Gallifrey One 2020 TARDIS Talk: The Bard, The Frost Fair, and The King: Doctor Who & Black British History Narratives
NOTE: This is an archive copy of the text of my presentation at Gallifrey One 2020 TARDIS Talks. This text has not been edited to reflect current research/news updates.
“The Shakespeare Code”, Thin Ice, and The Witchfinders have vastly different plots as historical episodes but one element unites them. While Martha, Bill, and Ryan had varied experiences, each of these episodes featured a Black companion interacting with British history. Although people of African descent have lived in England since the Roman Era, many people only associate the presence of Black British people starting with the landing of the Windrush in 1948. Many discussions of the past few years have highlighted the need for new Doctor Who episodes to be more racially inclusive. However, many of these discussions are grounded more in social science than history. In addition, there is also a lack of attention paid to the nuanced differences between racism in America and racism in the United Kingdom.
Why did Shakespeare call Martha by questionable racial terms while hitting on her? Was Ryan the first Black man Charles II ever met? What was life like for a Black British person during each time period? The state of racial affairs during the Tudor and Stuart Era will be compared and contrasted with Regency England which was after the transatlantic slave trade was established.
The goal of this TARDIS Talk is to summarize and connect the historical research conducted by David Olusuga, Miranda Kaufmann, and other Black British history experts with the plot of each episode. These historical facts are important for any Doctor Who fan to know if they are to be effective campaigners and allies for fans of color.
“The Shakespeare Code”, “Thin Ice” and “The Witchfinders” have the common theme of modern Black British companions interacting with white British citizens holding pre-modern perceptions of race. These interactions vary from humorous, amorous, or acrimonious depending on the era and the characters. Gareth Roberts, Sarah Dollard and Joy Wilkinson weave three different tales of aliens disrupting human history with various schemes, but they also tell three stories that fit neatly into the timeline of Black British History. Although people of African descent have lived in England since the Roman Era, many people only associate the presence of Black British people starting with the first post-war Caribbean immigrants onboard the Windrush in 1948.
Doctor Who has embraced racial diversity in front of and behind the camera. Critics of this season’s efforts repeatedly claim that the show distorts the historical record in order to introduce racial diversity. The best defense against these arguments is knowing that Doctor Who screenwriters directly or indirectly reference primary and secondary source materials collated by Black British historians. In addition, with this defense, it is helpful to understand the differences and commonalities between the trajectory of racism in America and racism in the United Kingdom.
Let’s start our journey with “The Shakespeare Code” set in London in 1599. As Shakespeare was writing his plays, Elizabethan Era England was a country slowly transitioning from an isolated island nation to a major power on the European stage. The English crown was intensely interested in exploring its trade network to sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.
Martha’s fears of being sold into slavery as she exits the TARDIS are played for laughs but fans of color know that the Doctor’s white privilege can only go so far in protecting her from racist violence. Throughout the episode, most of the Londoners Martha interacts with are far more interested in her strange clothes than the color of her skin. At the performances of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” there are a few other Black male patrons and they are standing next to white patrons. She does not interact with them but remains focused on Shakespeare and the Doctor. This could have been an interesting teaching moment.
Historians Marjorie Blackman and Onyeka Nubia prove that the Black Tudors seen in the theater crowd scenes were free to attend the theater and other public events as long as they could pay. Their works profile everyone from court musician John Blanke who was a high-ranking trumpeter during Henry VIII’s reign and Catherine of Aragon’s trusted Moorish ladies in waiting, all the way down through the class system to washerwomen and sex workers. Many Black Tudors lived in the cities and ports but a few lived in the countryside. Some were valued servants in the homes of elite families. Others were active in the merchant and seafaring trades.
In terms of the law, slavery within England was completely illegal during the Tudor and Elizabethan eras, especially if it could be proven that the “slave” converted to Christianity or established residency outside of his master’s place of employment.
Jacque Frances was a Marutainan salvage diver in the 1540s who successfully sued his Venetian master in British court because he tried to enforce slavery. On the international front, England’s first foray into the slave trade in 1562 with Captain John Hawkins faded into obscurity. His failure in Sierra Leone convinced people not to try for several decades afterward. Interracial marriages were not illegal and any equivalents to slave codes or Jim Crow-era segregation laws did not exist either. Blacks could obtain citizenship by establishing residency, marriage, or by registering births at the local parish. Converting to the Church of England also was a form of establishing English identity although some retained their Catholic or Muslim traditions behind closed doors.
Martha’s conversation with Shakespeare is a fascinating exploration of historical conspiracy and an exploration of Tudor’s ideas on race. Shakespeare calls Martha “An Ethiop girl (short for Ethiopia), a swarth (short for swarthy), a Queen of Afric (Africa)” because he is politely trying to identify where she comes from and not as an insult. All three terms were period-correct identifiers for people of North African or sub-Saharan heritage. Other common terms were “blackamoor” or “moor” which indicated descent from the North Africans who settled in the Iberian Peninsula before the Spanish Inquisition drove out Muslims and Jews as heretics. Freedonia aka modern London is just as outside his scope of experience as anywhere in Africa was.
Shakespeare was considered educated by Elizabethan standards and likely read Richard Haklyut’s Principal Navigations published the year before the episode takes place and other books about exploring Africa. David Olusuga warns that Shakespeare should not be interpreted with a modern view of racism because Shakespeare’s writing career existed before the official start of England’s involvement in chattel slavery in 1619. His works use the word race sparingly and Blackness usually has connotations to Satan, darkness in the night or other negative supernatural phenomena. Was a Black man or woman naturally “evil” or was their skin naturally a protection from the sun? The answer was more complicated than a firm yes or no, but in many situations social class, language proficiency/education and religion were often more important in determining morality in this era than ethnicity or race.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is taken from a section of sonnets on The Dark Lady, a woman clearly described with black, wiry hair and dark skin. There have been numerous attempts to connect the character to a sex worker with the name “Lucy Negro”, but the evidence is slim. Martha fills in the mystery quite nicely and adds to the lore of time travel while covering up the less-than-wholesome bits of history. Although this episode has been frequently criticized as an example of negative racism in fandom, history shows that these interpretations are based on modern racial constructs.
“The Witchfinders” is set a few years later when King James VI of Scotland inherits the English crown and becomes James I. Ryan arrives in 17th Century Yorkshire as part of a different TARDIS dynamic. Joy Wilkinson’s narrative centers on a gender politics-based struggle, but Ryan brings out the information we may not have known about one of the key figures of the Stuart Era.
King James is the first to point out Ryan is a “Nubian Prince”. After a moment of slight confusion and the King claiming he tortures the witches, Ryan says he shuffles the paperwork on the team. In the Stuart Era mind, it is easy to perceive Ryan as a trusted servant while Graham is the Witchfinder General because he is white and older. Nubian is another term for African heritage, usually applied to people from around modern-day Ethiopia. His continued interest in Ryan throughout the episode appears to be a combination of fascination and a tinge of desire. We know the story of his mother Mary Queen of Scots, and we may know that he had a male love interest alongside his marriage to Anne of Denmark but there is another historical connection.
Oneyka Nubia notes that before King James ascended to the English throne he had a court musician named Peter “the Moryan” (another variation of Moor) in Scotland who like John Blanke in Henry VIII’s day gained fame for his musical skills. In addition, the 16th Century Scottish court had Black Knight and Black Lady Days. These events were not geared toward enforcing racial stereotypes. Instead, they paid homage to African knights and royalty of ancient and medieval times such as Saint Maurice and Balthazar. They represented in art and poetry the knightly ideals of loyalty, virtue, dignity, and honor. Saint Maurice was an African Roman soldier who refused to kill Christians because of his faith while Balthazar was one of the Magi who gave gifts to infant Jesus.
Although by the end of the episode King James would have loved Ryan to become or even more romantic Ryan’s decision to stay with the Fam at the end of the episode seems like lip service but history shows he made the correct choice. The rest of his reign and the legacy of his descendants is England’s increasing colonial expansion in the Americas. In 1619, the first slave ship bound for the English colonies in America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. The racial dynamics slowly change from cultural exchange and assimilation to racial inferiority. England’s colonial expansion investing in sugar plantations in Jamaica and cotton in the South sets the stage for the stark contrast in the way Bill is treated compared to Martha and Ryan.
Thin Ice starts 200 years later than “The Witchfinders”. Bill’s trip to 1814 London is her first back in time. She has the same initial fears Martha does of “stepping on a butterfly” and changing the entire future and one about slavery. The difference between this story and the previous discussion is that Sarah Dollard as a screenwriter is experienced with period drama scripts with her and is actively racially conscious.
After Bill changes into a spencer, pelisse, and day dress, she notices the hustle and bustle of the Frost Fair. People of every color are walking around, entertaining the crowds, and selling merchandise. She says“The Regency is a bit Blacker than it is on television,” Bill says. This is a not-so-subtle jab at how Regency-set dramas frequently ignore the racially diverse populations of London and other British cities.
Although the British slave trade was outlawed in 1807, this does not mean the Regency era was free of prejudice. Olusuga notes in great detail the changes in attitude compared to earlier eras. Many were afraid of Jamaica and other British colonies in the Caribbean would overthrow slavery the same way the Haitians did in the 1790s. In addition, the British East India Company was pursuing the extraction of raw materials and labor from the Indian SubContinent. London Lobbyists representing colonial interests abroad as well as merchants promoted negative stereotypes in the media. Some groups even lobbied to send Blacks “back to Africa” because they didn’t believe in assimilation or were unwilling to subsidize poor relief. Some willingly volunteered to go to settlements in Sierra Leone or Liberia out of a desire to reconnect with their ancestral roots.
The pervasive attitude of those of African descent being inferior to whites influence Sutcliffe, the villain of the episode, to call Bill a “creature”. Cartoons and artwork from the era made by pro-slavery advocates in Britain mirror the blackface/Sambo artwork common to the antebellum South. The difference in the narrative is Twelve’s immediate physical response to racist sentiment. The Doctor usually avoids violent actions but his racism required direct action.
Harriet, the young Black girl and her fellow orphans may seem at first to be an anachronistic reference to Charles Dickens’ stories. However, Norma Myers used London court records to extract a lot of information about the Black population in Regency London. The post-Napoleonic War economy causes the conditions Dickens writes about. Black Londoners were convicted for offenses such as pickpocketing and on the flip side appeared as witnesses to crimes. This narrative device not only highlights the Doctor’s friendly disposition to children, it also is based on historical realities.
While Dickens is known to many Doctor Who fans and period drama enthusiasts as a friend to London’s poor, Black British historians know him as a more complicated figure. Olusoga notes Although he published his travelogues decrying slavery in America, he described African-Americans in extremely stereotypical terms. Editing Sutcliffe’s last will and testament to ensure Harriet and her friends have a permanent home is the family-friendly equivalent of a historical romance “happily ever after”. One can also conjecture Harriet would use her share of the money to help out other poor Black Londoners.
There is so much more to Black British History in the Tudor, Stuart, and Regency eras than this talk can cover. Despite all of the alien shenanigans, Gareth Roberts, Joy Wikinson, and Sarah Dollard incorporated accurate details about Black British History into Doctor Who. The best weapon against critics of diversity initiatives on Doctor Who is the evidence gleaned from primary and secondary source materials.
Black British History: New Perspectives edited by Hakim Adi US & International
*Blackamoores: Africans in Tudor England, their Presence, Status and Origins by Onyeka Nubia US & International
*Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain c. 1780-1830 by Norma Myers US & International