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Black Tudors: The Testimony of Jacques Francis the Diver

Watch this discussion with Miranda Kaufmann and Professor Kevin Dawson, Historian and Expert on Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora
Hello, I’m Dr. Miranda Kaufmann, author of Black Tudors The Untold Story, and your course creator. I am thrilled to be talking to Kevin Dawson all the way from sunny Southern California. It’s good to be with you. Yes, so I’m a history professor at the University of California Merced, where I do research on the African diaspora and Atlantic world during the early modern period. And my book is Undercurrents of Power, Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora. And I think it’s important to mention that you’re also a talented scuba diver yourself, is that right? Well, free diver, so, yeah, without any scuba diving gear, yes.
So that gives you this wonderful insight into Jacques Francis, who we’re going to be talking about in this week of the course, because, of course, in the, in the 16th century, they were kind of free divers by default, because they didn’t have any of the gear that they have now. Exactly yeah. Which is quite hard for us to get our heads around, but a lot easier for you I think. So, so we have Jacques Francis in to the Southampton and he’s a skilled swimmer and diver, but how unusual was that in the early modern world? So I think it depends on where you look, right.
I mean, so in Europe, particularly in England and northern Europe, it would have been rare. I mean, Africans would have been rare and swimmers would have been rare. I mean, most Europeans stop swimming during the mediaeval period, or at least they weren’t really proficient swimmers and they stopped swimming for kind of religious reasons. Right, the Catholic Church, I mean, people swam nude and the Catholic Church frowned upon that. And then doctors believed that the cause of a lot of the epidemics that had swept through Europe was that the body was actually porous. And so water would penetrate your skin and disrupt the four humours.
And so they believed in this theory of four humours, that the body was made up of solid, liquid, hot and cold. And again, if you went in the water, you got too much water in you. And so they would put leeches on you or bleed you. And so most most Europeans didn’t swim. On the other hand, Africans were pretty proficient swimmers and underwater divers. They also were surfers. And so, what ends up happening is that there were groups along the West African coast and along African rivers that were such skilled swimmers and underwater divers that European merchants and slave traders recognised that they could be profitable, profitably exploited if they were brought to Europe or to the Americas.
All right, so by sort of the 1540s then, when Jacques Francis appears on the scene, how much do we, or can we know about where he’s from and why and how he ends up in South Hampton? Yeah so given the time period, I’m guessing that he would have been from the Island of Arguin or Arguim, which was commonly called Island of Guinea or Island, I mean Guinea was this kind of generic term for Land of the Black or Land of the Blacks. And so what it was, it was this Portuguese attempt, the Portuguese established a trade castle on Arguin, as an attempt to divert trade away from Timbuktu.
So Timbuktu had been kind of an export point for gold and other commodities coming out of sub-Saharan Africa across the Sahara Desert and then into Europe. And so the Portuguese, they established this trade facility on Arguin. Before the Portuguese did that however, Arguin had been this, Arguin is situated in this kind of delta on the coast of what’s now Mauritania. I believe it’s about fifty hundred miles north of Senegal. And so it had been this kind of trade facility, fishing facility, for Wolof speaking fishermen and merchants who were travelling up and down the coast.
And so I would I would guess or I would assume that he’s Wolof speaking and probably a member of the Lebu ethnic group and the Lebu are primarily settled around Dakar, Senegal now. Is it right that the island was the site of a lot of shipwrecks around the area and so he might have learnt his trades of actually on those shores? Yeah, so that’s that is a really important point. I mean, and it’s not just shipwrecks, I mean, Africans were navigating their waters in, dug out canoes and dug out canoes, the ones that were used to navigate along the coast called surf canoes because they were crossing oftentimes through the surf. Those would have been about thirty feet long.
And so they would have been about the same length as European ships at the time. And sometimes those would capsize or sink and dug out canoes that were used on rivers could be upwards of one hundred, and one hundred fifty feet long, and so sometimes those would capsize. And so they would have kind of, they would have become expert divers, probably diving off of Senegal on interior rivers. But then, yes, all around Arguin, there’s these sandbars and reefs and a number of Portuguese ships end up sinking there with gold that was diverted from Timbuktu to Arguin.
And so I would speculate that they were diving in in that area and that’s why they were hired, that they were recognised as expert divers. Right, and we have, we have Venetians like Peter Paulo Corsi involved in trade with Portugal and Portugal is going to Africa. And so it’s through this sort of nexus that, you know, that Jacques Francis ends up in the employ of a Venetian merchant in Southampton, right? But we’re not quite sure how that happened step by step. But that’s that’s where we get to. Yeah, yeah. I mean, and that’s interesting is how he ends up there.
I mean, does Corsi actually hear about these Africans through kind of trade networks and and go there to hire him? Or had Corsi and his, I mean, had Jacques Francis and John Iko, George Blacke and the other Africans, the five other Africans, have already been brought to Europe? And then does Corsi hire them there? I mean, that’s kind of I mean, we have to speculate on that as well. So you are assuming that all the other drivers were definitely African on the grounds that they were such good divers? Yeah.
So I would argue that I mean, typically, looking at later accounts, when you’re free diving, you’re usually diving in teams because it’s dangerous work and you usually want somebody down there with you. And so that yeah, so that Jacques, John Iko and George Blacke, they would have been the divers. They’re named, so they were probably the more skilled people who are testifying, having the most kind of sustained interaction with Europeans and that these other five unnamed people were probably divers, younger, perhaps relatives, who were being trained up to become divers in their own rights.

To discover more about the background to Jacques Francis the salvage diver, watch this discussion with Professor Kevin Dawson, a historian specialising in Aquaculture in the African Diaspora.

What do we know about the life of Jacques Francis the salvage diver? What is known about his birth country, how he came to Southampton, and his skills and expertise as a diver?

Around the same time as salvage work on the Mary Rose, the head of the salvage team Peter Paulo Corsi gained a contract on a second wreck near Southampton. Jacques Francis was one of the divers involved. This wreck became the subject of a legal dispute and a two year court case between a group of Italian merchants with goods on the vessel and Corsi as head of the salvage team.

Jacques Francis in his Own Words

The detailed records from the court case have survived with witness statements providing vivid insights into salvage diving in the Tudor period, and the working conditions of Jacques Francis.

Jacques Francis testified in court in support of Corsi, and the evidence indicates that he was a skilled waged worker who was valued for his diving skills.

Testifying in court could be a significant indicator of freedom.

The Wreck of the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus Ship

The wreck at the heart of the dispute was the Sancta Maria and Sanctus Edwardus. This was a merchant ship which sank 2 miles from Southampton in 1546 with valuable goods on board including wools, cloth, tin, leather and lead.

A group of Italian merchants who had lost goods onboard hired Corsi to recover the contents of the wreck in 1547. As work went on relations between the Merchants and the salvage crew started to break down. The Italian Merchants became impatient with lack of progress in retrieving their goods.

Accusations were made by both parties and in the process Corsi was accused of the theft of tin recovered from the wreck. Corsi claimed the tin he had found was far from the wreck and did not belong to the merchants, who in any case had not paid him sufficiently for the work.

The High Court of Admiralty Case

In 1547 the Italian Merchants took the case to the High Court of Admiralty in London.

The head diver Jacques Francis, testified in February 1548 in support of Corsi, and spoke through an interpreter.

Jacques Francis was questioned and asked to introduce himself with his name, age, birth country and work history. This is where we learn that he was twenty years old and from an island off the coast of the area known at the time as Guinea, West Africa. He told the court that he was a servant or attendant in the household of Corsi and had worked with Corsi for two years.

It is not known what language he spoke, but a number of clues indicate it may have been Portuguese. The Portuguese had a strong presence in West Africa and nearby islands at the time. Amongst these islands, Arguin off Mauritania, notable for shipwrecks and the location of Portugal’s first African trade fort, is the most likely birthplace for Francis.

Skills of African Divers

The expertise of Jacques Francis was highlighted in his testimony. His account suggests he had specialist free diving skills, including the ability to dive deep without breathing equipment and to stay underwater for long periods.

In his testimony he makes specific references to handling some of the shipwrecked goods underwater, including tin, lead and a bell, which shows he had the ability to see underwater.

Many contemporary accounts from this period in Europe and European colonies speak of Africans with remarkable swimming and diving skills. In 1455, a Venetian visiting Senegal wrote that the people there were ‘the most expert swimmers in the world’, while a German in modern-day Liberia in 1599 observed that Africans could ‘swim below the water like a fish’.

This was a time when most Europeans were unable to swim let alone dive, so it is likely his expert skills would be in demand.

Diving Equipment in the 16th Century

So what was it like to be a working diver in Tudor England? Did Francis and his team use any specialist equipment or was he entirely reliant on skill and practice?

They would not have access to modern breathing equipment or diving helmets. But we do know that diving bells were used at the time, and had been for many centuries. Leonardo da Vinci had designed speculative early forms of breathing devices though these were not developed in practice.

We know from the court case that Corsi used special equipment or ‘certain instruments’ for this job. Besides a diving bell, these could have included cord and heavy stones to help them descend to the ocean floor, and glass or bamboo goggles.

It’s likely that Jacques Francis had some tools of the trade supplied by Corsi, but also that his skills required considerable physical conditioning, training and practice over many years.

Was Jacques Francis Enslaved?

We know that three of the Italian merchants attempted to discredit Francis during the court case. For example, Antonio de Nicolao complained that Francis was:

‘a morisco, born where they are not christened, and slave to…[Corsi]…no credit nor faith ought to be given to his sayings, as in other strange [foreign] Christian countries it is to no such slave given.’
  • Did enslavement have any basis in law or reality in England?
  • Would Jacques Francis be free once he stepped on English soil, regardless of his previous status?
  • How did the treatment of Africans in England differ from that in other Europeans countries?

The three Italians also all refer to the relationship between enslavement and Christian status. It was a generally held principle that Christians should not be enslaved. For example, in 1435 Pope Eugenius IV sentenced to excommunication ‘all who attempt to capture, sell, or subject to slavery, baptized residents of the Canary Islands, or those who are freely seeking Baptism’.

Contrary to the Italians’ claims, the European Christian name of Jacques Francis indicates he very probably was baptised either in Europe or in England, like many other Black Tudors. This would confer acceptance within the Christian community.

The court case also provides us with evidence that Jacques Francis was a waged worker and not enslaved. Several witnesses refer to his wages and status as a working man, as well as to Corsi’s difficulties in paying his workers. Similarly, the merchants refer to Francis and the other divers as ‘poor labouring men seeking their living in sundry places’.

Finally, an important conclusion from the court case was that despite the merchants’ complaints, the testimony of Jacques Francis was accepted by the court.

Dawson, K. (2018) Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora, University of Pennsylvania Press
Dawson K. (2006) Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World, The Journal of American History
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Black Tudors: The Untold Story

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