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 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.

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

  1. Pingback: Reflecting on Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: Black lives in the Berkshire Archives: Making the Imperceptible Perceptible | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: Black Lives in the Restoration Household: The Queen’s Account | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: Black Rural Life: Continuing from Habib into Eighteenth-Century Warwickshire | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: Imtiaz Habib and ‘Lucy Negro, Redux’ | the many-headed monster

  6. Pingback: Gender, Blackness, and Habib: How can contemporary disciplines and practices of Gender Studies make use of Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives? | the many-headed monster

  7. Pingback: Possibilities and Provocations: Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677 | the many-headed monster

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