A Brief History Of Black People In Europe

Jan Mostaert's portrait Black people
Jan Mostaert’s portrait of a nobleman, a guest of the Queen of Austria

AFRICANGLOBE – It is generally known that Black people have been residing in European countries since the early colonial times. But even before the 15th century and during Roman times, a time when skin colour still wasn’t a racist stigma but just another physical feature, Black people lived in Europe. Remains of a man with African features were found in England recently, dating his life back to the 13th century. Read this article for more info.

Besides that, facts have been found of Black people living in different parts of Europe, although I don’t want to overstate their presence or influence. But it is generally known that during the Muslim era of the Iberian Peninsula (from the 8th century AD until the 15th century AD) people with dark skin were part of daily live.

The Moors who invaded Spain and Portugal around 700 AD were a mixture of Black and dark people from North-Africa. They were often referred to as Maures, wrote about and painted, way before the dehumanization of Black people started.

I added above Jan Mostaert’s portrait of a nobleman, guest of the Queen of Austria. This painting dates back to the early 1500’s in what we now call Belgium, then part of the Duchy of Brabant. There is no doubt this man has African roots while being a respected member of European culture. We can only guess that this man is of Maure (Moor) origin, i.e. a Muslim having converted to Christianity or even the second or third generation of converts.Below I will go deeper into the subject. I will give you some internet links, book references and a list of early Europeans of African descent, each time linked to their wiki page. If you know more about the subject I invite you to add information in a comment.

Al Andalus

Many blacks who were Muslims converted to Christianity after the emirate of Al Andalus was abolished (end of 15th century). But the Reconquista took centuries (8th-15th century) and during those times Black people gradually integrated the Christian and Northern European world. Among them were noble men and scholars. The negative image of Blacks, as natural slaves, only gained prominence in the 18th century when the transatlantic slave trade became a central piece of European economical activity and later when European nation-states were being established.

Slavery and Racism

Of course slavery existed before racism. In the 15th century Blacks and Whites were enslaved indiscriminately. Blacks in the America’s could become free men and own their own slaves and land (which was rather common in colonial Brazil for instance). It is only in later years that being Black made you a slave forever and by birth, or at least a kind of human always inferior to White people. This racial perspective on identity and humanity only gained authority in later modern times. Read more on the subject here.

Coat of Arms

Wappen von Bad Sulza Black people
Wappen von Bad Sulza

Black people were part of European imagination and reality from very early times. Read more here and here. We can say with certainty that there were Black people in Europe before White people reached the area south of the Sahara.

North Africa, Iberia and the Middle East were the crossroad where Black and White intermingled. In Europe references to Blacks was a positive sign of strength and military power. Still today you can find many Blacks in coat of arms for towns all over Europe, central, south and north, dating back to the middle ages.

Some Literature

After the 15th century, Portugal entered an intense relationship with African kingdoms in the Gulf of Guinea and the Congo coasts. Slave trade (although not based on race) and exchange between the kings led to the presence of Europeans on the West- and Central African shores, just as Africans in Portugal.

Accounts from those days tell us that the sight of Black people in the streets of Lisbon wasn’t a rarity during the Middle Ages, more on the contrary. I want to refer to following books for those who want to know more about this topic:

Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, Thomas Foster Earle,K. J. P. Lowe(eds.)

Africa’s discovery of Europe, David Northrup 

As a consequence of the slave trade free Blacks also arrived in Europe between the 16th and 19th century. Blacks lived in London, Liverpool, Lisbon, Seville, … during the 17th and 18th century. Other historical books with scientific authority give you in depth knowledge of this:

Hugh Thomas’s ‘The Slave Trade’

Ivan Van Sertima’s ‘African Presence in Early Europe’

All these publications teach us something about this hidden part of European history.

Leo Africanus

Leo Africanus is often stated as one of these Black and European noble men and scholars. But it is rather speculation to state if he was Black or White. He was definitely a Maure but as racism, Whiteness and Blackness were unknown concepts as we know it today, we can’t know his ‘race’ for sure. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Even very common socio-cultural concepts of today such as ‘French’, ‘German’ or ‘English’ didn’t exist in those days such that it would be silly to argue whether historical figures of those days were German or French. Same thing is valid for the White and Black race as defined today.

Famous Europeans with African ancestry (1500-1900)

Below I will list some of the most famous figures of European modern history (after 1500) who happened to be Black or have African ancestry, but were integral parts of European (high) society. Most of the time the African ancestry of these people is ignored by history books although acknowledged and accepted by most history scholars. I think it throws a new light on the concepts of race and the meaning of Blackness in the 21st century.