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Jacques Francis: From A Skilled Guinean Diver To The First African Witness In an English Court

From the numerous stories told about the sixteenth-century monarchs that were delivered to us through novels, films, dramas and even sometimes through formal education, we have come to know every detail about their personal lives, from what they wore to what they ate.

The Tudors (1485-1603) has gathered a cult that has seen no match across the entire history of monarchy in England. The various forms of media, like films and series have managed to vividly retell the wars, betrayals and religious reforms of the Tudor dynasty. Their realistic perception and portrayal of this era made us come to believe all the facts that they ‘wanted’ us to know (whether they were true or not). Among those facts and relying on such sources of media, is the fact that the sixteenth-century England simply lacked ethnic diversity. Proper research later on however, allowed proof to surface on the ‘hidden’ lives of Africans in the Tudors era. On first glance of reading that Africans did live in the Tudors era, people automatically assume that those were all enslaved Africans. That is not true.

From pirates to privateers and from merchants to aristocrats, these English people of all sorts of ranks and backgrounds brought along with them Africans from Africa, Europe, and the Spanish Caribbean on their voyages back to England. Unlike what people might assume or guess, and unlike most Africans that left the continent in chains, these Africans arrived to England as free people. They were accepted into the Tudor society where they lived and worked freely. Even though the African population at the time in England was relatively small (possibly around 300 individuals), still, they were respected members of the society. They were married and appropriately buried by the Church of England. They were paid wages like other English citizens. They had the ability to testify in court and they even climbed the social hierarchy of the time. They lived in a world where religion, talent and class were more important than skin color.

Then, why is it that the modern era perception of medieval England narrates that racial slavery was only social contact with Africans?

The true facts simply got buried under the other aspects of this era that most content producers for history and entertainment set the focus on. To find the truth, one would have to dig through exchequer papers, parish records, petitions and letters to put the pieces together and understand how life really was for Africans living in the 16th century England. From such official state documents, the thought-provoking story of Jacques Francis emerges.

The story starts with the dramatic loss of the Mary Rose warship on the 19th of July 1545. The ship was about to take action against the French invasion fleet when all of a sudden it sank within a few minutes engulfing around 400 seamen and soldiers right before the eyes of King Henry VIII. Mary Rose was built in the first year of King Henry VIII’s reign, and what made the process of salvaging her all the more important is that she was one of the first English warships to carry heavy cannons and weaponry which was valued at over £1,700 (which was a huge sum at the time).

jacques frances - pic2 - Mary Rose
A reconstruction of the Mary Rose warship based on an assimilation of geographical, artistic and historical records.
jacques frances - pic3 - Mary Rose ship plan
An illustration of the Mary Rose ship plan

With the absence of a competent English salvage company, the admiralty assigned and entrusted two Venetians with the salvage operations. They supervised a total of 91 men (both Venetian and English mariners) and made two attempts to raise the ship, but they never succeeded and hence abandoned any further efforts of retrieving the ship. The costs of the failed attempts including the wages and equipment amounted to £559.

A year later in July 1547, the operation was entrusted to the Venetian Piero Paolo Corsi and his salvage operating team. The records in the High Court of Admiralty state that the names of the team members were; Jacques Francis, John Ito, George Blake and two unnamed teammates. The payments that Corsi received are documented and they allow us to reconstruct the activities that they did during the salvage operation. From them, we learned that Jacques Francis was head diver, and under his lead, the team was successful in recovering some of the weaponry from the wrecked warship. It is also evident that the English government appreciated the innovative service of the salvage team that was unparalleled in England.

Jacques Francis who was originally from Guinea, West Africa, is likely to have been trained as a pearl diver in his homeland. However, in England, he managed to demonstrate an outstanding record of underwater exploits as an expert diver. He provided a valuable service to England by the recovery of the Mary Rose and parts of the expensive weaponry which was a matter that touched the chords of national pride.

During this period, along with the Mary Rose job, Francis and the rest of his team under the supervision of Corsi were hired to work on another salvage job for the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus merchant ship which was set to sail from Southampton journeying to the Italian ports but instead, it caught fire and sank two miles away from Southampton.

Later on, Corsi was accused by Domenico Erizzo of theft from the St. Maria and St. Edwardus salvage job for which he ended up as a prisoner in the Tower of London. During Corsi’s trial, Jacques Francis was called upon to testify and give evidence on behalf of his employer. Nevertheless, Erizzo and the Italian merchants denounced Francis as an “uncivilized man”, a “slave”, and an “infidel borne” and thus, he claimed that Francis had no right to speak at a European court.

Despite that, and partly due to his work on the Mary Rose, the judges recognized his humanity and intelligence and they ignored the argument put forward by Erizzo.  While testifying, Francis came across as a civilized and a highly articulate 20 year-old. At that moment, Jacques Francis became the first African witness to give firsthand evidence in an English court of law.

jacques frances - pic4 - court testimony.jpg
Part of Jacques Francis’s court testimony, HCA 13/93, ff. 203-4 (8 Feb 1547/8)

The accusations made by the Italian merchants towards Francis in the court were nothing short from desperate. They attacked him as a failed attempt to discredit him since his testimony was against their own interests. Fortunately, their strategy to silence Francis’s voice misfired in the English courtroom. Little did they know that by what they did, they actually amplified his voice throughout history to reach us to this very day.

The experience of Francis as a witness shows that he was considered as a free man in the eyes of the law. It is powerful evidence that he wasn’t considered as a slave, for enslaved people were not allowed to testify throughout history, due to the concern that they would be forced to say whatever their masters told them to say. In medieval England, serfs and villeins were not allowed to give evidence at court. As a matter of fact, in Francis’s situation, the court ruled that the question of ethnic difference was irrelevant to the case.

And that is just one story among many untold stories that if made into motion pictures, it would make the accounts of the 16th century England a little bit more genuine and authentic.

jacques frances - pic1 - illustration
An illustration of Jacques Francis

Bibliography

  • Ungerer, Gustav: Recovering a Black African’s Voice in an English Lawsuit:” Jacques Francis and the Salvage Operations of the Mary Rose and the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus, 1545-Ca 1550″, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England (2005).
  • Kaufmann: Black Tudors: The Untold Story. ISBN-10: 9781786071842
  • Rule, Margaret: The Mary Rose: The excavation and raising of Henry VIII’s flagship, ISBN-10: 0851772552

 

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