According to several sources, the Romans were first to introduce Africans to England. Since Romans made slaves of conquered populations, those early blacks could have been slaves, but as did many countries of that time, they could have also
promoted them to soldiers. Whether the descendants of these Romans were still about in the 16th century is unknown, but our next record of Africans in England was when Catherine of Aragon traveled to London with African attendants. African trumpeters served Henry VII and Henry VIII, probably as novelties since kings are easily bored. The first recorded African living in London was a man named Cornelius in 1593.
Although serfdom and slavery were not new to Europe, the Spanish can probably be blamed—because they were the first to try everything in 15th-16th century adventuring—for introducing black slaves.
Columbus brought 500 Caribbean blacks to Spain in 1494. Seven years later, the native Caribbean population had already been severely decimated by European diseases, and the first African slaves were imported as labor to the West Indies plantations.
But just because the Spanish were first doesn’t mean the English and ultimately, Americans, weren’t equally guilty for the growth of the “nefarious trade.” They were just slower to catch on to the profits that could be made in free labor and selling human lives. An English privateer named James Hawkins in 1562 apparently was the first Englishman to benefit from the trade after he captured a Portuguese ship carrying Africans to Brazil. He traded them in Hispaniola for ginger, pearls, and sugar, and his huge profit opened the eyes of England to the lucrative commerce, so that eventually even Queen Elizabeth invested in his ships. (Hawkins introduced tobacco to England in 1565, so his vices were many!)
I’m not sure whether to blame sugar or tea, but our first global economy can be blamed for the rapid expansion of the slave trade. Tea became a popular drink in England by the 1550’s, and sugar to sweeten the tea and to preserve fruit was grown in the Caribbean. The more sugar demand increased, the more slaves were needed to produce it. Maize from Brazil was introduced to Africa about the same time, providing a steady food crop that fueled population growth in African coastal states. Population growth meant more wars, more kings selling captured soldiers, more slaves—and we all know the story from there.
Prejudice against those different from themselves allowed Englishmen to believe Africans were an
inferior race. But the gradual increase of blacks living in England as free sailors, servants to sea captains and colonial officials, or in other capacities, provided the white population with better insights into the people they were selling. The number of blacks in London by 1760 had grown to 10-15,000. The first rumblings of protest over the treatment of slaves came around 1763 when a badly beaten slave was nursed back to health, then kidnapped and sold. By 1772, any slave who made it to England was declared to be free. Still greed and profit prevented Great Britain from outlawing the slave trade until 1823.
I think we all have a basic understanding of history, but what I find baffling is why—after all these centuries—so many of us can still view other human beings as lesser creatures simply because of the color of their skin, the shape of their nose, their gender, or their religion. We are about to inaugurate our first black president. Will it take us another four hundred years to get past our self-centeredness to realize that it is the integrity of a person’s character that matters more than how they differ from ourselves?
To start the new year on a note of harmony, what do you see as the best means of educating people on our differences, so ultimately, one hopes, fear and hatred can be replaced by understanding? What are your hopes for the future at this historic moment?
And to end on a lighter note… My books tend to have prejudice as an underlying theme and my next one, MYSTIC WARRIOR, is no exception, but really, the fact that my hero looks red on the cover doesn’t mean people hate him because of his skin tones!