"Get into the Know"
Too many Blackamoors: deportation, discrimination, and Elizabeth I.(essay)(Critical essay)
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
In 1596, Queen Elizabeth issued an "open letter" to the Lord Mayor of London, announcing that "there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie," and ordering that they be deported from the country. One week later, she reiterated her "good pleasure to have those kinde of people sent out of the lande" and commissioned the merchant Casper van Senden to "take up" certain "blackamoores here in this realme and to transport them into Spaine and Portugall." Finally, in 1601, she complained again about the "great numbers of Negars and Blackamoors which (as she is informed) are crept into this realm," defamed them as "infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel," and, one last time, authorized their deportation.
England was, of course, no stranger to strangers, nor to discrimination against them. As Laura Hunt Yungblut has shown, European immigrants constituted a noticeable part of the English population starting in the twelfth century. Although they could gain some rights of citizenship, the Crown taxed or restricted their residency whenever political or economic expediency warranted. Elizabeth herself repeatedly authorized the expulsion of immigrants.
Yet Elizabeth's orders to deport certain "blackamoors" are, in fact, unique, for they articulate and attempt to put into place a race-based cultural barrier of a sort England had not seen since the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the thirteenth century. In justifying the geographical alienation of certain "Negars and Blackamoors," the queen sets them categorically apart from her "own liege people." While she figures the English in terms of their national allegiance, she designates the "Negars and Blackamoors" as a "kind" of people, "those kinde," defined by skin color (the blackness stressed by "Negars" and "Blackamoors") and associated, less inclusively, with religion or lack of religion ("most" are "infidels"). That is, against the contrasting national identity of her subjects, she depicts and condemns "Negars and Blackamoors" generically as a race--a "black" race.
These documents have become pivotal to critical assessments of the material and ideological place of "blacks" within England as well as of early constructions of racism and race within English literature of the period. Critics have read Elizabeth's letters as "the visible signature of the imperial metropolis's nervous writing out of its marginalized other" and have taken the writing out of "blacks" as the writing in of a derogatory association of blackness and race. Debates continue over when this equation finally stabilized and when blackness supplanted religion as "the most important criterion for defining otherness." Early modern scholars tend to place the emergence of a color-based racism at the end of the sixteenth century; eighteenth-century scholars, at the end of the eighteenth. What complicates any such designation is the fact that constructions of race and of blackness emerged within a complex of social, economic, political, religious, and natural discourses, not all of them engineered to produce national or racial boundaries. While the result of articulations such as Elizabeth's may have been the inscription and predication of a racist ideology that defined and derogated "black" subjects categorically, the marking of race and color was not the only issue at stake.
In fact, although Elizabeth presents the presence of "blackamoors" in England as a local and internal problem, prompted by the fact that "of late divers blackmoores" have been "brought into this realme" and added to a population that "all ready" numbers "to manie," her efforts are framed by a much larger, long-standing conflict: England's ongoing war with Spain. That conflict, which had been heightened more than mollified by the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, was playing itself out partly in privateering ventures of the sort that were bringing "blackamoors" into England. Whatever the ideological bearings, Elizabeth's plan to reverse that immigration emerged as a practical solution to her need to reclaim English prisoners from Spain: from what we can tell in each case, the queen intended to exchange "blackamoors" for the captive English. From the start, then, the "Negars and Blackamoors" selected for deportation were caught not simply in a binary opposition with England's "own liege people" but also in a triangulation with the Spanish--a triangulation defined by the practicalities of war and, in many ways, inattentive to boundaries of race or color. As Elizabeth's letters map out these transactions, they do show us a color-based racist discourse in the making. But significantly, it is a discourse shaped, complicated, and compromised by political and economic circumstances.
We need, then, to start with those political and economic circumstances and, in particular, with the identity of the "blackamoors" who are caught in the middle. In his influential study, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Peter Fryer has argued that the queen's discriminatory project "failed completely" "in so far as [it] was a serious attempt to deport all black people from England." To be sure, Elizabeth's efforts extended only across the short period between 1596 and 1601 and did little to diminish the size of that population. Blacks remained in England throughout the Renaissance and by the middle of the eighteenth century comprised somewhere between one and three percent of the London populace. Yet to evaluate the queen's policies in the ambitious terms of a full-scale deportation is misleading, even with qualification ("in so far as") of the sort Fryer offers, since, as Fryer also acknowledges, Elizabeth never attempted to deport "all black people from England," only parts of that population. Although in its abstractness her language suggests that the population crisis was widespread, her proposals seem to have been limited to a relatively small number of subjects (at first ten, then eighty-nine) and, in at least the first case, to a specific group.
To date, critics have only speculated about the identity of these subjects--first called "blackmoores" and in the last letter "Negars and Blackamoors"--and, in efforts to underscore the racial politics significantly at issue here, have named them "blacks," "black servants," "Moors," and "Africans."