Yesterday in racist history: queen Elizabeth I tries to banish black people from England, 1596.

Due to a glechnical titch, this should have gone up yesterday, but didn’t…

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Queen Elizabeth banishes foreigners from England… No, not, the final fulfillment of yer extreme Brexiteers’ fantasies…(But, yeah, similar.) No, the other queen Elizabeth. But it does get onto Brexit a bit at the end…

On 11 July 1596, Queen Elizabeth I sent a letter to City officials: “On Her Majestie understanding that there are of late diver blackamoores brought into this realme, of which kinds of people there are already to manie… Her Majesty’s pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande, and for that purpose there ys direction given to this bearer… Wherein wee require you to be aydinge and assisting unto him as he shall have occacion, thereof not to faile.”

A week later, she issued an edict to “various public officials, including the lord mayor of London, requiring their co-operation in the deportation of sufficient numbers of Blackamoores to defray the costs incurred by the merchant, Casper van Senden, in returning English prisoners from Spain and Portugal.”

Most historians give 1555, when five Africans arrived in England to learn English and thereby facilitate trade, as the beginning of a continual black presence in Britain. It’s difficult to estimate numbers for the black population of London or other towns at the time, due to a lack of public record. There was no tax on the import of slaves, such as operated in other European countries, and the government had a monopoly on the trade of Africans from Guinea as house servants. At that time slaves provided a lifetime of wageless labour for the cost of the initial purchase, and increased the status of the owner. It was 1588 before attempts were made to formalise their presence.

Most black servants were slaves; some were freed men from Guinea, or Moors from north Africa. The Moors had strong ties with Spain, with which Elizabeth was at war, and were Muslims, and they became objects of suspicion to the government.

At the time Elizabeth’s 1596 instructions had little effect, but are seen as having stirred a “sense of racist differentiation and to have begun the development of a vocabulary of discrimination.” If this discrimination was “a religious rather than racist one” (as historian Emily Bartells analyses it), to the queen, there were other factors at work.

The 1590s were a time of great unrest in London, caused by lean harvests and a hungry population. In the 16th century, the ruling classes became increasingly concerned about poverty and vagrancy, as the feudal system – which, in theory, had kept everyone in their place – finally broke down. The dissolution of the monasteries had also destroyed much of the only welfare system that existed to care for the destitute. The elite feared disorder and social breakdown and, blaming the poor, brought in poor laws to try to deal with the problem. Protest over poverty turned to riot several times in London, and in 1595 to near insurrection as several weeks of turbulence shook the capital. Some of this rage emerged as xenophobia and attacks on migrant workers. Mainly these were French or Flemish craftsmen, but the queen may have thought that any groups of foreigners were likely to be a target for trouble. Elizabeth’s orders against Black people were an attempt to blame them for wider social problems.

The 1596 order, however, seems to have had no significant effect. Expressing fear that they might be taking jobs and goods away from English citizens and that ‘the most of them are infidels having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel,’ the Queen issued another ineffectual edict, then finally commissioned a Lubeck merchant, Casper van Senden, to cart them off in 1601. ‘[I]f there shall be any person or persons which are possessed of any such blackamoors that refuse to deliver them,’ the Queen wrote, other citizens were to notify the government of their presence.

Despite the Queen’s order, black people were by then well established in Britain’s houses, streets and ports. Ludicrously the idea has been put forward that Queen Elizabeth issued these edicts because she was an opponent of slavery! In fact, her own support of the English slave trade led inevitably to the increase of the Afro-British population: for instance authorising and bankrolling Sir John Hawkins, a man who later added a shackled African to his coat of arms, and his cousin Francis Drake – yeah, that Drake – to compete with the Portuguese and Spanish for this lucrative market. A trade Hawkins had already been pursuing for over thirty years: he and Drake enslaved thousands of africans.

The use of black servants and entertainers by royalty and nobility filtered down to much less affluent households and establishments. As long as black people were seen as fashion accessories, and as long as ownership of them was encouraged their numbers inevitably increased. James I continued the fashion in his more licentious court, where ‘conspicuous fashionable consumption was flaunted, and Negroes, as part of that fashion, became more in evidence’—he had a group of black minstrels and his wife had black servants.

It’s worth pointing out that as well as channeling racism the queen also did a neat bit of business, as she arranged for the slave trader Casper van Senden to transfer the deported slaves as exchange for English sailors in prison in Spain, and failed to pay the slave’ owners’ anything in the way of compensation, You have to hand it to her, she was a master of manipulation. Bartels also suggests that the increasing number of foreigners arriving in London were the result of privateers capturing Spanish ships, and that Elizabeth in fact wished to use their affiliations with Spain as currency in prisoner exchange. Many English prisoners lay in foreign gaols, and the ‘blackamoores’ were her bargaining tools.

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Today there are other folk who think that they can turn back time, to some mythical time when Britain was all white people, ruled the waves, and everyone knew their place and had full employment. Without even mentioning how ‘ruling the waves’ was based so heavily on the slave trade mentioned above (a whole other discussion to be had there), the whole idea of this glorious time is dangerous nonsense. The working class people who dream of it had no more control over their lives than now. Some of this longing was one motivation for the Brexit vote, and has been fuelling a sharp rise in racist abuse and aggressive nationalist sentiment around the UK.

But for all those who think leaving Europe will bring rewards to the excluded, abandoned, suffering from decimated industries and bleak prospects – wake up. The most likely political result is a harsher regime further to the right, more austerity, more cuts. To avoid people getting together to fight this, they need ‘indigenous’ working class people to be blaming migrants, and migrants to be afraid. No golden age will come – you can leave the EU but the global nature of trade, labour, the imbalance of wealth and poverty, the crises caused by war will not disappear.

The only fight over resources is not between native and foreigner – its between rich and poor. We need to be getting together to redistribute the abundant wealth of the world – for the needs of all not the profit of the few.

“the only race that matters is the rat race…”

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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