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]Writing on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Habib recognised a “scattered black population across England”, developing as a “function of geography”.[4] This function operated on “two tracks”, both predominantly encompassing enslaved and “encumbered” Black presences. These presences either correlated with patterns of servitude (appearing in locations associated with “country residences”), or with patterns of trade (where a “competitive relationship” between established aristocracy and the rising mercantile middle class resulted in Black presence as “decorative self-advertisements”).[5]

When extending outside London, Habib’s survey primarily targeted the maritime counties of southwest and southeast England. However, data from the Berkshire records also support his thesis. It is even possible to push Habib’s chronology into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – though in doing so, we must understand that the social context of Blackness had inevitably changed with the increasing solidification of ‘race’ in the English national consciousness.[6]

Research undertaken at BRO has found 48 people visible within the records as ‘minorities’. These people, representing various identities – Black, East Asian, aboriginal Australian, and more – appear within the parochial records as early as 1610.[7] Per Habib, we should consider these figures as “symptomatically indicative” rather than fully representative.[8] Parochial records are formulaic, and usually brief; there was no requirement for incumbent record-keepers to note race, ethnicity, or cultural identity.[9] Where these identities do appear to us, they are signified by surplus information – by descriptors (‘blackamoor’, ‘negro’, etc.) or by “recognisable morphologies” of non-English names.[10]Fig. 1 (click to enlarge): graph showing frequency of use for different signifying terminology over time, in Berkshire (BRO) records. G. Moore 2022.

Fig. 1 shows the frequency of these ‘signifiers’ found thus far within BRO’s records. It should be reiterated that the BRO survey is not yet complete; this data only represents presences found within a limited number of BRO records, primarily targeted at baptisms and burials across certain parishes. However, there’s still much to learn from what we’ve found so far. Of the 53 extant signifiers (representing 48 unique individuals), the majority (44) were identified as Black and/or African.

The ‘indeterminacy’ of ideas about race, ethnicity, and cultural identity – both over this chronology, and even in any given moment – must be acknowledged.[11] The associated identity of Anna, a “blackamore” baptised in New Windsor in 1610, must be differentiated from that of Henry and Sarah Windsor, “Two Negro servants” baptised in the same parish in 1760.[12] Further, whilst is undoubtedly exciting to know that people like Anna, Henry, and Sarah lived in Berkshire – that Black people were “continually present in Britain” from the Tudor period, and rural Britain at that – the question becomes, now that we know they were there, how do we incorporate their lives into our historical understanding?[13] How can we enable them to tell their stories?

Of course, every Black and minority individual’s experience of life in historic Berkshire would have been unique. Working on a case-by-case basis may be the only way to recover those lived experiences. These efforts are already underway; my upcoming article will tell the story of George Freeman, a liberated African boy brought to Remenham parish after rescue from a Portuguese slaving ship in 1811.[14] Such storytelling efforts will, we hope, also enable community engagement with BRO’s research findings.Fig. 2 (click to enlarge): geographical distribution of signified individuals per parish, with proportionate datapoint sizes, from Berkshire parochial records 1726-1825. Mapped in QGIS using BRO data, over OS and NaturalEarth datapackages.[15] G. Moore 2022.

If we are going to tell such stories, we must be able to a) find these historical presences, and b) place them in historical context. Geospatial analysis, like that in Fig. 2, helps with this process. This map clearly shows signified presences in the dataset’s ‘peak’ century (1726-1825) as a ‘function of geography’, much like that identified by Habib in earlier centuries. One track follows Berkshire’s major trade routes, heading west along the Thames past Windsor and Cookham into Reading, where it diverts along the vital Bath Road through Thatcham. The second track – the more scattered presences (including those between Windsor and Wokingham, and those up in Basildon and East Lockinge) correlate with the country residences of a burgeoning mercantile class. An extensive network of East India Company ‘nabobs’ made Berkshire their home during the eighteenth century; for them, Black (and Asian) servitude was part of the aesthetics of ‘competitive’ aspiration and power.[16]

By recognising that presences in Berkshire aligned with the ‘two tracks’ identified by Habib, and continued to do so beyond his own chronological view, I and the other researchers at BRO will be able to make informed decisions about which record sets to tackle next. We may still be looking for needles in a haystack – but at least we can make that haystack smaller.

It is also vital, I believe, to disrupt the ‘silences’ of the archive by making them part of the narrative. We can neutralise such obstacles by making them “part of the account”.[17] Only by illuminating the silences inherent in the formulaic structure of the parochial, rural archive can we interrupt and challenge them.[18]

I find myself returning, again and again, to the words of Imtiaz Habib and Duncan Salkeld – to the notion of “working within the silences of the archives […] in sober acknowledgement of the difficulties of a necessary job”.[19] The archive is not wholly silent – there are Black lives in the Berkshire archives, and they are numerous. Yet the “necessary job” remains beset with difficulties; now that we know such presences exist, the time has come to build on what we have found. We must “create spaces for people who may not appear in the archives to the degree we might hope, so that we can imagine their lives, rather than simply leave them invisible”.[20] The time has come to make the imperceptible, perceptible.

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

[1] I. Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Ashgate, 2008), 7.

[2] D. Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016), 19.

[3] Where “any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process, and the operation to deconstruct these silences will vary accordingly”. M-R. Trouillot, Silencing the past: power and the production of history (1995; Beacon Press, 2015), 27.

[4] Habib, Black Lives, pp. 193-194.

[5] Habib, Black Lives, 195, 236.

[6] N. Ndiaye, ‘Race and Ethnicity: Conceptual Knots in Early Modern Culture’, N. Hudson (ed.), A Cultural History of Race: Vol. 4, In the Reformation and Enlightenment (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), 123; I. Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (John Hopkins University Press, 1996), 6; J. Selwood, Diversity and Difference in Early Modern London (Ashgate, 2010), 3-4.

[7] Records from New Windsor parish describe the baptism of Anna, a “blackamore at Mr Jobson’s”, on 20 September 1610: BRO, D/P149/1/1. Volunteer work undertaken previously at BRO also describes a 1608 burial record for “Edward Hyde who was darke”. However, this record has been cited incorrectly; whilst it likely exists within the archive, it is difficult to determine the nature of the citation error.

[8] Habib, Black Lives, 11, 262.

[9] M. Moss & D. Thomas, ‘Theorising the Silences’, M. Moss, D. Thomas (eds.), Archival Silences: Missing, Lost, and Uncreated Archives (Routledge; London, 2021), 15.

[10] Habib, Black Lives, p. 17.

[11] I. Habib & D. Salkeld, ‘The Resonables of Boroughside, Southwark: An Elizabethan black family near the Rose Theatre’, Shakespeare, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2015), 136.

[12] BRO, D/P149/1/1; BRO, D/P149/1/3.

[13] Olusoga, Black and British, 19.

[14] BRO, D/P99/1/3.

[15] County, contour, and riverine hydrography data provided by Ordnance Survey OpenData maps: ‘Boundary-Line’, (ver. May 2022), ‘OS Terrain 50’ (ver. August 2022), and ‘OS OpenRivers’ (ver. April 2022), Ordnance Survey OpenData,, accessed 03/08/22. Basic geographic packages from NaturalEarth: ‘1:10m Physical Vectors’, NaturalEarth Data,, accessed 29/07/22.

[16] K. Smith, “Englefield House, Berkshire: Processes, practices and the making of a Company house,” M. Finn & K. Smith (eds.), East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 (UCL Press, 2018), 193; Habib, Black Lives, 195.

[17] C. Ginzburg, ‘Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know About It’, tr. J. Tedeschi, A.C. Tedeschi, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1993), 23.

[18] J-P.A. Ghobrial, “Introduction: Seeing the World like a Microhistorian”, Past and Present, Vol. 242, Supp. 14 (2019), 13.

[19] Habib & Salkeld, “The Resonables of Boroughside,” 142.

[20] D.R. Berry & and L. Harris, “Guest Editors’ JCWE December 2023 Note: Researching Nineteenth-Century African American History”, The Journal of the Civil War Era (22 November 2022)., accessed 08/03/23.

3 thoughts on “Black lives in the Berkshire Archives: Making the Imperceptible Perceptible

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

  2. Pingback: Blog post: Black Lives in the Berkshire Archives | Graham Moore

  3. Pingback: Into the Archives: Berkshire Records Office, by Graham Moore | READING HISTORY

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