Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Question from DC - Asians in London in 1509

Did people of East Indian, South East Asian or Oriental descent exist in London at the time of the death of Henry VII in 1509?

Just some background to this question. I am no historian or student. I am an Australian male of Asian descent and my partner is English. I am attending a renaissance festival and was hoping to have a believable character. You may now see where my question arises from!

I know by 1506, the Portuguese 7th Armada had returned from South East Asia with the news that Francisco de Alameida was the new made Viceroy of the Indies as well as transporting a baby elephant. Knowing that England and Portugal had an ongoing treaty of cooperation, would it be conceivable that someone of Asian background could have found himself on English soil by 1509? Transporting a person must surely be easier than a baby elephant!

I hope that this question, somewhere out of left field, piques someone who has the resources to answer and stimulates further discussion.


  1. There are reports that da Gama's voyage included sending back some captives to the Portuguese court (after various hair-raising atrocities) - the ones I could find related to the east coast of Africa, but possibly the same practice was continued in his encounters with the Indian coastal kingdoms.

    The elephants acquired by the Portuguese appear to have been "court" elephants, not wild elephants, animals cared for and taught various gestures and movements by trained keepers. It's not unrealistic to expect that these Asian keepers, or mahouts, might have accompanied the elephants back to Portugal. It would be pretty hard to load a wild elephant onto a ship and keep it calm during a months-long voyage. The king of Portugal sent an elephant to the Pope in 1514, and a Hindu driver is specifically mentioned as part of the entourage.

    So that would put a Southeast Asian person in Portugal. Getting him to England is a bit trickier. Although Henry VIII would probably have loved an elephant, there's no evidence he received one.

    Catherine of Aragon is likely to have corresponded with her sister the Queen of Portugal. You might be able to construe a case where this channel delivered an Asian person to English soil. Candidates might include a cleric or model convert, since the Portuguese were on a religious as well as trade mission in the Indies, or perhaps some kind of "exotic" messenger, servant/slave, or entertainer.

    The coronation of the new king and marriage to his queen in 1509 may have been an occasion for Catherine's sister and her husband to offer congratulations and perhaps send an envoy whose attendants might demonstrate in their persons Portugal's newfound wealth and worldwide power. (I have no evidence to point to, though.)

    There were descendants of Northern Indians in England at the time, called "Egyptians" and now known as Roma. I don't know if you can classify them as "Asians" in the period context.

    Finally, the London Metropoligan Archives has created a special project around "Black and Asian People in the U.K." When I checked their Website, it looked like their records relating to Asians start in the 17th century, but it might be a work in progress that you could check periodically.

  2. Is a good question.

    Foose has answered, and I can only add to her speculation.

    One thing that intrigues me is the English involvement in the eastern Med.

    Some English soldiers fought in campaigns against the Ottomans - Cyprus & Candia & Lepanto - the kind of men who would otherwise have stood againt the French/Spanish or sailed around the world. Bingham, Stukely.

    Plus the crown (English and French) formed some allegiances with muslim rulers against Spain/Venice.

    The English were also involved in piracy around Greece at the end of the 16thC - the Doge of Venice sent an ambassdor to Elizabeth in 1603 for this reason.

    If war (and piracy) is a function of trade, and given that freedom of movement is the essence (ie. a mutual process), it's hard to imagine people from the eastern Med (ie. beyond christendom) didn't at least engage with England. But I don't know of any evidence of their presence.

    There was a Russian ambassador, but as for people beyond the middle east, very doubtful. Evidence of that would be mind expanding.

    So - is a good question.

  3. Ralph Fitch (ca 1550 – 1611) was a gentleman merchant of London and one of the earliest English travellers and traders to visit Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, India and Southeast Asia. He is believed to have reached the Thai Kingdom of Lanna. Sorry, a bit too late for you!


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