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The Black African presence in Renaissance Europe has recently received scholarly attention from historians and anthropologists. All scholarly approaches agree on the invisibility of the African presence in Renaissance Europe, partly because of the difficulty of finding data, but also because it has been, and still is, overlooked by scholars across time. More data is needed in order to obtain the bigger picture of the Black African ‘invisible’ presence in Early Modern Europe, particularly in areas that have raised less awareness on the topic, such as literature. My current research is contributing to the reversal of this invisibility and explores the oral poetry and music of the enslaved Black Africans who lived in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. In what follows, I would like to give a brief presentation of my current project, with its findings and difficulties.

The Early Modern period coincides with the largest forced migration in early modern history: the slave trade. The city of Seville in Spain was particularly relevant as one of the main transfer sites. Many Africans enslaved in the Gulf of Guinea were shipped to Seville, as well as to Lisbon, and then later to America, or remained in Europe as domestic slaves. As a result of this, the presence of enslaved Black Africans in the Spanish empire had a cultural impact in both literature and painting, with Diego de Velázquez’s La Mulata being a well-known example (Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus or La Mulata; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin). Velázquez himself, a 17th-century painter from Seville, also portrayed his enslaved Black African, known as Juan Pareja, in one of his famous paintings, Portrait of Juan Pareja (c. 1650; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Likewise, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo depicts the Black African presence in the city, as shown in his Three Boys (c. 1670; Dulwich Picture Gallery).

There is also evidence of the literary impact of enslaved Black Africans, both as mocked characters in Early Modern Spanish literature and as potential authors. Enslaved Black Africans learnt Spanish and sang in Spanish. Their production was transmitted orally and was sung in the houses in which they served, the streets they walked and the confraternities to which they belonged. In 2004, by chance, two scholars from the States – Di Franco and Labrador – uncovered a poem that could have been written by a freed Black African, and whose title speaks for itself: The Black man who didn’t want to have a white soul. It is difficult to predict whether there will be more of this material, but the truth is that this evidence triggered my research project.

The following question seems obvious: Where can I find more such material? The answer is less evident, as it is difficult to track down such ‘invisible’ production. To overcome this hindrance, my research starts by exploring the links between Black Africans and music, mainly because their poetic production is more likely to have been transmitted orally and through music. Luckily, historians and historians of art have contributed a number of pieces of evidence on this. For instance, slaves were hired as drummers and trumpeters to entertain in Renaissance courts in England, Italy and Spain, as shown in an early example of a Black trumpeter in an English Court represented on the Westminster Tournament Roll of 1511 (British Library in London). He was John Blanke, a Black trumpeter at Henry VII’s court, recently studied by Miranda Kaufman.

On a more innovative side, my research has uncovered trumpeters who seem to have been hired on boats crossing the Atlantic. I have found relevant records at the Archivo de Indias in Seville showing that Black Africans were used as musicians on board ships. In 1684 three enslaved Black Africans were taken to America, not to be sold there, as was common practice, but – and here is the significant part – to be used as trumpeters. Records also show that these slaves embarked on return journeys to America several other times, always as trumpeters, which gives evidence of their role as ships’ musicians.

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There is further evidence of Black African trumpeters in Spain – either as enslaved or as freed men. In Seville’s ‘Museo de Bellas Artes’ there is a series of mid-18th century paintings by Domingo Martínez called ‘alegorías a las fiestas’. These are broken up into eight triumphal carriages, one of which is called the Carro de la común alegría; in the left-hand corner, a number of Black trumpeters precede the parade on horseback. Another painting from the series is called Carro del aire, and it shows the participation of Black Africans in local festivities with dances and music.

In fact, the role of music was crucial in Black African confraternities: that is, brotherhoods of Black African people that functioned as hospices and offered food, shelter, medical treatment and funds to enslaved Black Africans. Interestingly, the Black African confraternity in Seville was in part financially sustained thanks to street dancing and begging (Moreno, 1997). Arguably, these dances were most probably accompanied by lyrics. These are the original lyrics I am looking for, although my findings point in a different direction.

Black African dances and songs were indirectly used by Early Modern Spanish writers. They were parodied and stereotyped with a simple and unrefined language known as ‘habla de negros’ (‘ Blacks’ speech’), widely used in Early Modern Spanish drama as well as in the religious songs known as ‘villancicos’ (‘carols’). These were written by well-educated white poets, and circulated in songbooks which allowed people to sing at religious festivities such as Christmas and Corpus Christi. ‘Villancicos’ had a dramatic component in which different character types were ridiculed. This gave way to the ‘ethnic villancicos’ on Gypsies, Moors, and other ethnic groups, the most popular of which was the ‘guineo’ (that is, the Black Africans). Scholars have uncovered a number of these compositions, produced in both Spain and the colonies. Likewise, I have gathered a considerable number of ‘villancicos’ in manuscripts of the Spanish National Library that I intend to publish and analyse in my forthcoming monograph.

There is an extensive production of ‘villancios de negros’ and they deserve further reading. They conveyed stereotypical ideas on the Black African community in Early Modern Spain and were a cultural means to manipulate ethnic identity in Spain and the colonies, as pointed out by Baker (2007). Literature was a privileged means to spread the dominant ideology on ethnicity, which was based upon stereotypes. These, on the one hand, are created out of perception – what stands out as different – and, on the other hand, shape our perception of reality. In repeating a set of stereotypes, ideas, images, perceptions, and beliefs, they become the norm. For instance, one of the most popular stereotypes of Black Africans was their laughable speech, with language being a powerful tool of domination. In portraying Black Africans as unable to speak clearly, ‘villancicos’ conveyed their inferior social status.

Reversing invisibility is making all this production come to the surface. I aim to make the Africans’ presence and original songs visible, but also to raise awareness about the discrimination and racism they faced; ‘villancicos’ will play a key role in understanding this.

 

Further reading

Baker, Geoffrey, ‘The ‘ethnic villancico’ and racial politics in 17th-century Mexico’, in T. Knighton Á. Torrente (eds.), Devotional music in the Iberian world, 1450-1800: the villancico and related genres, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007, pp. 399-408.

Di Franco, Ralph A. and José Julián Labrador Herraiz, “Villancicos de negros y otros testimonios al caso en manuscritos del Siglo de Oro”, in P. M. Piñero Ramírez (ed.), De la canción de amor medieval a las soleares, Sevilla: Universidad de Sevilla, 2004, pp. 166-167.

Fracchia, Carmen, ‘(Lack) of visual representation of Black slaves in Golden Age painting’, Tesserae: Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies, 10.1 (2004), pp. 23-34.

Kaufmann, Miranda, Black Tudors, London: Oneworld Publications, 2017.

Lowe, Kate, ‘The stereotyping of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe', in T.F. Earle and K.J.P. Lowe (eds.), Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 17-47.

Moreno Navarro, Isidoro (1997). La Antigua Hermandad de los Negros de Sevilla. Etinicidad, Poder y Sociedad en 600 años de historia, Seville: Universidad de Sevilla, 1997.

Phillips, William D., Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

Swiadon, Glenn, “Los villancicos de negro: breve introducción al género”, Dimensión Antropológica, 14 (1998), pp.133-147.