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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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”. 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.
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.  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.
Click here to see all the posts in this series.
 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.
 Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible, (Oxford: Routledge, 2020), 33-35.
 Onyeka Nubia, England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society, (London: Zed Books, 2019), 131-155.
 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).
 Saidya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 12.
 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.
 Adrian Bingham, “The Digitization of Newspaper Archives: Opportunities and Challenges for Historians,” Twentieth Century British History 21, no. 2, (2010): 225.