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In Search of Exotic Blood in Europe, 1000-1900 January 22, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

Alessandro the Moor

DNA gets all over the place. We have looked before at some ‘freak’ examples from the Middle Ages, including Amerindian blood in medieval Iceland and Indian DNA in eleventh century England. But after dethroning Britain’s only Indian Prime Minister the other day Beach decided to go after easier prey, namely Europeans from 1000-1900 who had non-European DNA in their publicly available genealogies. First, let’s state the obvious. Though European attitudes to race varied greatly in those centuries there was a generalised ‘sneer’ about those from other ethnic groups: the Islamic world was a far pleasanter place to debate race relations through almost all this period. This means that any non-European who found themselves in Europe would not have been looked upon as a choice mate. Love – thank God – is blind to social considerations. Indeed, if death is the great leveller, love is a mole digging up and down the lawn of our social niceties. But given that there were relatively few non-Europeans in Europe Love was simply not going to be that frequent an occurrence. And depressingly when children were born of European-Non-European matches they tended to be in relationships that were barely worth the name. The exquisitely unpleasant Alessandro de’ Medici (1537), briefly ruler of Florence, was certainly illegitimate and because of his features (see picture at the head of the post) it has been suggested that he was the offspring of a black servant Simonetta da Collevecchio. Given her social status there is the suspicion that poor Simonetta did not get breakfast in bed or Valentine day cards from which ever one of the Medici family got her pregnant. In fact, it says a lot that we are not even sure which of the Medici was her lover.

But what other figures can we include in this list other than Alessandro: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com? There is a claim that Beethoven is black, but this seems to be purest cobblers. Probably the amount of DNA seeping into Europe from far away was relatively small until the colonies began to send their children ‘home’ say after about 1600. Indeed, it is only stepping outside Europe into the New World and among the European colonies that the number begin to rise rapidly: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Joséphine de Beauharnais, and many, many others including anyone in the Americas with Amerindian blood. Of course, race is itself such a ‘soft’ concept that in Europe itself there would have been indigenous ‘outsiders’. We read much of the Moors of Spain or European Jewry. But, of course, Europeans themselves merge into surrounding peoples. There is more similarity genetically between a Mediterranean European and someone from the southern part of that sea than between say a Greek and a Swede.


22 Jan 2013:  LTM writes in: The discoverer of Beethoven’s black blood has died:   And don’t forget Pushkin’s family. JLB read the post too late. Regrettably, your blog post came just this afternoon when we had already returned from the Walter’s Art Museum on the last day of their special exhibit on Africans in European Art.  Besides Allesandro, there was his daughter, but also a couple of artists whose names escape me but were suggested as possibly of African descent based partially on their self-depictions; I believe one was known as “Il Morro” (sp?), “the black” [il moro, I suspect, Alessandro himself?], and other such names.  There was also a jester of African extraction in the Portuguese court who was freed and eventually ennobled, according to the exhibit.  Alas I did not have a notepad and photos were forbidden or I would have more than these crumbs. EC instead has a warning: Regarding your statement in your most recent post regarding strange DNA that “the Islamic world was a far pleasanter place to debate race relations through almost all this period.” I’d caution against romanticising Islamic race relations, as they held large numbers of African slaves centuries before the idea had even occurred to Europeans. Indeed what is probably the largest rebellion of African slaves in history, barring perhaps Haiti, took place in southern Iraq  in the ninth century AD.   Thanks JLB, LTM and EC!!!

29 Jan 2013: ALE writes in with: Alexandre Dumas was black; and what about Thomas Jefferson’s Middle-Eastern DNA?  Why the cut-off at 1000 AD? How can one tell whether “exotic blood” in Europe antedates that period or not? North African auxiliaries allegedly manned Hadrian’s wall, and this must have left a few genetic traces, if true. And here’s an article on the BBC website: “Native American DNA found in UK/6621319.stm Here’s another one from the BBC: “Yorkshire clan linked to Africa”  Then we have Stephen D on a more skeptical note: Re non-European ancestry: it may be unkind to mention the imaginative site  which includes George III’s Queen Charlotte as black (on account of one of her ancestors was the Moorish mistress of a king of Portugal: but Moroccans and Algerians are not black); also Queen Phillipa of Hainault as black, on account of her son was known as the Black Prince.  More realistically, there are reports (I’ve not yet seen the data) that about 1% of Scottish Y chromosomes are Berber in origin. And of course Brittany was invaded by Sarmatian Alans, Iranian-speaking horsemen from the steppes: hence the popularity of “Alan” as a name. Don’t know about their DNA, though. WW, meanwhile, has memories: My recollection of facts, sources, arguments, etc.,  picked up on an early 80s Black Studies course is now sketchy. However, I do recall specific references to famous Europeans with known African and/or Black Caribbean ancestry – people like Pushkin, Alexandre Dumas, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, William Darby (Pablo Fanque) and William Cuffay to name but a few. Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, a history of black people in Britain was essential reading and provided significant stimulus to eager young minds – there are other tomes such as Prof E. Scobie’s Black Britannia and I believe that CLR James had a comment or two on the subject as well.  Finally, I also recall reading a reference to Elizabeth 1st complaining about the number of black people in England – presumably she was referring to those in London rather than Halifax! Thanks Stephen, ALE and WW!

30 April 2013: Jonathan from A Corner writes: I couldn’t quite let EC’s assertions about Islamic race relations in your In Search of Exotic Blood post of January get past uncommented. It’s true, of course, that Islamic powers had huge numbers of African slaves, but they also had huge numbers of Slavic ones, and in Spain at least these people could rise to major office. I don’t see much sign of a racial determinism in early and medieval Islamic society about *who* should be slaves; anyone unlucky enough to be caught, and without that necessarily implying much about their character or ‘nature’ (hateful word). You would look in vain in these polities for the kind of discourses on the `inferior’ character of the `negroid’ that nineteenth-century Britain, Germany and America were so happy with, as far as I know. This is not to say that there was no race hatred under Islam: there are some *very* unpleasant things said about Berbers in the chronicles that cover the end of the Andalusi caliphate, and equally nasty ones about the Cordobans by the Berbers, but whether that’s more than political slurs from an emotive and bloody time, I wouldn’t like to say. Certainly it parallels better to Romans vs barbarians (neither of which, as you know, are racial categories) than to black vs white.’ Thanks Jonathan!