Africans in East Anglia, 1467-1833
RICHARD C. MAGUIRE
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your newly published book Africans in East Anglia, 1467-1833. To begin with, can you please give us a brief overview of your book?
The book examines the history of people of African heritage (defined as being people who originated from, or whose ancestors originated from, any location in the continent) who lived in Norfolk and Suffolk (East Anglia) in the early modern period.
In the book I think about three central issues. Firstly, I try to uncover how, where, and when did people of African descent arrive in rural counties like Norfolk and Suffolk during the early modern period. Secondly, I try to discover what the lives of these Africans living in provincial England were like. Finally, I try to assess how these Africans were perceived by their contemporaries.
The book covers a period of nearly four centuries, from the late 1400s to the early nineteenth century. I have tried to uncover the historical experience of these Africans by looking at the interaction of local custom, class structure, tradition, memory, and the gradual impact of the Atlantic slaving economy. My suggestion is that in the early period, from 1467 to around 1640, the initial regional response to arriving Africans was not defined by ideas relating to skin colour. Rather the response was dominated by local understandings of religious status, class position, ideas about freedom and bondage, the fact that East Anglia was a mobile society, used to interactions with foreigners, and by the immediate local circumstances in which an African was encountered. The evidence I have unearthed shows that arriving Africans were able to join the region’s working population through baptism, marriage, parenthood, and work.
After this, I look at the period from the mid-seventeenth century onwards and suggest that the growing interaction of the region’s merchants and gentry with the North American and Caribbean colonies from that period onwards became important. I explore the growth of plantation ownership in the region and the region’s involvement in the transatlantic economy. Having looked at these data and examined the data about the region’s African population in this period, I suggest that the initial manner of responding to Africans was gradually altered as local merchants and gentry begin doing business with the burgeoning slaving economy. These interactions seem to have allowed the negative racial ideas that were developed to underpin Atlantic slavery in the colonies to seep into local culture. Over time, this process subtly changed the social circumstances of Africans in the region.
Nonetheless, my argument is that these negative ideas did not completely displace the older, more inclusive, ideas, especially among the working poor. African migrants and their descendants continued to become part of working-class communities throughout the period. These proposals are supported by a wealth of material about the lives of hundreds of Africans who lived in East Anglia during the period, which I provide both in the text itself and in appendices at the end of the book.
What made you want to investigate this? What has your research process been like?
The research process has been a long one. I began in 2007, when the Norfolk Record Office and the Norfolk Racial Equality Council asked the University of East Anglia if there was anyone who might be interested in doing research on the connections between Norfolk and the Atlantic Slave Trade. They had received a lottery grant for this research, as it was 200 years since the slave trade in British ships was abolished. I had not worked in this field previously, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to do. It was also a challenge as most people thought that the project would not find any Africans in the region in this early period.
My research revealed an African presence in Norfolk that had not been discussed previously. I found the subject fascinating. To me every person we encounter in our study of the past needs to be seen and respected as a unique and valued individual; and understood as such. As I found each African in my research, I really wanted to try to understand who they were and how they experienced life in early modern England.
From the start of this research I found that people from all walks of life were also intrigued by this story. In the original project I took the archival research and developed public engagement programmes based on it that were presented to multiple audiences; including schoolchildren, community groups, local authority staff, inmates at HM Prisons, and the interested public. The project received an award, which was really pleasing.
Although the original grant ended in 2008, I carried on with my research and local public engagement activity. The research was time consuming because I began from a ‘blank slate’ in terms of information. No-one had looked for these Africans previously and so I had to develop my own lines of enquiry. I began by looking at the records of the few plantation owners in the region, but it rapidly became clear to me that, while the connection to the plantations was important, it was only part of the story. Eventually, I set about reading selected parish registers over a period of four hundred years page by page, looking for any small indication, in a word, phrase, or other clue, that might indicate someone was of African descent. The same was true for other sources such as newspapers, or books. In the archive, I had to order up documents hoping that a hunch about an area or person might be correct. It was great fun but took a lot of time.
How many Africans were there in East Anglia during this period? How did that compare with the rest of England?
Although I have identified several hundred over the period, the answer is that I do not know. The evidence suggests a continuous process of settlement; through practices such as baptism, marriage, and the general progress of family life. These data show an African population that was spread widely across both counties and was not confined to any specific area. Settled Africans could be found throughout Norfolk and Suffolk. They lived in the city of Norwich, the ports of King’s Lynn, Yarmouth and Ipswich, market towns like Diss, and villages such as Hunstanton.
My view is that the Africans whose stories are presented in the book are a representative sample of a larger population. I base this opinion on two characteristics of these data. Firstly, it has not been possible for me to examine every parish record for the entire period. This means that there are likely to be many more Africans that I have not identified, purely because I do not have the time and resources to do so.
Secondly, I think that many Africans remain invisible to the historian because the examples we do have make it clear to me that not all Africans were described as such in parish records. In our modern period, obsessed as it is with categorisation, we tend to assume that any Africans living in early modern East Anglia would have been seen primarily as such and that their ethnicity would have always been noted in documents. Therefore, we might presume that if a document does not describe someone as African then the person being considered was not African. In fact, the records show this was not always the case. I have found several instances where people were recorded in parish records but were not identified as being African in those entries, and I only found out they were of African descent from a completely unconnected record. For example, the burial register made no mention of Samuel Turner’s background when he was interred in Norwich in 1819, it was only a separate coroner’s inquest that mentioned he was from Martinique. I think, therefore, that there was a larger group of Africans who were unrecorded as such in registers and other documents whom we cannot identify.
Why did you settle on those dates for your study?
The starting point of 1467 is the date of the first documented reference to an African in the region, named Eylys, a cabin boy whose story is very important for analysis presented. The end date is the year that Parliament voted to abolish slavery in the British Empire. That seemed to me to be a natural end point as it marked a rupture in the history.
Your book demonstrates that the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk ‘counties’ growing involvement with the plantation complex is proposed here as an important element in understanding the trajectory of the social history of Africans in the region’ why is this not more widely taught today in the counties?
This is a complex issue. For many years, Black history was not a subject of extensive research by academics, and this absence was reflected in the teaching of the subject. Thankfully, things are now changing, and the Department of Education has stated that ‘Black history is an important topic which schools can teach to children of all ages as part of the history curriculum.’ That is a good thing, but I think we need to ensure that our teaching of this history does not focus only on slavery and the plantations. The book shows that the history of this population is about far more than that specific issue.
I was taken by the argument made by Michelle Codrington-Rogers, a citizenship teacher in Oxford, who has been appointed the first Black national president of the NASUWT. She has asked for Black history to be embedded in all subjects, to avoid the danger of a dominant narrative in schooling that Black people only have a history of enslavement and colonisation. As she puts it, ‘Black children need to see themselves not just presented as connected to a difficult and violent past based on subjugation and oppression but also taught about the contributions of Black people to British society’. I thoroughly agree with her. This book is an attempt to provide high-quality and relevant research on the topic that covers all aspects of the African experience in early modern England and shows that there is a positive story to be told. I hope that this will help teachers to discuss the subject with their students in a positive and inclusive fashion. This history shows early modern Africans in East Anglia first and foremost as individuals and understands their stories in a positive fashion. It demonstrates their importance for our understanding of our country’s past.
Why did Africans come to Suffolk and Norfolk? What was it that drew them here?
The first point that I would make is that many of the Africans I discuss were born in East Anglia. Their parents or grandparents might have been migrants, but they were working class people from Norfolk, who happened to have African ancestry. I think that this is a really important point to make, because it challenges assumptions about background and place that we might bring to the subject.
For those people who did migrate into the region, the evidence suggests a variety of backstories. Once again, the emphasis in the book is on the importance of seeing each as an individual and looking at the evidence, rather than making assumptions. In the early period, prior to the mid-seventeenth century, most would seem to have been sailors who settled down in the area. Their motivations are difficult to discern, but they seem to have been looking for homes and family life. Later, we start to see the appearance of Africans who had come from the plantations, and who may have been previously enslaved in the colonies. Even in such situations, however, their exact situation in East Anglia was nuanced, changeable, and cannot be taken for granted by the historian. For example, there was Joseph Diana, whose 1784 baptismal record stated was sixteen years old and originally from the Congo. Joseph’s youth suggests that he may have been caught up in enslavement at some point, but he was free in Suffolk and went on to become an apprentice tailor, a household servant, and a sailor. That is one example among many. We meet husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sailors, musicians, labourers, servants, shoemakers, beggars, gardeners, publicans, and even a wealthy gentleman. Time and again, the Africans we encounter were acting as part of the local community, marrying, raising families, and working in a wide variety of roles.
What conditions did most Africans live under?
Virtually all this African population were members of the poor working class, and their lives were like those of their fellow workers. Indeed, one of my arguments is that by thinking of them as working-class people of African descent we can develop a new and productive way to consider their stories. Like all members of the working poor in this period their lives were difficult, they were constantly on the edge of penury, and they struggled to survive. This was because of their class position, not their ethnicity, however. Some were successful, like Charley the bootmaker, whose image adorns the cover of the book. Others were not successful. In this sense their history is one shared with other members of the working poor in the period.
Given the size of East Anglia and its sparse population, how often would locals have encountered Africans?
It is important to remember that in this period East Anglia had one of the largest populations of any region, and it was a wealthy, bustling area. It had had excellent trading links with Europe and, eventually, the North American colonies. Its population was also mobile, and working people moved around the region on a regular basis, seeking work. So, we must not think of it as somehow ‘static’ socially, it was a dynamic society.
We need to understand the Africans in this context, as part of a mobile and lively working population. Because of this, and because I think that there were significant numbers of Africans living in the region, it is my view that people across East Anglia encountered Africans on a regular basis in the early modern period. There were Africans in the large ports, like Great Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, and Ipswich. They were living in the bustling city of Norwich, and in market towns like Bury St Edmunds. They also lived in hamlets like Hockwold and Yoxford. The evidence shows that these Africans entered fully into the region’s social life. They worked with fellow members of the working class. They married local people and raised families. They went to church. They were baptized, married, and buried in the same churches. I think, therefore, that they were part of the fabric of everyday life for the working poor, although not for the better off, and as such they were part of the everyday world.
Was England and East Anglia in particular a hostile environment for Africans?
Carrying on from what I have just said, there is very little evidence of hostility toward Africans, even when slavery became so important in the colonies from the late seventeenth century onward. I have not been able to find a single incident between 1467 and 1833 demonstrating an overtly hostile attitude to Africans in the region. The only explicitly negative views that I have found expressed were in some correspondence from the eighteenth century and these were among a specific social subset; the region’s plantation owners and migrants to the colonies. One can think of the planter Crisp Molineux for example, who moved to the region from St Kitts (where he was born) in the mid eighteenth century. He held negative views about Africans, as did his children, and these views affected how his household treated the Africans in it and those he met. Aside from such people, however, such views are not visibly present in the evidence in general. I think it is significant that East Anglia was one of the first regions to embrace the abolition movement in the late eighteenth century, with towns across the region sending petitions to parliament demanding the end of the slave trade and then slavery itself.
Of course, we cannot know what the truth is of peoples’ hearts. All I can do is think about and comment upon the evidence before me. What I have found is example after example of Africans arriving in the region, settling into local communities, being baptised into those communities, working in them, marrying, raising families, going to church, and living productive lives. I have found examples of Africans who committed crimes and received proper judicial process, as any other person would. I have found examples of them being accused of a crime and being acquitted. They were taken on as apprentices, they were employed, they ran shops and other businesses. They joined their fellow workers in demonstrating against unfair economic practices, for example in the ‘Swing’ riots.
What I have tried to do is to approach this subject as a local history. Rather than looking at the views expressed by people in another part of the globe, such as ante-bellum United States, or the Caribbean of the slave plantations, or those expressed by certain members of the social elite, and assuming them to be held in East Anglia, I have tried to uncover the everyday experience of Africans and investigate their lived experience as part of the ordinary working people of the region. From the evidence I have gathered, it seems to me that members of the working poor in the region had little time for negative racial ideas, and that Africans were more often seen as fellow workers, neighbours, husbands, wives, and friends than anything else.
Are there families that can be traced back to those times and places?
I did not trace genealogy forward into the twenty-first century, but in 2008 a colleague did so for one family and found the descendants of an African living in the same village. They were unaware of their heritage. I think it very likely that many people across the country share such family histories.
‘Apart from the documents that are preserved in the region’s archives, there is extraordinarily little physical evidence to remind us of the presence of the Africans who lived in Norfolk and Suffolk between 1467 and 1833.’ Why is this?
This is largely because the people we look at in the book were poor and illiterate. The poor tend to leave less trace of their lives than those who are better off, simply because they had less ‘stuff’, were less well educated, and had less opportunity to think about their legacies. The one wealthy man of African descent I discuss, Edward Steele Esq., was born as a slave and inherited a fortune because his father owned a slave plantation, on which he was one of the enslaved people. Steele left much more evidence of his life in East Anglia than other Africans because that wealth allowed him to become educated and afforded him the leisure time to join local clubs and societies. For the most part, however, the Africans were like the rest of the working poor; too busy surviving to leave any such records.
What is the one thing you want your audience to take away from your book?
The idea that we might expand our view of the many Africans living in early modern England to encompass a broader, more complete, understanding of their place in the counties in which they lived, and in English history more generally. By approaching them from a local perspective and seeing them as individuals, each with their own unique story, and as members of the local community of the working poor, I think it is possible to think about them as people who were from Africa originally, who became part of the area’s working class, and who played a crucial role in producing the history of the region. This role was not defined and limited by the negative ideas about their heritage that were created by colonial slavery, but because they were part of a group of local East Anglian people, the labouring poor, whose activity, and lives were essential in the formation of the region’s history.
What’s next for you?
I am looking at the possibility of creating resources for teachers to help them in teaching this subject. Aside from that my next project is likely to be in a different area of history altogether.
RICHARD C. MAGUIRE
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Richard C. Maguire is Honorary Senior Lecturer in the School of History at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.