I was invited to Seville (with the writers, Yvette Edwards, Colin Grant, Irenosen Okoije, Jacob Ross and Leone Ross) as part of a Speaking Volumes Breaking Ground: British Writers of Colour visit to the 9th ASWAD (Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora) conference.
The different nature of European nations’ black populations was not something I had considered in any detail so visiting Seville threw up quite a lot of ignorance on my part, both about the English early black population and about the early African presence in Spain. I began chasing answers in Seville. This is a snapshot of what I’ve learnt so far, all quite tentative.
Seville’s history from the 15th century onwards for some four hundred years includes the presence on Spanish soil and therefore the deeds of enslaved Africans. That presence is everywhere – if you know where to look. Most of the Seville ‘front’ – the statuary of its buildings etc proudly boasts of its Golden Age of Empire, conquistadores and gifted writers. “The sun will never set on this Empire” was originally a Spanish boast, subsequently adopted by the English. Many of the old buildings of Seville are gloriously imperious, glistening with Empire gold.
Where, among this oro, is the black presence? Almost everything I found out on this was thanks to the excellently inventive book by local historian and writer, Jesus Cosano called, ‘Los Invisibles’ (Aconcagua Libros Sevilla 2017 ISBN 978 84 94643958) which reinscribes the black presence in Seville and is a cornucopia of information and inspired, evidence-based imagining.
Seville, like London, is a river city. The river Guadalquivir is deep and broad enough for a hulking, five storey cruise liner to be moored there (the Aegean Odyssey, registered, Panama) when I walked some of Guadalquivir’s length. The same river once bore the hulks of flotillas of slave ships that would come stenching up the river and offload their ‘piezas’ – cargo.
It was fashionable in the 15C for the wealthy white elite and the upwardly mobile of Seville including clerics, artists and merchants to keep enslaved Africans. Drawing on his research, Cosano imagines one such person, Oliva, working as an assistant to a doctor and becoming highly regarded for her knowledge of medicine among the African community of Seville. Documents suggest Spanish slave-traders (negreros) and owners often bought and sold enslaved Africans and moved them from place to place, even from colony to colony, and Cosano speculates the enslaved community may therefore have picked up botanical knowledge from the West Indies as well as from their African homelands; on an ancient map of Seville there is a plot of arable land named ‘huerta de la mulata’ – literally orchard of the black woman, where Cosano speculates medicinal herbs, as well as crops, may have been grown. He also imagines an enslaved African named Domenguillo, an assistant to a printer, who becomes skilled not only as a typesetter but as a linguist: it might not have been uncommon for enslaved Africans to know several languages – the language of their homeland, Spanish and then any of the many other languages around at the time, which included Portuguese, French and German.
Of black people living now in Seville, I saw few. A woman squatting near the hotel selling paper handkerchiefs. A man on a makeshift mat sleeping under a coat. A man playing a drum in a square. A couple of street stall holders. A delivery bike guy.
From the 15th century,then onwards for some four hundred years, there was an imbalance of military power that violently tilted the African population towards the colonies and Europe. In the 21st century there is a similar imbalance of (economic) power, causing a similar tilt and bringing the new black migrant presences to Europe. My general impression of Seville was that the people there had become used to Seville/Spain no longer being the centre of the universe. They appeared to suffer less than the English from what the academic Paul Gilroy described as ‘post colonial melancholia’. Yet the invisibility of the black presence in Seville makes me cautious in this view. Until Seville publicly acknowledges the less glorious stretches of its past, I suspect it must still suffer from some similar, self-deluding amnesia.
PS/short advert: My short story, ‘The Keeper of Books’ distilling some reflections on the British involvement in the 18C slave trade is in the forthcoming bluemoose anthology Seaside Special (ed Jenn Ashworth; provisional publication date: 2018.)
PPS. One interesting difference in English and Spain legislative approaches to slavery is exemplified through the English ‘Somerset’ case. In Somerset v Stewart (1772) the judge, Lord Mansfield invoked the concept of haebus corpus in his judgement freeing the African, Somerset. Mansfield declared the institution of slavery so ‘odious’ it could never be a part of English common law. The Somerset case eased the conditions of the the min. 10,000 people in England at that time whose status was akin to slavery. This is not to say England treated enslaved Africans any better, merely that, after the Somerset case at least, English slave traders and merchants never risked bringing Africans, as slaves, onto British shores: Slavery in British (and Spanish) colonies continued until well into the 19C…