As when I first became a student of history in the 1970s, England’s past has always been portrayed as having sacred white spaces. These are historical moments where people of colour are conspicuous by their absence. It is linked to an idea that the ‘first’ people of African descent arrived on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, and before that there were only a few ‘immigrants,’ ‘slaves,’ and ‘strangers,’ whose appropriate place is in the margins or footnotes of English history books. This historical-romance with an imaginary mono-ethnic white Englishness has been commercially fictionalized and popularized in films and TV programmes (even if they include one tokenistic star of colour – usually Morgan Freeman). What is true of the portrayal of England’s history in general is even more so of the Tudor and Stuart periods of 1485–1603 and 1603–1714, or Early Modern England.
Early Modern England is considered the most sacred white space of all. The Early Modern period is thought of as the era of William Shakespeare, who some contend was the greatest writer of all time. It is the period of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I, who are often portrayed as the personification of mono-ethnic whiteness: ashen and austere.
But there is a paradox in this apparent whitewashing: this England also gets the blame for being the incubator of modern racism. We may be told that William Shakespeare’s characterization of Africans in Othello and Titus Andronicus revealed his misogynistic-patriarchal-racist bias. Some commentators accuse Elizabeth of being the sponsor of John Hawkins, the ‘first transatlantic enslaver’, in 1562. From this flowed a political and cultural defiance based on an idea of five hundred years of racism and colonialism and the resistance to it. We may have even heard that Elizabeth expelled Blackamoores in 1596, and again in 1601, and presume that this was because of an anti-African policy fuelled through a racist theology.
This same theology is exemplified in the King James Bible’s stigmatization of Africans as cursed children of Ham, with the additional suggestion that James himself inserted this aspect into the biblical text. It is felt that the King James Bible itself is indicative of a systemic racism that can be backdated to the beginning of the Tudor period and provides answers not only for early modern prejudice but modern racism too.
We seek sources for modern racism because it is a social evil that manifests itself as anti-immigration, xenophobia, populist nationalism, the mainstreaming of intolerance masquerading as common-sense – the desire to build walls to keep ‘some’ people out. The fear of the blackness of Africans grows and its popular association with primitiveness and evil can be attested to by any casual perusal of social media: ‘people don’t like Black people’ and ‘Black people don’t like themselves.’ The N-word has never been more popular.
But is this true: can we blame early modern England for modern bigotry and angst? Some of the answers lie in England’s Other Country Men. Twenty-five years in the making, the book offers a challenge to specific and long-held notions regarding colonialism, English history, race, racism, theology and most importantly how people use history to shape national identity. This is a non-fiction history book and the evidence in it refutes the historical-romance we have with England’s past, but also questions the attempts to blame early modern England for modern xenophobia.
In a sense we have fallen victim to a conceit where the study of history was preserved for the few. Since the Victorian era this falsehood suggested that only these few have the time, inclination or wherewithal to understand the past. We are burdened with the shackles of that tradition. But the denial and falsification of history is nearly always the prelude to state-sponsored murder and genocide. Learning history prevents us from being astounded by what we think is ‘new,’ as we can plan for what happens next. History includes, but is not only, the record of powerful-rich-heterosexual, upper-class-white men that are adept at killing people. His is not the last word in history: story is. So let’s get excited. There is still time to write home about this England’s history.