Posts Tagged ‘Henry the Navigator’

History Debunked Wonders Why a Historic Chinese Visitor to Britain Became a Librarian, While Black Briton John Blank Was a Trumpeter

November 22, 2022

Yeah, this is yet another post about Simon Webb and History Debunked. It’s my attempt to answer a question he posed yesterday in a video talking about a Chinese visitor to Britain, or possibly emigrant, who ended up as a librarian helping with the Chinese manuscripts in the Bodleian. Webb asked why this gentleman was unknown, despite there having been Chinese communities in Britain for centuries, while the advocates of Black History had been doing everything they could to turn Tudor trumpeter John Blank into a household name. Blank, he said, was probably Portuguese, and only here for a couple of years. Why didn’t British Chinese people feel the need to celebrate their history in this sceptre’d isle as the Blacks?

I’ve discussed this question before, and I think it’s because Chinese and Indian Brits are much more culturally self-confident than Black Brits. If you look through any history of inventions, an enormous number before the modern period come from those great nations. Just as they do from Islam, although Muslims lag behind Whites, Chinese and Indians in educational and professional achievements. I think people of Indian and Chinese heritage are very much aware of their nations’ cultural and scientific achievements and so don’t feel the need to have them explored by a wider public in order to boost their performance in wider society. It’s the opposite with the Black community. They have a greater feeling of alienation and that their people’s history and achievements aren’t appreciated, leading to racism amongst Whites and poor social and economic performance among Blacks. If White people were more aware of their long history here, there would be less racism against them on the one hand, and Blacks would also have a greater sense of belonging and acceptance on the other. Hence the insistence of the importance of rather marginal figures like Blank.

But Webb also asked about the way these two also conformed to racial stereotypes. The Chinese gentleman was a learned scholar, while Blank was a musician. I don’t think there’s much mystery there either. The Chinese fellow came to Britain in the late 17th century. I think this was the age of the great Jesuit missions to the Middle Kingdom, and also an age when European merchants were beginning to trade directly with the Chinese. Chinese civilisation had been known about for centuries and its products highly admired. Scholars and merchants were clearly keen to know as much about the country as they could, and so would have been eager to acquire Chinese manuscripts and scholars able to interpret them.

Black Africa was somewhat different. It was cut off from extensive European contact through geography and climate. I think Europeans knew about Abyssinia, if only through the legends about Prester John, the ruler of a great Christian empire somewhere in Africa or Asia. It was to find Christian allies in Africa that Prince Henry the Navigator launched the first voyages of exploration to the continent below the Sahara. But he didn’t find any. There were great Black empires there – that of Mali, for example, but I think that the Black African states Europeans contacted were pagan. While these were culturally sophisticated in their own way, I don’t think they were literate and as scientifically and mathematically advanced as the Muslim kingdoms. Hence, when Blacks were imported into Europe, it would have been as slaves or artisans, not scholars. As for music, Arab racial stereotypes at the time said that Africans had a great sense of rhythm. One of the comments one Arab writer made about them was that if a Black man fell from heaven, he’d keep good time with his feet right up until he hit the ground. I can therefore see how Blacks would have a musical career in Europe, just as they had in later centuries. I think Beethoven wrote the Kreutzer sonata for a specific Black violin virtuoso of the period. One of the contemporary depictions of Blacks in 18th century Britain in Gretchen Herzen’s excellent Black England: Life Before Emancipation, is of a group of Black servants making music in Cornwall.

But that isn’t to say that there weren’t Black or African scholars in Europe. I can’t remember the details, but during the Middle Ages and 16th/17th centuries I think there were people from North Africa and Abyssinia, who were Christians, who ended up at the Vatican helping their scholars and researchers into these cultures. Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, was Christian and literate with a civilisation going back millennia. It’d be very interesting to know if there were any Abyssinians in Britain before the 20th century, and if they were ever employed in scholarly pursuits.

History Debunked on Black African Complicity at the Beginning of the European Slave Trade

September 7, 2021

This is another provocative video from History Debunked’s Simon Webb. In it he describes how the modern European trade in African slaves began in 1442 with the Portuguese explorer, Antao Goncalves and a Black slave, Adahu. Goncalves, whom Webb calls Anton, had been commissioned by the Portuguese king, Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’ to acquire seal skins and oil. Eager to ingratiate himself with his royal master, Goncalves raided west Africa for slaves. One of those captured was Adahu, who spoke Arabic. Adahu explained that he was a chief and if he was set free, he would help the Portuguese acquire as many slaves as they wanted as he knew the local slave markets. Goncalves took him back to Portugal, where he impressed the king, and he and Goncalves went into partnership slaving. Although the Portuguese had acquired slaves through seizing foreign vessels before, and the Arabs had imported Black slaves into the Iberian peninsula for centuries before the beginning of the European trade in Black slaves, this marked the beginning of the modern slave trade.

Webb also points out that both Europeans and Africans attempted to cheat each other. Europeans attempted to pass off broken or substandard goods, like broken muskets to their African partners, while Africans adulterated the gold they used to purchase goods from the Europeans. Webb points out that this isn’t a popular view now, as it conflicts with the image of Africans as helpless victims. But he argues that the simple logistics of operating a mass slave trade means that Europeans had to have African assistance. They simply couldn’t have enslaved and carried off the large numbers they did if they had carried on capturing them directly, as they earlier had done. He also states that it is similarly mistaken that it was Europeans who brought slavery to America. Both the Aztecs and Maya enslaved their enemies, while in modern Alaska the Haida and Tlingit did the same so that about a quarter of the indigenous population may have been slaves.

I’ve said before that Webb is a man of the right, and that some of his facts may need to be checked. But as far as I can tell, he is correct. Hugh Thomas describes how Goncalves captured Adahu in his The Slave Trade, who says on page 55:

“These new captives included a local chief, Adahu, who spoke Arabic. He negotiated his own release, and that of a boy from his own family, on the understanding that if he were taken back to where he had been found he would deliver some black slaves in exchange.”

Black African involvement in the transatlantic slave trade has been mentioned in museums and documentaries. The exhibition on the city’s involvement in the slave trade at Bristol’s city museum in the 1990s, entitled ‘A Respectable Trade’, included it, and there was a documentary about it in the same decade on Channel 4. More recently a programme on the history of that part of Canada and America also discussed slaving by the Tlingit and gave the same proportion of the enslaved indigenous population in that part of north America at the time.

However, I do think there is a very strong drive to place the blame for slavery solely on White Europeans. I don’t think many Black Brits are now aware how their ancestors were enslaved by other Africans and there does seem to be a reluctance to state just how massively some African princes did profit from the trade.