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Mapping Black Tudors in Early Modern England

Sophie Merrix | Lancaster University

Racial violence, inequality and prejudice are just some of the issues brought to the fore by movements such as Black Lives Matter. Beneath these overt acts of discrimination, there lie deeper issues in both Britain and the United States. The year 2020 has cast a light on these issues, highlighting the importance of decolonising curriculums within humanities departments. Such discussions are not recent revelations, as excellent research has already been done into teaching the existence of Black Africans in historic Britain. Prominent scholars such as Onyeka Nubia and Miranda Kaufmann have focused their work on Black Britons in the Early Modern period, a period frequently studied in all stages of British education. This history is rarely discussed without mentioning the atrocities of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, an event assumed to be the first instance of white Britons meeting black Africans. The findings of Nubia and Kaufmann, however, demonstrate that England in the earlier sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not as monoethnic as first thought, shedding new light on previously held assumptions about the ethnic character of British history. With increasing turns towards the digital realm among both emerging and established academics, mapping Black Tudors using techniques from the Digital Humanities is a fitting example of just one subject area that will benefit from a more innovative and fresh perspective. The completion of this project will grant visual access to the recently unearthed Black Tudor narratives via a yet to be determined online platform. This article outlines my current research using GIS as a digital methodology alongside the description of a number of issues encountered and their suggested resolutions.

Figure 1: Map showing Black Tudor baptisms, burial, and household accounts mentions in Early Modern England, 1501-1646, differentiated by gender.
Figure 1: Map showing Black Tudor baptisms, burial, and household accounts mentions in Early Modern England, 1501-1646, differentiated by gender.

This case study map, created using the research of Miranda Kaufmann, shows just three archival account categories ‘baptism records’, ‘burial records’ and ‘household accounts’, taken from England and Scotland. Based on recorded parish names, Black Africans have been located on a modern-day map using software made available through ArcGIS Pro which involves the use of locational gazetteers, such as Google Maps, to generate mapping coordinates. A search of archives throughout the country has yielded an array of results which are marked on the map in Figure 1. Interestingly, while the predominant presence is concentrated in the South of England, the absence of a Black presence in Liverpool and Lancaster, well known for their slaving activities is puzzling. This lacuna can however be explained by this study’s focus on Tudor England. A Black African presence in the North West would not have been significant at such an early date, as the region only became competitive in its slaving endeavours in the eighteenth century. Liverpool merchants entered the trade in 1698, but it was not until 1741-1775 that they outpaced Bristol and London. The noticeable thinning of results past north London highlights a particular limitation of this project: the date range. Later findings from the seventeenth and early eighteenth century demonstrate a Black African presence in more northernly towns. An extension of this analysis will therefore be necessary to chart the changing picture of Black Tudor England.

The information available from archival records for ‘household accounts’ did not include specific parish locations as found for Baptisms and Burials. Individual coordinates were therefore generated using the name of the household owner and broader regional signifiers listed with the entries. Given the limitations of the primary material, the precise location of some of the individuals recorded in this way may be inaccurate. With listed parish names, plotting baptisms and burials was slightly easier but involved further research when the location of certain parishes could not be found. This was particularly the case for entries such as those based at the church and parish of St Olave Tooley which was demolished in 1928. Coordinates for locations such as these were generated by researching and then matching street names on a modern map.

Whilst overlay visualisations, commonly used in GIS methodologies, were helpful in creating the final map, they also have the potential confuse spatial interpretations. Each source type was mapped individually and then merged to create a consolidated overall figure. Currently the key for each layer is the same and users are only able to discover if the individual was baptised, buried or mentioned in a household account by reading the attributes listed against their locational marker. The fact that each layer uses the same colour scheme makes identifying coincidences in space more difficult. Distinctions could be created by varying the colour of symbol or by immediately making what record the individual is listed in obvious when users explore localities. The former solution may make spotting immediate patterns and therefore subsequent spatial analysis easier.

This project visually emphasises the existence of Africans in England before the peak of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the ultimate vision, to create an interactive resource, will allow for the exploration of untold histories. In its final form the resource will stand as a consolidated figure of all known mentions of Black Africans in Early Modern England from 1501-1714 and beyond. It will facilitate studies of spatial analysis, highlighting areas of either dense or sparse Black African presence, that may tell us what written records cannot.

It is the ideal time for historians to start thinking digitally about their areas of focus and to look towards creating interactive resources for the education of the next generation. Students must be taught not only of Britannia’s racist past but of her growing multi-ethnic composition during the early modern period and use of digital techniques allow this to be done in an engaging way. Monoethnic topics standard to the UK history curriculum must be diversified in light of the events of this year, a task well-suited to the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of Digital Humanities.

Although cartography has historical associations with colonialization and empire-building, digital mapping projects are already working to decolonise research across areas like the Global South and many of the methodological reflections of this article show how this complex process can highlight and debunk current misconceptions. Digital maps are powerful tools with the ability to allow for compelling visualisations of historical findings and debates while simultaneously engaging a wide audience.


Sophie Merrix is a Masters student at Lancaster University currently working on a thesis which examines the use of spatial technologies in promoting marginalised histories. Her digital humanities research will continue as she begins her PhD studies on a Black Stuarts project.

Twitter: @sophy_m


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