fact, that investors in the voyage doubled their money. Drake’s privateering escapades inevitably led to encounters with Africans – as over 300,000 were transported across the Atlantic in bondage, largely by the Portuguese and Spanish, between 1502 and 1619. Drake himself had been involved in his cousin John Hawkins’s attempts to get in on this lucrative business in the 1560s.

But Drake would also have encountered Africans in England, where a growing black presence was a notable side-effect of the war with Spain. During the 16th century, privateers brought hundreds of Africans to ports such as Bristol and Plymouth following smash-and-grab raids on Spanish ships. In the three years following the 1588 battle against the Spanish Armada, more than 200 privateering voyages were launched.

In 1590, 135 Africans were brought to Bristol aboard just one privateering ship. The voyage of the Golden Hind tells this tale in microcosm. Not only did at least three Africans join the ship during its epic journey, but one – Diego – was already on board when Drake set sail from Plymouth on 15 November 1577.

Diego was a Cimarron, one of the Africans who had escaped their Spanish captors to found their own settlements in Panama. The Cimarrons played an important role in Drake’s story: in the 1570s, they formed an alliance with the English privateer as he launched a series of raids on the Spanish in central America. It was during this campaign that Drake and Diego’s paths first crossed, as Diego acted as the principal point of contact between the English and the Cimarrons, who in April 1573 jointly captured over 150,000 pesos of Spanish silver and gold.

There’s little doubt that Drake held Diego in high regard. The Englishman named Fort Diego, built on an island in the Gulf of San Blas off Panama, after his ally. And there’s every chance that the ornate Drake Jewel, a gift from Queen Elizabeth dominated by the image of a black African united with the face of an Englishwoman, symbolises the alliance between England and the Cimarrons. After this adventure, Diego returned to England with Drake. He may have lived at Drake’s house in Plymouth, or even accompanied his master on campaign in Ireland. What we know for sure is that, in 1577, he joined Drake on his famous voyage around the world.

Entering ‘Drake’s cabin’ aboard the replica Golden Hind, you can imagine Diego hovering on the threshold in his role as Drake’s personal manservant. He would have prepared his master’s clothing, served his meals, run errands for him and used his fluent English and Spanish to interpret the words of captive Spaniards.

But descend a flight of steps into the bowels of the ship and you really get a feel for Diego’s life aboard the Golden Hind – or, rather, his death. Walk past the crew’s cramped sleeping quarters and you’ll come to the barber surgeon’s cabin, equipped with a gruesome array of medical instruments. Poor Diego would probably have become all too familiar with these during his final days.

Diego was with Drake in November 1578 when ‘Indians’ ambushed his landing party on the island of Mocha, off the coast of Chile. Diego was hit by an arrow. The wound wasn’t immediately fatal, but it became infected almost a year later, and he died of gangrene poisoning near the Moluccas, now the Maluku Islands, Indonesia.

Medical aid would have been minimal. By the time Drake had rounded the tip of South America, the Golden Hind’s chief surgeon was dead and another had been left behind on sister ship the Elizabeth. There was, “none left us but a boy, whose good will was more than any skill he had,” recorded Francis Fletcher, the chaplain on the voyage. That Diego survived his initial injury was ascribed to the grace of God and “the very good advice of our Generall” [Drake]. Perhaps Drake remembered how, 10 years earlier, his cousin John Hawkins had used a clove of garlic to treat an arrow wound in Cape Verde. The captain would certainly have done his utmost to keep this useful crew member alive.

The same care was not evident in Drake’s treatment of Maria, an African woman taken from a Spanish ship captured off the Nicaraguan coast on 4 April 1579. Drake’s former steward and sworn enemy, William Legge, described Maria as a “proper negro wench” and reported that she “was afterward gotten with child between the captaine and his men pirates”.

Drake had no children with either of his wives, and may have been impotent, so it is unlikely he was responsible for getting Maria pregnant. We will probably never know whether the father was one of Drake’s crew, a Spaniard, Diego or one of two other African men who had joined the ship. What we do know is that on 12 December 1579 Maria was marooned, heavily pregnant, on Crab Island, Indonesia.

When John Drake, Francis’s cousin, was examined by the Spanish Inquisition in 1584, he suggested that Maria had been left on the island, along with two African men, “to found a settlement”, adding that they had been provided with rice, seeds and means of making a fire. However, he also admitted that there was no water on the island.

The story of the Africans aboard the Golden Hind sheds light on encounters that led to the arrival of black men and women in the British Isles in the 16th and 17th centuries. Setting foot on the replica, we, too, enter the world of the privateers. When we disembark, we are in a sense following in the footsteps of more than 360 Africans known to have been living in Britain between 1500 and 1640. As they arrived, they inhaled air that an English court ruled in 1569 was “too pure an air for slaves to breathe in”. They were free.

Africans in Tudor and Stuart Britain: five more places to explore


Castle Cornet, Guernsey

James Chappell, African servant to Christopher Hatton (1632–1706), saved the lives of the viscount and his small daughters when lightning set fire to the powder magazine at this large island fort in 1672. After the explosion, which killed Hatton’s wife and mother, the household moved to Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire.

The fact that Chappell’s second wife was Mercy Peach, daughter of the licensee of the Hatton Arms in Gretton, lends some credence to the local legend that Chappell himself eventually became landlord there. More certain is that Hatton’s will of 1695 specified a bequest of £20 a year for the rest of Chappell’s life. You can explore the fort’s 800-year history at the Story of Castle Cornet Museum. museums.gov.gg


Stirling Castle

Peter the More, a courtier of James IV of Scotland (1473–1513), was one of at least five Africans present at the Scottish royal court in the early years of the 16th century, and in 1504 was provided with a horse and lodging at Stirling. It’s known that Africans also lived at Stirling with Mary of Guise, second wife of James V, around 1549. You can take a guided tour of the castle to find out more about characters such as Guise – and some of the magnificent royal buildings that they inhabited. stirlingcastle.gov.uk


Knole, near Sevenoaks

Between 1613 and 1624, “John Morockoe, a Blackamoor” worked in the kitchen and scullery of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset, while “Grace Robinson, a Blackamoor” was one of the laundry maids. One of England’s largest country houses, Knole dates from the 15th century and was more recently birthplace of the writer Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962). nationaltrust.org.uk/knole


St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, London

This east London church was the site of the first three known marriages between Africans in Britain. In July 1608 “Peter & Mary both nigers” are recorded in the marriage register.

The following February, the church was the venue for the wedding of “John Mens of Ratclif a niger & Luce Pluatt a niger”, and in September 1610, “Salomon Cowrder of Popler a niger sailler & Katheren Castilliano a niger also” were married here. Salomon is one of a handful of Africans known to have worked as sailors during Stuart times. stdunstanstepney.com


Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth

Black diver Jacques Francis was part of the salvage team hired by Henry VIII to recover goods from the wreck of the Mary Rose between 1545 and 1549. Born on Arguin Island off the coast of Mauritania in c1528, he had come to Southampton with an Italian merchant. His Venetian master, Piero Paulo Corsi, was accused by the merchant Domenico Erizzo of stealing salvaged goods from the wreck of the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus. In 1548 Francis gave evidence in the resulting court case before the High Court of the Admiralty, which accepted his description of himself as a servant, not a slave. You can see the ship to which Francis dived – and many of the artefacts that went to the bottom with it – in the recently renovated Mary Rose Museum. maryrose.org


Dr Miranda Kaufmann is a historian with a special interest in Africans in 16th and 17th-century Britain: mirandakaufmann.com


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