Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Recovering a Black African's Voice in an English Lawsuit: Jacques Francis and the Salvage Operations of the Mary Rose and the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus, 1545-Ca 1550

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Recovering a Black African's Voice in an English Lawsuit: Jacques Francis and the Salvage Operations of the Mary Rose and the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus, 1545-Ca 1550

Article excerpt

THE encounters between the English and the black Africans or Moors in Tudor England have remained an ill-mined territory despite a rich crop of Africanist studies released in the last three decades. The prevailing view that the uneven encounters set in rather late, that blacks in Tudor England were rarities bereft of their personal voices, that the English had no experience as slave traders in the first half of the sixteenth century, that the English slave trade was pioneered by John Hawkins, that no blacks were bought or sold in England until the seventeenth century, does no longer stand the test of historical examination. (1) The prominent Africanist historian James Walvin noted that the history of British involvement with black Africans did not begin with the first effective importation of black slaves into England. Thus he argued that it would be worthwhile investigating the earlier and wider history of European explorations and discoveries. (2) Spanish historians have followed his recommendation, establishing the undeniable fact that the English merchants stationed in Andalucia at the close of the fifteenth century kept African slaves, Moors, mulattoes, and Negroes as domestic servants and as indentured workers in their soap factories. What is more, the English merchants, in the wake of their Genoese partners and in emulation of their Spanish colleagues, became heavily enmeshed in the African slave trade as early as the 1480s when the trade was still in its infancy. (3)

The present article is meant to be a contribution to the understudied subject of the black presence in early modern England. (4) It draws on a set of interrogatories conducted by the High Court of Admiralty in London. What emerges from these state records is the story of Jacques Francis (Jaques Frauncys), a Guinea diver kept as a slave by the Venetian Piero Paolo Corsi who was hired, in July 1547, by a partnership of Italian merchants to recover goods from the sunken trading vessel, the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus, owned by Francesco Bernardi of Venice, and who, in 1546, had been commissioned by the admiralty to participate in salvaging the wreck of the Mary Rose. Jacques Francis is likely to have gone down in the annals of an English court of law as the first black witness to give firsthand evidence in a hotly contested lawsuit. The court ignored the argument put forward by the Italian merchants, who had lost their goods in the wrecked vessel, that the African diver had no right to appear before a European court.

I will first dwell on the historical context, recording the salvage operations in Southampton waters, and then I intend to address the cultural and legal issues raised by the appearance of Jacques Francis as witness before the court of admiralty in February 1548. A dispute over the legal and cultural status of Jacques Francis arose in the courtroom. The admiralty judges were ready to acknowledge the humanity and selfhood of the Guinea diver who had obviously salvaged some nautical gear from the Mary Rose whereas the Italian witnesses denounced the black diver as an uncivilized man, a "slave," a "morisco," a "Blacke more," a "bondeman," and an "infidell borne." Therefore his testimony, they argued, was inadmissible.

The African witness summoned to be questioned by the court of admiralty in London did not turn out to be a cultureless and savage figure unable to respond in intelligible language. On the contrary, the civilized and highly articulate Jacques Francis, who in Guinea is likely to have been trained as a pearl diver and who in England had lived up to the potential of his qualities, was aware of his outstanding record of underwater exploits as a skilled diver and of the valuable service he had been performing the English state in recovering part of the expensive ordnance of the Mary Rose, the recovery of the ship and her ordnance being a matter touching the fibers of national pride. He stood his ground, seizing the opportunity offered him by an English law court of making the best of the dispute over his humanity, his black identity, and over the definition of his legal status and ethnic origin. …

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