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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

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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