The most perplexing narrative we’ve discussed in my black British music class is the one surrounding the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush to England’s shores.
With around 500 passengers from Jamaica and Trinidad in tow, the ship is credited with sparking black immigration to the U.K. in 1948. That is the prevailing story.
A reality, however, that is only just now coming to public consciousness is the prevalence of black people in Tudor-era England. British journalist Bidisha interviewed historian Miranda Kaufmann about her book “Black Tudors: the Untold Story,” which was published last month. For class, we read excerpts from Peter Fryer’s book “Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain.”
Apart from the two black ladies killing the game in Scottish court, a particular historical figure who keeps coming up is John Blanke. He worked as a trumpeter in Henry VII’s and Henry VIII’s courts. According to Fryer, his last name being “Blanke” is thought to be a joke (blank, blanco, blanche, as in signifying “white”).
The National Archives show there are explicit records of payment being made out to Blanke, “the blacke Trumpet,” in 1507. He also appears on Henry VIII’s Westminster Tournament Roll, which is kept at the College of Arms.
Blanke is also the namesake of historian Michael Ohajuru’s study of 15th and 16th century black Britons. Kaufmann was one of Ohajuru’s collaborators on the John Blanke Project.
The whole idea of Tudor-era black folks has become a springboard for larger discussions in class. Mainly: what does it mean for the British mainstream when the mental timeline for black culture starts in 1948? What does the erasure of black British life before 1948 do for modern perceptions of immigration and black identity in the U.K.?
Albeit far from the beginning, the Windrush is an undeniable milestone in black British history: it has certainly left its mark. There’s a square in London’s Brixton borough named after it and the name sticks to an entire generation of Carribbean people.
Despite this, the black British community feels as if gatekeepers have glossed over the Windrush’s significance.
Sure, journalists, historians and jazz lovers look back on the phenomenon publicly and fondly. But activists Patrick Vernon of Every Generation want more. Vernon wants the Windrush to be included in the U.K.’s National Curriculum and a day of recognition as well.
Stephanie Pitter of Black History in Schools U.K. has similar goals.
While some feel the government hasn’t stepped up in a visible way, BBC teamed up with the British Council to create a children’s Windrush lesson plan. Institutions such as the Museum of London offer sessions specifically designed for educating kids about the Windrush and Caribbean immigration.
Still, British black people’s pervasive feeling of disenfranchisement from history shows there is much work to be done. Before we can get to remedying erasure from the Renaissance, though, it looks like we’ve got to start with basics.