Most of us tend to think that black people came to Britain after the war – Caribbeans on the Empire Windrush in 1948, Bangladeshis after the 1971 war and Ugandan Asians after Idi Amin’s expulsion in 1972. But, back in Shakespeare’s day, you could have met people from west Africa and even Bengal in the same London streets. Of course, there were fewer, and they drew antipathy as well as fascination from the Tudor inhabitants, who had never seen black people before. But we know they lived, worked and intermarried, so it is fair to say that Britain’s first black community starts here.
There had been black people in Britain in Roman times, and they are found as musicians in the early Tudor period in England and Scotland. But the real change came in Elizabeth I’s reign, when, through the records, we can pick up ordinary, working, black people, especially in London. Shakespeare himself, a man fascinated by “the other”, wrote several black parts – indeed, two of his greatest characters are black – and the fact that he put them into mainstream entertainment reflects the fact that they were a significant element in the population of London.
“Until now people have assumed that the Elizabethans did not know people of color,” says Shakespeare and English Renaissance scholar Imtiaz Habib, Old Dominion associate professor of English and author of Shakespeare and Race, a book that examines the political, social and cultural impact of Shakespeare’s approach to the racial issues contained within his plays. “We now have documented proof of the residences of black people, which must be reckoned into the colors of Shakespeare’s world, in a very literal sense. Shakespeare knew people of color. He walked through their neighborhoods every day.”