I'm writing a paper about the internalized racism in Shakespeare's Othello. Do you have any good sources about the Elizabethan interactions with people of color that can give me some context for this play? I asked my professor but he gave me the "there were no african peoples (Moors or otherwise) in England in this time period" spiel, but I'm sensing bullshit. Thank you!
Okay well your professor lied to you.
Actually there were so many Black British at that time that Elizabeth I tried to blame the realms ills on them and have them all deported. Twice. She failed, probably because you can’t deport your own citizens very well under most circumstances. It’s actually a pretty pivotal point in English history.
An open le[tt]re to the L[ord] Maiour of London and th’alermen his brethren, And to all other Maiours, Sheryfes, &c. Her Ma[jes]tieunderstanding that there are of late divers Blackmoores brought into the Realme, of which kinde of people there are all ready here to manie,consideringe howe God hath blessed this land w[i]th great increase of people of our owne Nation as anie Countrie in the world, wherof manie for want of Service and meanes to sett them on worck fall to Idlenesse and to great extremytie; Her Ma[jesty’]s pleasure therefore ys, that those kinde of people should be sent forthe of the lande. And for that purpose there ys direction given to this bearer Edwarde Banes to take of those Blackmoores that in this last voyage under Sir Thomas Baskervile, were brought into this Realme to the nomber of Tenn, to be Transported by him out of the Realme. Wherein wee Req[uire] you to be aydinge & Assysting unto him as he shall have occacion, and thereof not to faile.
Elizabeth I tried to use Black British as scapegoats for some of the problems in English society during the Elizabethan Era, problems that led to the passing of the famous Poor Laws in 1597 and 1601.
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 England’s Catholic enemies Spain and Portugal.
No doubt van Senden intended to sell these people. But this was not to be, because masters* 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 vagrancy, as the feudal 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 poor laws to try to deal with the problem
As you can see, Black people were a pretty important and pivotal part of English society at the time. Basically, the Queen tried to convince the people that they had to “give up” their cobbler’s apprentices and weavers and other various other workingpeople (the Black musicians in the court were of course exempt from the deportations) to the crown, on the basis that they were “vagrants” and “mostly infidels”. This was not only a wild exaggeration (most were Christian with working class jobs like ya do), but it’s not a very compelling reason to frigging report your next-door neighbor Bill the Mason to immigration. Because then who’s going to do your masonry?
So anyways, the Poor Laws had to be passed, because you can’t deport your citizens/workforce and no one would cooperate with something like that.
And it’s not like those people went anywhere. They’re still there. They were there before that! Some had been there since like, the 4th frigging century when that was part of the Roman Empire!
Also check the tag for England here. Plenty more on lots of different people of color in England throughout many eras.