Possibilities and Provocations: Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. The blog series was launched on Friday 19 Mary 2023 at the London Metropolitan Archives to tie in with their new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Montaz Marché

Montaz Marché is a writer, historian, presenter, and PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on early modern Black British history. Recently, her research has explored eighteenth-century gender, racial politics, and experiences of Black women in London. Her PhD thesis is titled ‘Mapping the Dark and Feminine: A Population of Black Women in Eighteenth-Century London’. She sits on the History Matters Online Journal editorial board and is the Artistic Director of the Ruckus Theatre Company, alongside regular work in historical public engagement and the media and television industry. 

Habib’s sentiment that this research into collecting Black lives is “a daunting task” was unsurprisingly accurate. But Habib exposed what is possible regarding the archives’ statistical and qualitative analysis of the Black population. His work made an essential intervention in British early modern historiography. He set a solid foundation of archival evidence of Black people in English archives and proved what details and cultural contexts could be revealed in these references, despite their brevity. Some examples include Black people’s religious practices, social interactions, and roles in English society. He aligns the Black lives he found in the archives to early modern global trends, such as the development of racial ideologies and chattel slavery, contextualising Black experiences and countering the narratives that Black people were “passive” in early modern England. What sets Habib apart is his emphasis on the research process alongside evidence and conclusions. This level of articulated nuance, investigation, and contextualisation about Black lives in Britain, rationalised with a detailed methodology, an understanding of the archive’s biases and its influence on our historical consciousness, was, in 2008, new and, as we would discover, long overdue to the field. As a historian focusing mostly on the eighteenth century, Habib’s research was a learning curve but also challenged me to take ideas of Black thought and agency one step further than his research. I reflect here on how Habib’s work helped me think about gender and race in the early modern period and how far the field has come.

My research exceeds the period of Habib’s work, looking at Black women in eighteenth-century London.[1] Yet, reading his work helped set me on the path for this research. In developing new methods for analysing and gauging Black lives in the archives, his research challenged me to consider whether there was another way to incorporate and centralise gender and Black women within these conversations of Black lives. I was struck by Habib’s discussion in his earlier chapters on the Black women in the early Scottish court in 1504, identified through payments in the Scottish High Treasurers records. He also notes the christenings of the Black women, Margaret More and Elen More (Helenor), and recalls the expenses of the Black women in the accounts with their brightly coloured gowns of thick wool. Habib accounts for the “increasing recognition” of these women, with one Black woman enthroned by the King as “the object of knightly jousting” between 1507-1513 with the pageantry and spectacle the Black woman’s presence imbued in a ritual tournament.[2] The hyper fixation, fetishisation, and exploitation of Black women (and men) as physical symbols of luxury and human difference is a narrative that extends across the early modern period/modern period, with notable examples like Saartjie Baartman in the nineteenth century or the Black servant in the portrait of Lady Elizabeth Keppel in the 1760s. But Habib’s inclusion of these women left me wondering who these women were and what can be known about these women’s lives. For example, the famed Black lady of the tournament and the other Black ladies of the court. What did it mean for Black women to be the object of spectacle by the King? What impact would this favouritism have on her social standing?

Habib’s priority focuses on how Black lives were perceived by English/Scottish society rather than what it was like to be an African person within these spaces. Yet I sought to reverse this gaze and consider the African woman’s perspective. In a Tudor context, this brought about thoughts of a Black woman’s cross-cultural migration and acculturation and its emotional and psychological impact. Moving between the Continent and England, as was the case for some women, we observe social, cultural, and religious assimilation. Still, Onyeka Nubia considers in his work that Black women and men did this to become known in Scottish society rather than perceived as foreign strangers.[3] Still, in court, did Black women navigate the space adorned in colours because of race? In what ways did their bodies as spectacles yield a path of social ascent and immersion? Was this path a choice or a survival tactic? Generally, how did Black women immerse themselves in early modern society? Finally, how do we counteract marginalising Black women in our search for Black lives? Questions like these apply to Tudor and eighteenth-century society and form the bedrock of my critical thinking.

Useful companions to direct this thought are the creative methodologies in the African diasporic and Atlantic thinking by literary scholars like Saidya Hartman and Sarah Johnson, alongside historians like Jennifer Morgan and Marisa Fuentes.[4] American and British societal attitudes to race differed, with racism set into America’s foundations and social structures. Due to these different social contexts, the American historical contexts are not directly translatable to British histories. However, the critical approach taken by these scholars, using against-the-grain or against the bias grain reading of sources, helps nurture our creative methods of perceiving Black women’s lives in Britain, thus contesting the “character of history, of narrative, event and fact, to topple the hierarchy of discourse and…engulf authorised speech in the clash of voices”.[5] Thus it remains the next task and the work of my current research to begin considering ideas of race, gender, and class in an early-modern British context, picking up a mantle of focus on individual lives that Habib traces.[6]

Finally, many comments/aspects of Habib’s work have stood the test of recent years, but how far this research into identifying Black lives will remain a “daunting task” remains to be seen. This reflection made me consider the different research journeys Habib and I had taken despite there being only ten years difference between his publication and the beginning of my research in 2019. The digitisation of source material (expanded because of the COVID-19 pandemic) presents new access, opportunities, and methods for the expansive archival searches research such as this requires. Generally, digitisation has transformed the historical research field. [7] But digitisation has reformed our research capacities for Black British early modern history, reducing the major time factors of accessing and analysing materials. We access the bounds of parish registers, newspapers, and other records from the comfort of our homes, with content increasing daily. From this, a more concentrated research journey emerges. As the field continues to grow, the painstaking research Habib represented may become more of a thing of the past. As Habib continues to inspire and direct, this may mean more researchers will delve into this important and still underrepresented history, perceiving it as more achievable than daunting.

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[1] This blog stemmed from my PhD research at the University of Birmingham, examining Black women’s lives in eighteenth-century London. My thesis is titled “Mapping the Dark and Feminine: The Population of Black Women in Eighteenth-century London.” The Wolfson Foundation funds this research.

[2] Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible, (Oxford: Routledge, 2020), 33-35.

[3] Onyeka Nubia, England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society, (London: Zed Books, 2019), 131-155.

[4] Jennifer L Morgan, Labouring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Jennifer Morgan, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic, (London: Duke University Press, 2021); Sadiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Creatures: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2019); Marisa J Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence and the Archive, (Philadelphia: the University of Pennsylvania Press 2016); Also see writings from Fuentes, Smallwood, Morgan and Hartman in History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, Vol 6, Issue 2, (2016).

[5] Saidya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 12.  

[6] For more on my research, see Montaz Marché, “Centring Blackness: A Focus on Gender and Critical Approaches Through Black Women’s Lives,” European History Quarterly 53, no. 1 (2023): 26-31.

[7] Adrian Bingham, “The Digitization of Newspaper Archives: Opportunities and Challenges for Historians,” Twentieth Century British History 21, no. 2, (2010): 225.

Gender, Blackness, and Habib: How can contemporary disciplines and practices of Gender Studies make use of Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives?

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. The blog series was launched on Friday 19 Mary 2023 at the London Metropolitan Archives to tie in with their new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Amber Burbidge

Amber Burbidge is a PhD researcher in the department of History at the European University Institute, Florence, whose research reassesses representations of race and gender in early modern material culture in European geographies, such as France and Britain, between 1650 -1800. Her research develops from the Early Modern History MA she completed at the University of York which looked at the Black female presence in portraiture, prints, and porcelain ‘blackamoor’ ornaments. She also works as a co-convenor for the Visual and Material Culture working group, as well as volunteering as an administrator for the Decolonising Initiative.

Habib’s Black Lives is monumental in its thorough rereading of archival material and its early establishment of the Black British presence. The monograph takes the form of both a methodological guide, leading readers through an incremental progression of archival findings, as well as providing a database-like appendix which holds 448 itemised ‘black citations’. Its methodologies and content have therefore been used by historians such as Kaufmann, Olusoga, Spicer and Chater, with its vast database proving to be a great inspiration for contemporary historians of the field. This post will critically assess and reflect on Habib’s work for historians who are thinking through gender studies and intersectional frameworks, considering how Black Lives is still relevant in contemporary historical gender studies.

Black history has been critiqued by Black feminist historians, such as Hooks, Hull, Bell-Scott and Smith, for its ignorance towards Black women. This is not completely the case with Habib, as his research is inclusive of a female presence. The issue, nevertheless, is that he writes with limited engagement on gender and with little recognition of the differences that women faced. In his first chapter he includes just one sentence on the issue mentioning that “of the 16 individuals of color named, three are women and 13 are men”, highlighting the gender imbalance, but without questioning why, or what this could mean for Black women. In his second chapter, where gender is addressed, it is still inadequate considering the level of research completed. He recognises that “black women themselves remain muted in a history that cannot speak”, however, he finishes his participation in the subject here, falling short of meaningful questioning or comprehensive intersectional research on the gendered experiences of British Black women. Furthermore, where he analyses numerical data, gender appears to be an afterthought, rather than a genuine academic question, as in comparison to his other data assessments gender takes up little space within the discussions. He questions if “the dearth of black women might be the reflection of an English preference for labor-capable black males”, yet again seems to leave this question floating without addressing the issue further.

This is not just an issue with Habib’s work but a general criticism of the historiography: scholars often fail to acknowledge Black women due to the dual discrimination of their gender and race. Therefore, scholars such as Crenshaw and Hobson have called for new intersectional studies, with Scott emphasising the fact that if “scholars commit to understanding class, race and gender” together, they will get a better understanding of the true “inequalities of power”.

This is where the work of Hartman and Fuentes create a bridge between modern intersectional approaches and Habib’s foundational research. Habib explains that “what is little looked for, and what is therefore non-existent, is also what is/should be unknown because it cannot be known”, encouraging the embracement of the uncertainty in turning unclear sources into numerical data. This methodology can be seen through Black, queer, and gender studies where Hartman’s methodologies of critical fabulation, close narration, or speculative history, allow one to “compose alternative narratives of black existence” by “engaging with extant archival materials critically and creatively”. With her aim to trace the afterlife of slavery in modern America and rescue narratives of those “sparsely documented” and “systematically excluded” she completed her research using a methodology which is “untethered or indifferent to the rules of the historical guild” as it, “lingers in the space [… of] the something else and the what-might-be”, allowing for new considerations of Black lives, which is both inclusive of gender and sexuality. Fuentes, looking at violence and enslaved women in archives, also emphasises the need to read “along the bias grain” to understand “the context of archives that are partial, incomplete, and structured by privileges of class, race, and gender” and are therefore “systematically distorted”. The two share similarities in their attitude towards the limitations of the archives, however, Fuentes, with an aspiration of archival integrity, looks at developing broader contextualisation in order to stretch the (often) small details available.

Hartman’s and Fuentes’ methodologies share similarities with Habib’s, which, by allowing for broader consideration of Blackness, ensures that there is not an ignorance towards the possibilities of a Black presence or an initial assumption of Whiteness. Furthermore, by making postulations based on people and contexts of surrounding communities, he applies a methodology which correlates with Hartman’s fabulation, or Fuentes’ uses of space, structures, and architecture, in order to understand what their life may have been, beyond their fragmented or brief mention in the archives (often simply the mention of a birth or baptism). Therefore, it is clear that Habib’s research and methodological approach is useful for contemporary historians working on gender and race, especially with his focus on reading into the unknown or the uncertain. By using this methodology, in addition to Hartman’s and Fuentes’ intersectional considerations, scholars can move beyond the limitations and bias of archival sources to reach new understandings of Black experiences and presence in Britain.

To conclude, I do not wish to negate the immense amount of work and archival research Habib has contributed as Black Lives is truly a foundational work. Critical engagement is required considering his limited focus on gender, however, if the historiography wishes to understand Black presence and experiences in the early modern period with an intersectional understanding, his work cannot be ignored. Habib uncovered the existence of over 40 assumed Black women in the period of 1500-1677 leaving these sources open to new analysis and explorations. His methodology allows for possibility and openness which can enable further understandings of the potentials of Black existence and experiences in the archives. As more historians move to consider race and a Black presence in their research, there is hope that new intersectional approaches can make use of the foundational framework that Habib has offered in his innovative Black Lives.

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Imtiaz Habib and ‘Lucy Negro, Redux’

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. The blog series was launched on Friday 19 Mary 2023 at the London Metropolitan Archives to tie in with their new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Hannah Crawforth

Hannah Crawforth is a Reader in Early Modern Literature in the English Department at King’s College London. She has published extensively on poetry both modern and early modern.

Black Lives in the English Archives seeks to make visible those whose presence in early modern England has been overlooked. It does so using a methodology that Imtiaz Habib also believes has been overlooked as a result of what he calls “the triumph of theory in a poststructuralist age”.[1]  His painstaking excavation of “obscure, truncated and largely inaccessible documentary records” and magisterial synthesis of these archival findings into a compelling narrative, is an incontrovertible argument for the importance of the archive, as well as a field-changing account of the Black lives we encounter there.[2] “Scattered across the four quadrants of London” and beyond, drawn from fragments of “legal, taxation, medical and civic archives is the varied impress of black working lives,” Habib writes in his introduction. The stories that emerge from the archive are the hard facts that counteract the lingering falsehood that “there were no actual people of color in early modern England; references to them in popular media of the time are metaphoric; and the period is race-innocent.”[3] But I call them stories because I am interested here in the ways in which Habib draws upon his extensive archival research to narrativize the lives of the Black working classes that his work uncovers. Habib’s book is powerful not just in the extraordinary body of evidence he amasses, but also in the way he marshals these archival discoveries, carefully assembling the fragments into narratives that leap off the page, bringing the lives they recount to life.

It is this idea of reanimating the archive, and the Black lives Habib locates within it, that inspires the work of the poet Caroline Randall Williams, which I have been teaching and writing about. Williams’ Lucy Negro, Redux, published in 2019 with the subtitle: The Bard, a Book, and a Ballet, tells the story of Shakespeare’s Sonnets from the point of view of a figure from the archives who has been called “Lucy Negro”, and whom some have seen as a possible model for the so-called “Dark Lady” to whom the later part of the sequence seems to be addressed. “In August of 2012, I got it into my head that Shakespeare had a black lover,” Williams writes, “and that this woman was the subject of sonnets 127 to 154.”[4] Lucy Negro, Redux intersperses Williams’ poems about Lucy with a prose account telling the story of her meeting with English professor Duncan Salkeld and, consequently, with the figure of “Black Luce” in the archives of Bridewell prison. Interweaving archival narrative with original poems Williams recovers and reclaims an overlooked Black life from the English archive in ways that resonate with Habib’s own critical and creative project.[5]

From Volume IV of the Bridewell Prison Records.


This exiat sayeth that
William Shaxberd sent into this house by virtue
aforesaid saieth that he was at Gilbert Eastes
house in Turnmill street a grete while and had
there much wyne and good cheese and had
thuse of a blackamoore bawde Easte kepte
there also called Rose
This exiat sayeth that
Black Luce alias Lucy Negro is by one richard
Burbage accused of taking monies for divers services
then not rendered to which the accused
Negro taketh much exception and saieth
further that burbage and numerous other
confederates of The Theatre playhouse without
Shorditch have been manye times in her
companye without paying

[…]                                                       (26)

Williams’ skilful use of line breaks makes poetry of the archive: “thuse”, emphasised by its position at the start of the line, and echo of the preceding line’s opening “there”, is a stark reminder of the facts of rape (as we can only call the account of prostitution without payment or consent that we find in this poem). Likewise, the momentary pause after “in her”, before “companye” follows on the next line, makes plain the facts of what is being described here, facts that have for so long lain overlooked in the archive.

Before she came to life in the pages of Williams’ poetry collection (and the accompanying ballet devised and performed by the Nashville Ballet), Lucy had already danced fleetingly through the pages of Imtiaz Habib’s book. In a disturbing passage describing prostitution as “one of three destinies of English black people at that time” (according to Peter Fryer), and noting the pernicious myth that sex with a Black woman could cure venereal disease (a pretext for untold sexual exploitation and abuse), Habib cites a letter “from Dennis Edwards to Thomas Lankford, the Earl of Hartford’s secretary, on 28 May 1599, asking him to ‘Pray enquire and secure my negress; she is certainly at the Swan, at the Dane’s beershop, Turnbull Street, Clerkenwell (Item 235).” Habib continues, “If the ‘negress’ is not the infamous prostitute Lucy Negro that I have elsewhere proposed she is, she is certainly one of her colleagues, and Dennis Edwards’s propriety addressing of her illuminates the sexual bondage into which she is cast.”[6]

Williams’ poems work in exactly this space, illuminating Lucy’s suffering at the hands of her abusers (Shakespeare amongst them) that is clearly present in the archival record, but which is overlooked because that record has been assembled by those who are complicit in her exploitation. Habib continues: “Her sexual exploitation as a prostitute is the most vicious form of the performance of a negative pathology for black people, particularly young black women, in which the only use that destitute enslaved black females can have is as casual sexual conveniences for the male public at large.” As Habib goes onto suggest, “Muted by her linguistic and cultural alienation, and incarcerated within economic and physical bonds, her compliance in her use as a sexual consumable is the ultimate cancellation of her black humanity and her final exclusion from the normative life of the English socius.”[7] It is telling that one of the index entries under “Black women” in Habib’s book reads simply: “see also, sexual exploitation”.

But if Habib uncovers Lucy’s story, Williams gives her a voice, confronting directly the way she has been “Muted” by the fragmentation of the archive and, even more, a literary critical tradition unwilling to look at what that archive holds and to be held to account for its overlooking. Lucy Negro, Redux, ends with a powerful affirmation, told in the first-person voice, of all that she is, of her Black life in the archive:

Lucy’s Exiat Sayeth That

This exiat sayeth that
I am wild, and that I live by it, and that I like it; like the money, and the
witness, and the grotesque, and the yes, yes.
This exiat sayeth that
I am not a partridge, or a ruby. I am a potato, a beetroot. Not a precious
bird, or jewel, but a dirt-dug tube. Rustle me, rub me all over, and I will
muddle your interiors with flecks of brown earth. You will sigh at your
soiled hands and then you will put them in your pockets to pay for it.
This exiat sayeth that
You will come again to scour my body with your worthy, emollient palm
creases because I am that round, strange, colored victual, and further,
this examinate sayeth that you will dirt grit your nails to gather me up
and by God we will both be sustained. By God if you warm and eat me,
I will nourish and fatten you.

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[1] Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008; repr. Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 9. Citations refer to the Routledge edition.

[2] Habib, Black Lives, 1.

[3] Habib, Black Lives, 3.

[4] Caroline Randall Williams, Lucy Negro, Redux: The Bard, A Book, and A Ballet (Nashville, TN: Third Man Books, 2019), 8.

[5] Williams’ method might be compared to that of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Age of Phillis (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2020), a retelling of the life of Phillis Wheatley, which similarly draws upon extensive archival research.

[6] Habib, Black Lives, 107. Habib here references arguments identifying this figure with “Lucy Negro” which he first makes in Shakespeare and Race: Postcolonial Praxis in the Early Modern Period (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000), 13, 15, 30, 78.

[7] Habib, Black Lives, 107.

Black Rural Life: Continuing from Habib into Eighteenth-Century Warwickshire

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. The blog series was launched on Friday 19 Mary 2023 at the London Metropolitan Archives to tie in with their new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Annabelle Gilmore

Annabelle Gilmore is a third year PhD student at the University of Birmingham, funded by AHRC Midlands4Cities, in collaboration with the National Trust. Her thesis explores how Asian imperialism and slavery in Jamaica can be traced through art objects collected and displayed at the country house, Charlecote Park in Warwickshire. She continues to work on exploring Black British history in eighteenth-century Warwickshire.

Habib’s succinct methodology in tracing Black lives in the English archives for the sixteenth and seventeenth century is a framework that still holds strong today. His model of painstakingly viewing the parochial archives is something I feel nearly all historians working in this field have had to contend with. What Habib points out is that the very nature of these records can be considered “a key of identity, whereby the nature and history of each kind of record is a clue to the social knowledge and hence communal imprint of the black individual cited by it.” This drives home the point that when searching for the lives of Black people in Britain, it is necessary to read the silences left by the modicum of information harvested from the archives.

Habib’s work has been insightful for my own efforts in trying to illuminate Black lives in Warwickshire in the long eighteenth century. This has its own challenges, as Habib points out in his chapter on Black people outside London. It is a simple fact that the numbers are just not as plentiful outside London, for Habib’s dates as well as my own. But it is certain that they matter just as much. While Habib uses the provincial records to “offer important confirmations as well as modifications of the black history of the London citation”, I believe this still anchors the provinces to London as the centre for the Black experience. It is true that it is all connected. London’s socio-political influence did spread across the country but centring it risks missing the specificity of provincial records.

Nevertheless, Habib’s work is extremely insightful for tracing London’s economic influences through the eighteenth century. He notes that one of the tracks for Black people to be found in the provinces was through merchant traders, who were often gentry and aristocrats who made “astronomical profits” from trading and slaving in Africa. Habib states this directly led to rapid cash profits and subsequently investments in English provincial land. Ultimately, these lands were transformed into conspicuous estates, seen in the “great burst of country house construction” that occurred between 1575 and 1625, and captive Black people could be found on these estates as a symbol of their owner’s wealth.  The eighteenth-century country house is often adorned with paintings depicting a member of the gentry or aristocracy with a Black servant. Black people identified in Warwickshire in the eighteenth century are connected to country estates or found in nearby locations. Habib’s work shows that this phenomenon began as early as the Elizabethan era and it highlights the intrinsic relationship between the countryside, wealth, and Black people inhabiting the provinces in the early modern era. Habib’s work is useful in showing how this pathway of wealth through the forced migration of Africans, transitioned to Atlantic slavery. From Africa to the Caribbean, then from the Caribbean to Britain, Black people were moved without their consent. They would remain as status symbols for white people living in country houses.

This raises another issue that Habib mentions: that it is a common feature outside of London for citations of Black people to be mentioned only in relation to the white enslaver, rather than some of the London-based individuals where there is more information about them as a person. This has been a problem that I have faced with Warwickshire’s Black people in the eighteenth century. The mentions in parochial records are minimal, sometimes just a name and their status as Black. Those with further descriptors are related to who has enslaved them. Whilst Habib’s records give a story, albeit anchored to a white individual, the records for Warwickshire are less detailed. The frustration I have experienced around this was compounded when reading Habib’s chapter on Black people outside London, and discovering that so much is dedicated to the south of England. It is understandable, and his records on Anthony and James Chappell in Northamptonshire exemplify what Habib terms the “vaporous” lives of the figures in the Warwickshire archive. In my experience, I have been left with a few names, a painting, and an offhand, unsourced sentence in the biography of a gentry family. I am aware that these few people across the eighteenth century do not constitute a community like that found in London or the south of England, but each of their stories, like Anthony and James Chappell, have been denied and diminished by traditional histories.

In many ways, this highlights the progression in historiography since Habib’s work was originally published in 2008. Recently, Simon Newman’s book Freedom Seekers followed a similar method to Habib in documenting enslaved people liberating themselves in Restoration London. However, Newman’s approach borrowed from a growing methodology developed by Black Feminist scholars such as Marisa Fuentes and Saidiya Hartman, and employs a creative element to reconstruct the lives of the freedom seekers found in newspapers and diary entries. This is in an effort to recognise the apocryphal information that Habib discusses but also breaks the mould of traditional history that Habib describes in his chapter on lives outside London. This combats the issue of a sole focus on the white enslaver by redirecting analysis onto Black individuals.

Anyone taking this approach would need to accept many of the unconfirmed aspects of Black lives in the archives. Within my own work with the Warwickshire archive, this would open up possible analysis, extending it beyond the spare parish records. Particularly, in broadening the scope of British history to include the Caribbean, intricate connections can be explored and expressed within the lives of these Black individuals in Warwick. Whilst Habib was wary of this in his own work, I believe that analysing the “vaporous” facets of the archive and using imaginative exploration grounded in known historical understanding will develop a rich history from these Black lives to fill the silences left behind.

Click here to see all the posts in this series.

Black Lives in the Restoration Household: The Queen’s Account

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. You can join Rebecca and Jamie to celebrate the publication of the posts at a free event at the London Metropolitan Archives on Friday 19 May – the event includes presentations by the post authors and a tour of the LMA’s new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Susannah Lyon-Whaley

Susannah Lyon-Whaley is completing her PhD in Art History at the University of Auckland in Aotearoa New Zealand on the Stuart queen consort Catherine of Braganza.

Imtiaz Habib’s groundbreaking study Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (2008) searches for traces of its subjects in parish registers, legal documents, and also amidst the records of the royal court. Histories of European kings and queens – even to the present day – often say little about black lives, yet royal records offer rich, if sporadic, evidence of these. To establish the presence of African slaves in the train of Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess who arrived in England in 1501 to marry Henry VIII’s older brother, Habib looks to official letters and the accounts of bystanders.[1] While these records are rich, their references to black lives are not easy to find but must be mined, likely why Habib does not apply the same detail to the Restoration court of the seventeenth century (c. 1660-1688) as he does to the household of the Spanish princess.

Similar to many of Habib’s finds, the £2 paid “To the Lady Wood ffor the Blackemores Lienning [linen]” – in 1663 in the accounts of Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705), Portuguese queen consort of Charles II (r. 1649/1660-1685), is easily glossed over, sandwiched between payments to attendants at the waters of the spa at Tunbridge Wells and for gold to play at cards. While ‘Lady Wood’ can be identified as Dame Mary Wood (d. 1665) through her appearance in Catherine’s household lists, the ‘Blackemores’ – a phrase indicating African heritage – are not named, gendered, nor even quantified.[2]  By the Restoration, Habib argues that blackness was more likely to be associated with enforced servitude.[3] What, then, can the ‘queen’s account’ of these lives tell us about black lives in the Restoration household?

We might start by considering this household’s interaction with black lives more broadly. In 1662, Catherine arrived in London as the new queen of England and its expanding cache of colonies, swelled by her dowry to include Tangier in North Africa and Bombay (Mumbai) in India. Early modern Portugal had a significant black population, and Catherine’s ship carried “a little Turk and a negroe” as pages for the daughters of the English ambassador.[4] The celebrations of her departure from Lisbon included ‘Ethiopians’, and the pageants staged on the Thames for her arrival in London reputedly involved ‘Indians’ and ‘Moors’.[5] Perhaps, the ‘Blackemores’ might have arrived in England with Catherine, as Habib endorses the probability that the black Tudor drummer, John Blanke, arrived with Catherine of Aragon?[6] That this isolated mention is at Tunbridge Wells, where Catherine frequently sought entertainment, further offers the possibility that they could have been musicians. Yet the unnamed status of the ‘Blackemores’ seems to cement that the queen – or those recording her accounts – didn’t value their individual identities. Royals were intimately and consciously involved in processes that have defined black history transnationally. Charles II’s charter to the Royal African Company in 1663 sanctioned the transatlantic slave trade and Catherine too subscribed to this company.[7] In Catherine’s will, executed in Lisbon in 1705, she gave money to free enslaved children, women, and men (in that order).[8] However, it’s difficult to take such a document as a critique of slavery in general, especially given her aforementioned investment.

For Catherine, the visual culture of blackness in her court and chambers was associated with servitude and enslavement. Catherine’s guardchamber (the entrance to her state apartments) at Windsor Castle illustrated a black woman as Africa offering a tribute to a white woman, possibly Britannia or the queen, seated on a globe.[9] Her husband’s throne at Windsor was decorated with “three large figures being called slaves”.[10] In art, black lives were visible as objects, as allegories, as entities without names, like the ‘Blackemores’ in Catherine’s accounts. Yet, to take them as such is to risk boxing them into a one-sided narrative of the court’s structures.

The work of the modern American artist Titus Kaphar challenges the viewer to refocus their gaze beyond the hierarchical structures of early modern paintings to see the person beneath, an approach that accords with the approach of historians such as Habib to the archives.[11] In the UK, art historian Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tours use visual culture as a touchstone to reveal the imperial pasts of Britain’s elite.[12] If visual and material culture contextualise elite attitudes towards black lives, the archives reveal mundane details like linen, tangibly evocative in their material, daily use. Of course, not all Africans in England were enslaved. In 1682, Charles II welcomed the ambassador of Morocco, who spent an evening enjoying sweets in the apartments of the king’s mistress.[13] Nor are all ‘Blackemoores’ unnamed. Charles II’s own Privy Purse accounts list a payment of £10 to “Peter the Moore”.[14] Each clue contributes to a patchwork of black lives, their visibility and geographies, imprints that render them less invisible, as Habib’s subtitle implicitly suggests.

I want to offer one more example from the queen’s accounts: Rebecca Blackmore, whose surname is a potential – while not infallible – marker of race.[15] Unusually for a woman, Rebecca is an ‘Armes Painter’. In May 1670, she was paid £17, “For paintinge and guiltinge [gilding] in oyle 4 Trumpett Banners” and “For 2 kettle Drum Banners painted in oyle and guilt with fine gold” for Catherine’s “Troope of Guards”.[16] Rebecca was not part of Catherine’s household and the queen unlikely paid her directly. She also painted arms for the duke of Saxony, the duke of Albermarle, for the king of Sweden, and for the funerals of the baby daughter and son of James, duke of York. Yet if she was a black woman, clearly not enslaved, she adds a different note to the dynamic of race amongst those connected to Catherine.

Click here for links to all the posts in this series.

[1] Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008), 23-26.

[2] R.O. Bucholz, ed. ‘Household of Queen (from 1685 Queen Dowager) Catherine 1660–1705,’ 39-40, http://courtofficers.ctsdh.luc.edu; Nandini Das, João Vicente Melo, Haig Z. Smith, and Lauren Working, Keywords of Identity, Race, and Human Mobility in Early Modern England (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021), 40-50.

[3] Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 191.

[4] 30 May 1662, ‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys,’ https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1662/05/30/. Given the context, these pages were likely personal attendants. While many pages were employed or apprenticed, it is possible these children were enslaved.

[5] Lorraine Madway, ‘Rites of Deliverance and Disenchantment: The Marriage Celebrations for Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, 1661-62,’ The Seventeenth Century 27, no. 1 (2012): 85; James Heath, The Glories and Magnificent Triumphs of the Blessed Restitution of His Sacred Majesty K. Charles II … (London: N.G., R.H. and O.T., 1662), 259.

[6] Habib, Black Lives, 39.

[7] BL, Sloane MS 205, ff. 8v–9r; TNA, SP 29/75 f.239. Habib, Black Lives, 171.

[8] TNA, PROB 1/56, p. 23.

[9]The Queen’s Guard Chamber, Windsor Castle,’ c.1817, https://www.rct.uk/collection/922098/the-queens-guard-chamber-windsor-castle.

[10] RA, SP/ADD/1/158.

[11] Titus Kaphar/ ‘Can Art Amend History?’ TED Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/titus_kaphar_can_art_amend_history?language=en.

[12] Alice Procter. ‘The Exhibitionist.’ https://www.theexhibitionist.org/.

[13] F.H. Blackburne Daniell, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the reign of Charles II, 1660-[1685], preserved in the State Paper Department of Her Majesty’s Public Record Office, vol. 23 (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1932), 43.

[14] August 1668, Bodleian Library, Special Collection, MS Malone 44, fol. 100–112.

[15] Although Habib notes such surnames do not necessarily confer race, he notes they do signify its possibility and are worth taking into account: Black Lives, 46-49.

[16] TNA, LC 9/272, 19 May 1670.

Love Me or Leave Me: Black Lives in the English Archives, A Response

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. You can join Rebecca and Jamie to celebrate the publication of the posts at a free event at the London Metropolitan Archives on Friday 19 May – the event includes presentations by the post authors and a tour of the LMA’s new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Jacqui Stanford, PhD

I thought I knew what I would call this post. Someone had kindly dropped a citation in the chat as a group of people working on race in medieval/early modern Britain met in an online symposium discussing Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives. My contributions to the symposium were really me still responding in my head to the final words in another book. That book had taken Habib to task on the idea of black slaves being in Britain in Tudor times, and Habib’s decision to include as many people in his database as their names suggested they were Black to him, Blackmoore and its variations being a chief source. I hadn’t even read Habib’s Black Lives when I was reading the critique, yet I felt protective of Habib and had a willingness also to allow what he had done. Call it instinct…

Now, I am sitting on my own book. Rather it’s sitting inside of me. Rather it’s a maelstrom seething begrudgingly in the depths of me. For it is time.

My book’s about six Black individuals I discovered in the archives. Others have seen their names before me. My six are not unknown. They are listed and noted in the parish registers, although they have remained out of focus as other things and people, who share the same pages on which they are recorded come into focus. No one as yet has taken up the detritus about them. Removed the dust, excavated the site of their burial in a single line, if that, set in parchment. There they lay, sullen, aggrieved; … something caught my eye.

The thing is, as far as we can tell, these six individuals did not know each other. The archives literally tell us little or nothing about them. So it is something that I’ve ended up spending a few years, so far, with them: following every lead they throw up; literally buying myself a brand new library; taking up residence in archives, where I am not especially welcome; clocking up travel and expenses in their single-minded pursuit, at my personal expense.

Mine are an exacting bunch. And they don’t care. For it is time.

They hold me in that chokehold. They won’t let go. And I won’t move. We will rise together on the dust of the mold and mildew. For they will go through the streets of London, again. For it is time.

My head was thumping in my hand as I paused the typing here. Then the tears, running past the carpal canal. The struggling to breathe. The other hand reaching up for the neck. I really wasn’t expecting this. I had taken to writing this post today as a come down from a few intense weeks. Jamie had sent me the article, now on my desktop. It was short … I was going to read ‘I can’t love this the way you want me to: Archival Blackness’ then write a response entitled, ‘…but I must insist you do: a response to I can’t love this the way you want me to: Archival Blackness’. I thought I was going to suggest why … As the piece revealed itself, and I met the thoughtful, moving moment the why gave way. I hit on these two sentences, and it was all over:

“I feel like I have to keep reading, to strain my eyes and agitate the arthritis in my back because I need to find all of the black people and sit still with the actual lives scattered amidst the stuff of Montgomerie’s life. a large Stew Pan. To honor them and the survival of black people…”[1]

My head was throbbing and bobbing now. My temperature kept rising from this point til the end of the article. Then the last line came:

“I am here for Othello”.[2]

I was undone.

I want to take the opportunity to publicly become one with the feel: I feel like I have to keep reading, strain my eyes, agitate my arthritis, find all of the black people, and sit still with the actual lives scattered amidst the stuff.

Note, I am at the stage where I am just wanting to find all the Black people, and sit still with their lives scattered amidst the stuff. And even here, the pull simply to find them, is strong. To find them. Then to sit with their scattered lives.

If someone doing race in the medieval/early modern does not get this, leave it alone.

Also, Habib was right.

Click here for links to all the posts in this series.


[1] Kim F. Hall, “I can’t love this the way you want me to: Archival Blackness,” postmedieval 11, no. 2-2 (2020), 176.

[2] Hall, “I can’t love this,” 177.

Amantacha: An Indigenous American in Seventeenth-Century English News from Canada to Suffolk

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. You can join Rebecca and Jamie to celebrate the publication of the posts at a free event at the London Metropolitan Archives on Friday 19 May – the event includes presentations by the post authors and a tour of the LMA’s new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Nikki Clarke

Nikki Clarke is a final year PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research focuses on how people gathered and assessed news in the multimedia world of seventeenth-century England. You can find her on Twitter at @nikkiclarke1.

He delivered a prince that the French had taken in the country, who by two Jesuit priests was put to torment by a suite of apparel whose linings were full of prickes. The Jesuits in the coming home were put to tast of the same sauce. The prince was diverse days together, in the beginning of Michaelmas terme, at the Royall Exchange to be seene.[1]

With this diary entry in November 1628, the Reverend John Rous alerts us to the fact that news of the travels of Amantacha, the son of Soranhes, a Wendat leader who traded with French near Quebec in the 1620s and 1630s, had arrived in the quiet, rural parish of Santon Downham, in Suffolk.  My usual research is on multimedia news and accuracy in the seventeenth-century, and this blog tries to explore the way both English and French sources use the story of Amantacha to reinforce their own religious and political conflict on both sides of the Atlantic. Continue reading

Black lives in the Berkshire Archives: Making the Imperceptible Perceptible

This post is part of Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium, organised and edited by Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. The blog series is introduced here. You can join Rebecca and Jamie to celebrate the publication of the posts at a free event at the London Metropolitan Archives on Friday 19 May – the event includes presentations by the post authors and a tour of the LMA’s new ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition.

Graham Moore

Graham is a PhD student on a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme between the University of Reading and The National Archives. His current research focuses on piracy and maritime communities in the early seventeenth-century, through the lens of the records of the High Court of Admiralty. He is also working as part of an ongoing project with the Berkshire Record Office and the University of Reading to uncover diverse histories in Berkshire’s archives. You can read Graham’s recent publication, the open-access article ‘The Liues, Apprehensions, Arraignments, and Executions of the 19 Late Pyrates: Jacobean Piracy in Law and Literature’ (2022), in MDPI’s Humanities journal.

The majority of work on the history of diverse presences in Britain have focused on major urban and economic centres such as London. Away from the metropole, the story of ‘imperceptible’ Black presence (and the presence of those from other cultural and ethnic groups that are, contextually, in minority) often remains untold.[1] Yet the evidence is there. If only one knows where and how to look, we do indeed find that “Black history is everywhere”.[2]

This blog post will explore an ongoing project with the Berkshire Record Office (BRO) to uncover histories of rural diversity. It will suggest that whilst such a survey is fruitful and worthwhile, a methodology that actively recognises the unique problems posed by its respective ‘archival silences’ is required to overcome the imperceptibility identified by trailblazing scholars like Imtiaz Habib.[3] Continue reading

Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: Introduction

Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell

Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Routledge, 2008) is one text within the relatively small, but longstanding, field of early modern Black British History. Neither a cultural history of early modern racialisation nor a social history of Black Britons, the text is a kind of analytical cataloguing that seeks to locate a “missing subject” through the literal construction of an archive and an accompanying commentary. It manages to be both empirically rigorous – Habib located 448 “Black citations” – and theoretically rich. It provides a roadmap and a grammar for the social historian to think carefully about early modern England’s Black inhabitants and the archives that render those lives (il)legible.

Habib’s herculean effort in 2008 highlighted, and continues to highlight, the importance of adopting an interdisciplinary approach when looking at the lives of people of colour in early modern Britain. In its robust, rigorous, and in-depth analysis, Black Lives laid a solid foundation which Early Modern Studies continues to build on. Habib’s bridging of the gap between the historical and literary disciplines has enabled Early Modern Studies to create a holistic idea of what it was like to be a person of colour in the early modern period and to track the origins of racism.

Despite its weighty contributions, the text remains relatively neglected by social historians and, in some cases, actively dismissed. Our Symposium seeks to reflect on Habib’s Black Lives and firmly establish its importance to Early Modern Studies, particularly social history. This is especially important given the emergence of the “archive” as a heuristic within Black Feminist literature, Atlantic History, and Slavery Studies. While scholars have critically interrogated the colonial archives, less attention has been paid to the archives of the imperial metropole. Habib’s work is, therefore, an ideal way to integrate these archives and think relationally across different methodologies. We hope the reflections published here will demonstrate both the importance of Habib’s work and the vitality of scholarship thinking about early modern Britain’s Black inhabitants.

Over the next few weeks, our contributors will reflect on Habib’s text and the history of Black lives in Britain between 1500 and 1800. Next week, Graham Moore’s post explores the Berkshire Record Office, looking at the Black Presence in rural early modern England. Nikki Clarke uses Habib to think about the life of Amantacha, an indigenous American who spent time in Europe during the 1620s. In week three, Susannah Lyon-Whaley turns to the Restoration court and Black individuals within the household of Queen Catherine of Braganza. Jacqui Stanford offers a reflection on the work required to find and sit with early modern Black lives, drawing on the writings of Habib and Kim Hall. In week four, Annabelle Gilmore grounds her post in the historical discipline, highlighting the limitations of working with provincial records when locating the Black presence in the eighteenth century. Hannah Crawforth explores the relationship between Habib’s Black Lives and Caroline Randall Williams’ Lucy Negro Redux, highlighting how Habib’s findings have influenced works outside of Early Modern Studies. In week five, Amber Burbidge brings Habib into direct conversation with Black Feminist scholarship on the archive, thinking carefully about questions of race and gender. Montaz Marché pulls Habib’s analysis into the eighteenth century, working through some of the ways he, and Black Feminist scholars, have raised questions for her own research. In our final week, Jamie Gemmell builds on Habib’s use of the parish register by working through records from the LMA’s Switching the Lens project. Rebecca Adusei explores the significance of taking an interdisciplinary approach, and the importance in relation to looking at the Black, female presence in early modern literature and drama.

On 19 May (11:15-15:00), we will be launching our blog series at the London Metropolitan Archives. We will begin with a set of presentations from some of our contributors and Q&A. This will be followed by a lunch and tours around the London Metropolitan Archive’s “Unforgotten Lives” exhibition. This exhibition presents the stories of Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous heritage who lived and worked in the city between 1560 and 1860 and are recorded in London’s archives. The event is free and open to all. Please sign up via our Eventbrite, available here.

Out of the Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives Online Symposium we will be formally creating The Imtiaz Habib Network. With the formation of this network, we hope to build on the foundation that Habib laid in his Black Lives. Prioritising anti-racist practices, the network will create a safe space for scholars to discuss their work and findings. The primary incentive of the network is to foster an encouraging and welcoming environment and create meaningful conversations that will aid premodern critical race studies and histories of early modern Black life. For more information, please reach out via our website’s contact form.

From the start this work has been intensely collaborative. We wish to thank everybody who contributed to our online reading sessions. Each discussion was thoughtful and provided a space to fully grapple with the breadth and rigour of Habib’s text. Our contributors sit at the core of this work and we wish to thank them for their dedication and their writing. Throughout, their work has challenged us and we have learned so much from their contributions. We hope participation in the Symposium has been equally beneficial for them. For funding the Symposium’s various events, we wish to thank the Royal Historical Society, the Society for Renaissance Studies, and KCL’s Medicine and the Making of Race Project. The Centre for Early Modern Studies at KCL, especially the Centre’s administrator, Jonathan Powell, have been foundational to the Symposium’s logistics. We thank them for their support in navigating various university systems. The London Metropolitan Archives will be kindly hosting our launch. We thank them for their support in realising this event. Finally, we wish to thank the editors of the many-headed monster blog. They have supported the Symposium since its infancy and have generously provided a platform for our work.

Rebecca Adusei is a PhD student at King’s College, London. Her project locates and analyses depictions and characterisations of Sub-Saharan Africans in Early Modern literature and drama. Trained in Literary Studies, Rebecca’s research has become increasingly interdisciplinary. Drawing together Literary Studies and History, she looks at Black individuals in the early modern archives and scrutinises their characterisations in literature.

Jamie Gemmell is a historian of race and power in the early modern Anglo-Atlantic World. He is an AHRC-funded PhD student at King’s College, London. His project traces how London life changed in the wake of England’s development of racialised systems of enslaved labour across the Americas in the late seventeenth century. His project is titled “Reckoning with Race in Early Modern London, 1655-1712”. Jamie is Assistant Editor at the University of Maryland’s Slavery, Law, and Power Project and Project Director of jamesknightjamaica.com. He is former Editor-in-Chief of Retrospect Journal, where he co-edited “Race in Retrospective” with RACE.ED.

Links to all the posts in the series will be added to the event homepage after they are published.

Reflecting on Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium


The many-headed monster is delighted to bring you a series of posts responding to Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Ashgate: 2008, Routledge: 2020). The posts are part of Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell’s multi-event symposium, which brings together scholars working at the forefront of early modern Black history and premodern race studies to discuss the vital importance and continuing legacy of Habib’s text.

Rebecca and Jamie will introduce the blog series on Thursday 4 May, and we will then publish two posts a week over the following month – links to all the posts will be added to this page as we go, so you can bookmark it now if you want to follow along.

Rebecca and Jamie also invite you to celebrate the publication of the blog series on Friday 19 May, at the London Metropolitan Archives. Things will kick off with presentations by the blog authors and discussion. This will be followed by a lunch and tours around the London Metropolitan Archive’s ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition. This exhibition presents the stories of Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous heritage who lived and worked in the city between 1560 and 1860 and are recorded in London’s archives. The event is free, but please register to reserve your spot.