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Elizabeth I

From Tolerance to Intolerance

From the 16th century, the employment of Africans became increasingly common in England. Wealthy - and not so wealthy - people in the kingdom might have one or two Black servants, footmen or musicians. Whether these retainers were enslaved or free is often unclear in the documents. However, there were certainly also free Black people in a variety of occupations.

Queen Elizabeth I, like James IV, employed Black musicians. The queen also had a Black maidservant.


Second Great Seal of Elizabeth I  - opens new window
Second Great Seal of Elizabeth I
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Privy Council original entry - opens new window
An Open Letter about
'Negroes' Brought Home
Document | Transcript


Black Scapegoats

But while Elizabeth may have enjoyed being entertained by Black people, in the 1590s she also issued proclamations against them. In 1596 she wrote to the lord mayors of major cities noting that there were 'of late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here to manie...'. She ordered that 'those kinde of people should be sente forth of the land'.

Elizabeth made an arrangement for a merchant, Casper van Senden, to deport Black people from England in 1596. The aim seems to have been to exchange them for (or perhaps to sell them to obtain funds to buy) English prisoners held by Englandís Catholic enemies Spain and Portugal.

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No doubt van Senden intended to sell these people. But this was not to be, because Glossary - opens new windowmasters of Black workers - who had not been offered compensation - refused to let them go. In 1601, Elizabeth issued a further proclamation expressing her 'discontentment by the numbers of blackamores which are crept into this realm...' and again licensing van Senden to deport Black people. It is doubtful whether this second proclamation was any more successful than the first.

Why this sudden, urgent desire to expel members of England's Black population? It was more than a commercial transaction pursued by the queen. In the 16th century, the ruling classes became increasingly concerned about poverty and Glossary - opens new windowvagrancy, as the Glossary - opens new windowfeudal system - which, in theory, had kept everyone in their place - finally broke down. They feared disorder and social breakdown and, blaming the poor, brought in Glossary - opens new windowpoor laws to try to deal with the problem.

Privy Council original entry, warrant authorising van Senden to transport negroes - opens new window
'Those kinde of people
may be well spared'
Document | Transcript
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In the 1590s the harvests repeatedly failed, bringing hunger, disease and a rapid increase in poverty and vagrancy. Elizabeth's orders against Black people were an attempt to blame them for wider social problems. Her proclamation of 1601 claimed that Black people were 'fostered and relieved here to the great annoyance of [the queen's] own liege people, that want the relief, which those people consume'. The proclamation also stated that 'most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel'.

It may be the case that many (although by no means all) Black people were Muslims (of North African origin). If so, it seems that the queen was playing on their difference from Protestant England to assert that they were not welcome. Whether they were actually more likely to be in poverty than Whites is much more doubtful. What is clear is that they were being used as a convenient scapegoat at a time of crisis.

Proclamation authorising Van Senden to deport 'negroes' - opens new window
Licence to Deport
Black People
Document | Transcript

Nor is it probable that Elizabeth's efforts to deport them had much success. The historian James Walvin concludes that 'Blacks had become too securely lodged at various social levels of English society to be displaced and repatriated.'
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References and Further Reading

Beier, A. L., Masterless Men: The vagrancy problem in England 1560-1640, London and New York, 1985

Brundage, A.,The English Poor Laws 1700-1930, London, 2002

File, N. and Power, C., Black Settlers in Britain 1555-1958, London, 1981

Slack, P., Poverty & Policy in Tudor & Stuart England, London, 1995

Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society, 1555-1945, London, 1973

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