Posts Tagged ‘Prester John’

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.