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A Conversation with Miranda Kaufmann

With Sophie Merrix, Lancaster University

Dr Miranda Kaufmann is the author of the Wolfson History Prize short-listed and critically acclaimed Black Tudors: The Untold Story (London: Oneworld, 2017). This book discusses ten case studies drawn from her PhD research, ‘Africans in Britain, 1500-1640’, which is itself based on an extensive database of her own creation, detailing over 360 Africans in Renaissance Britain. Kaufmann’s research has brought her to investigate links between English country houses, Caribbean enslavement and the East India Company with both English Heritage and the National Trust. This year, one of the projects Miranda has worked closely on, the Colonial Countryside Project led by Professor Corinne Fowler, will be publishing two books of new writing by adults and children exploring country houses’ colonial connections. In this interview, our early modern editor, Sophie Merrix, spoke to Miranda about her research and her involvement in the project. Themes discussed also include race, education and activism.


We thought it'd be great to have a chat about your research, what you're doing at the moment and what you're involved in. So, our first question is, could you tell us a bit more about how you got involved in research in Black history and colonial studies?


It came out of curiosity, really; I was always quite obsessed with the Tudors. In a lecture in my last year as an undergraduate on Early Modern Trade, the lecturer mentioned, almost in passing, that the Tudors had started trading to Africa in the middle of the sixteenth century, which is pretty much two whole centuries ahead of when I thought they had. I received a very light dusting of African history at school, not much more than Ancient Egypt, and later “the slave trade” (a phrasing that I now avoid, as it makes enslaved people sound like any other commodity) in the eighteenth century. So, it was as an undergraduate that my curiosity was piqued, and I started wondering about that encounter between Tudor sailors and early modern Africans in West Africa. I went to the library and started reading about it, and then I found books by Peter Fryer, James Walvin, Gretchen Gerzina that mentioned it fairly briefly, because they're looking at a much longer time period that there were Africans in Tudor England. I was blown away but felt like there wasn't enough information in the books. I started digging around and decided I wanted to find out more. That's how I started with it, and that led me down a lot of other paths. In 2006, English Heritage advertised for someone to survey their properties links to enslavement and abolition, and so I started looking at enslavement and country houses. There were a lot of ‘Slavery’ conferences in 2007 (the bicentenary of the abolition of the traffic in enslaved Africans) where I presented my data on the Black Tudors as a sort of prequel.

Sophie I think that's quite similar to me; I did a lot of early modern history at university but not before that. I didn't really know about enslavement before I went to university, which is quite strange, but I think quite common. I obviously read your book and then read Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which is quite a seminal one isn't it. And then I realized there's so much here that we don't know about history and don't know about histories of race either. That kind of leads onto the next question too, which is what do you think the most common misconception is when people approach histories of race? Miranda

I think a lot of people just assume that there weren't any Africans or Asians in Britain before 1948. They think that Britain was all white. Period dramas, at least until very recently, have confirmed that false impression.

Sophie Yeah, and really, it's got these roots that lead back quite a way. Peter Fryer talks about Africans in Roman Britain, and that struck me how he traced it back all that way. I think I’ve learnt a lot about race and Africans as marginalized, Africans as inferior, histories of that kind, whereas Tudor England shows a lot of positive case studies. Your book talks about: John Blanke and Cattelena of Almondsbury, among others. Those two individuals really come out and speak to me.


I think for the Tudor period, there's an assumption that everyone must have been enslaved and that racial prejudice must've been around from the beginning as we know it now. It's still a matter of scholarly (and probably unscholarly) debate as well, but it is important not to make assumptions and to test the evidence at the time on its own terms. Sophie

I completely agree with that, and if you have got these assumptions, then challenge them with what you read and what you can learn. You’ve already alluded to your work with the Colonial Countryside project, but can you tell us more about that project and your links with it? Miranda

My research in 2006-7 for English Heritage was a desktop survey looking at books in libraries. I wasn't given funding or time to visit or access the archives of the different houses. I surveyed 33 properties that English Heritage had identified as being active in the period of British involvement in enslavement. I worked with Madge Dresser, who then went on to co-edit Slavery and the British Country House. I found that 26 out of the 33 houses had some kind of link. Strangely, houses with royal connections were excluded, and I later found out from Caroline Bressey’s chapter in Slavery & the British Country House that Sarah Forbes Bonetta visited her godmother, Queen Victoria, at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. A new portrait of her has recently been put up there. Further, reading Corinne Fowler’s new book, Green Unpleasant Land, I learnt that before it belonged to the Royal family, it belonged to Robert Blachford, who had made his money from trafficking enslaved Africans. New evidence is emerging all the time.

Having done that work, I met Corinne Fowler in 2014 at the first ‘What's Happening in Black British History’ conference. She approached me to work with her on a new project building on the work that had already been done and look more deeply into links between country houses and enslavement. Corinne is the head of the creative writing department at Leicester University, and so she was coming at it from a creative writing perspective. I'm the lead historian on the Colonial Countryside project, which was a three-year project starting in 2018. We partnered with the National Trust and 10 or 11 National Trust properties that were linked with adult creative writers who had won a national competition to do this project and local primary school children. They learnt about the colonial connections of these properties and have now written poetry, short stories and created different projects at different houses, including public exhibitions. There are all sorts of exciting activities around it. This summer, delayed from this last year, they are going to publish the writing; one book of the adult creative writing with historical commentaries attached and one of the children's writing. So that's one to look out for.

When you're looking at these sometimes traumatic histories, creative approaches can bring things out differently, and children's perspectives are very interesting, especially because up to one-third of primary age children in this country now are from the BAME backgrounds. I don’t like the term BAME, as it lumps so many different ethnicities, who have such different experiences, together, but it's the one that the statisticians use. Some of the children involved with the project had personal connections to the history as well in a broad way.

Osborne House, Isle of Wight. Built between 1845 and 1851.
Osborne House, Isle of Wight. Built between 1845 and 1851.


Talking again about education, it seems to be a big part of this project, of what you stand for and what you're working towards. So, in what ways do you hope education can change in light of these discoveries and these histories? Miranda

I think that currently education, defined in its broadest sense, does not just happen at school, but in the arenas where adults might get their information as well, in museums and galleries, the press and the media. We don't get the full picture of British history, and there are so many fascinating stories that are left out. It also gives us a false perception of the British past, essentially. It's really important that people have a better understanding of Britain's Imperial history and also the history of migration to Britain and the history of racism in British history. We need to understand those things if we're going to eradicate racism in the 21st century. I don't have a lot of faith that the current government is going to change the national curriculum. So, I wrote a blog about all the different ways that I think that we can change what happens in the classroom without waiting for curriculum change because teachers do have a certain degree of autonomy. There are also lots of other influential players or stakeholders, such as exam boards who decide what questions to set on exams; that decision is going to make a big difference to what the teachers teach. Educational textbooks are influential as well, but it’s also vital to reach out to the teachers themselves. There's a real groundswell of young, enthusiastic teachers who are really keen to do this, to diversify and decolonize (which are two quite different things) their curriculums and what they're teaching children. Children are also posing questions themselves, especially in the light of the way that public conversation went last year after the murder of George Floyd. This is current affairs, and it's really important for the next generation to be equipped to understand what's going on.

Sophie I think we are inspired by the events of last year and looking to address changes. Obviously, even prior to those events, people understood the need for change. Miranda

There has definitely been a hard core of people who've been working in this field for decades. There's been campaigning for curriculum change pretty much ever since the first curriculum came in under Margaret Thatcher. There are some stalwarts and pioneers, I tried to cite as many as possible in that blog, but inevitably I missed people out. There seemed to be a real mood shift last summer amongst the teaching profession. On Twitter, I constantly get tweets from teachers who are writing new lesson plans, and I'm working with a group of teachers on a project called ‘Teaching Black Tudors’. The teaching resources they’ve developed will be published by Hodder in the spring. Sophie

That sounds really good. We've got Corinne’s project books to look out for as well as those lesson plans! Miranda

The Colonial Countryside project has got so many other aspects to it as well, so there are primary school lesson plans attached, and there's a MOOC, for anyone interested to broaden knowledge and understanding of the topic. There's lots of bells and whistles that will hopefully be ringing!


So, our final question is, what do you think the relationship is between the academic discipline and popular activism in relation to race?


There is obviously a relationship, but there's a tension there because activists pick and choose the bits of history that back up their points, and there's sometimes a loss of nuance. I had a moment last summer where I was invited to speak at a Black Lives Matter protest in Lydney, in Gloucestershire. I absolutely support the principle of Black Lives Matter and think it's very important to stand up for that, but didn’t feel comfortable traveling across the country during the pandemic. This event got politically fraught because the local council were trying to stop them gathering, using COVID as an excuse, frankly. The council wrote a letter to the protestors saying “all lives matter” without fully understanding the charged political context of that phrase, which is often used by racists. Even if I had been able to join the protest, the problem would have been that my story from Lydney doesn't really fit with the narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement. The story I have from Lydney is that of Edward Swarthye, an African who whips a white man in 1596. In the context of George Floyd, it didn't make a lot of sense as a narrative. That's the thing, history is more complicated. There's definitely some overlap between historians and activists. Some historians have become activists, and some activists have become historians. There's a tension between the way I was taught history at school and at Oxford in the 2000s, which was very much a traditional empirical history. You were meant to have a completely unbiased and neutral approach to the facts. But the history of enslavement which is increasingly where my research is now focused is so emotive; you can't read these sources without being upset by them. They are horrific; there's accounts of brutality, but also the mundanity of treating people like objects. I'm reading wills and inventories or valuations where there are lists of people's names with values assigned to them. If they're ill or old, they are valued at zero pounds, and they're often listed right next to the cattle in similar terms. It's horrible, and I don't think that it's a history that you can tell completely neutrally, but I think at the same time, there are all sorts of pitfalls that I'm still trying to dodge; you don't want to make it into what they call “trauma porn”. There's also not much point in making the enslavers into villains and making moral judgments on them without trying to understand how they came to be perpetrating these crimes because otherwise, we can't learn from the past. We need to be able to ask ourselves whether we would have ended up doing the same thing in the same circumstances. I'm still grappling with whether my role as a historian is just to lay out the facts or whether just presenting the facts isn’t enough. Perhaps knowing those facts and seeing how their legacies still pollute our society, you need to become an activist, but it's a fine line. The thing is that once you become an activist, then people you might be trying to persuade might not trust you as a historian because they will say that you are partisan and that you're trying to “rewrite history”, even though that is actually what historians do, finding different facts in the archive and changing the narrative. If we just kept telling the same old story, there would be no point in anyone doing any new research. Sophie Yeah, I find it quite difficult to separate myself from the history that I read and the accounts I look at. I found a runaway boy in the Glasgow Database. He was nine years old, in Southeast England. I just felt for him, reading the account and thinking about how I would feel as a nine-year-old, away from family, from home, and from all that was familiar. When I do study and even teach this history, it is very emotional. It can get quite depressing, but I think the value of studying this history and sharing it with people outweighs the emotional cost of the research. I find the history fascinating. Coming into this as a student brought up in a standard way in the Northeast where history was a cursory look at feudalism and kings and queens, I had no idea how historically diverse the country was. Miranda

We did the civil rights movement in America as a GCSE topic. That had the effect of imagining racism was something that happened somewhere else, of it being a struggle in America, but something we didn't have to worry about here. Now I know that isn’t true. It's a privilege to be continuing to learn about racism as an adult, rather than having suffered it your whole life.

There's also a tension between academic and public history. I made a choice a while ago that I didn't want to just be writing for ten other specialists in a particular field. I wanted to be a communicator to the public and dance the light fantastic between the two, trying to make sure that the stories I was telling were fully grounded in academic research, but at the same time, tell those stories so everyone could hear them.

But can we trust the archive? When you are basing your research on written sources created by a white male elite, you need to read against the grain to tease out the details of Black lives. An example is the critique of the first iteration of the UCL Legacies of British Slave-ownership database, which is an invaluable resource for my current book project on Caribbean Heiresses, was that they found out all about the white people in the story, but we're left none the wiser about the enslaved Black people apart from how much they were valued at.

What do you do if you want to write histories of Black people in British History? Sometimes you can piece things together, and sometimes you can't, but it is always important to try. I'm continually striving to pull out those pieces of the jigsaw and place them together.


I want to thank Miranda for giving her time to answer our questions. There is a lot to look out for in the field of Black British history, and I have included hyperlinks to the projects we discussed so you can find out more. To follow Miranda’s research and to read her blogs, visit her website:


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