Men of Distinction – John Blanke (active 1501-1511).
While the prevalence of Africans in Europe is well known, many accounts have been relegated to dusty footnotes, poorly documented, or lost entirely to history. John Blanke, musician, was more than likely brought to England as part of Catherine of Aragon’s retinue in 1501, and as such, is among the earliest recorded Africans in England during the time period.
Existing court records document his wages; 8d per day under Henry VII, as well as a document listing 20 shillings during November 1507.
The Westminster Tournament Roll, a 60 foot long manuscript commemorating the royal festivities celebrating the birth of Henry VIII’s son in 1511, depicts an African twice; it has been determined that this man, shown with trumpet in hand and wearing the royal arms, is John Blanke. Unfortunately, little else is known of Mr. Blanke, but his importance to history is tremendous.
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Men of Distinction – Robert Smalls (1839-1915).
Enslaved African who, through courageous effort, became the first captain under service to the United States, distinguished politician, and entrepreneur.
In 1862, he was serving as ship’s pilot on the Confederate military transport vessel CSS Planter, when the ship’s captain and officers disembarked to spend the evening ashore. Smalls donned the captain’s uniform and a hat resembling the one that the captain wore, and with the help of various crew, managed to slip the vessel through Confederate lines and to the Union blockade. As a result, he was hailed a hero in the North, and was awarded $1500 as his share of the ship’s prize.
While serving in the US Army in 1863, the Planter came under fire in a skirmish; Captain Nickerson, in command of the vessel, was inclined to surrender the ship to the enemy. Wary of the potentially dangerous terms of surrender, Smalls instead assumed command of the ship and sailed the vessel out of harm’s way. For his action under fire, he was elevated to captain in place of Nickerson, becoming the first captain under service to the United States.
After the war, he continued to serve his country, having been elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, the South Carolina Senate, the South Carolina Militia (earning the rank of major general), and the US House of Representatives, serving multiple terms. He was also an entrepreneur of note, acquiring considerable holdings.
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Men of Distinction – Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799).
Born in the Caribbean to a French plantation owner and an enslaved African woman, Boulogne was renowned for his swordsmanship and athleticism; he also gained considerable fame as a composer and violinist, often referred to as the ‘Black Mozart’ for his musical prowess. It was noted that he excelled at fencing as a youth, and was praised by his contemporaries for his skill and grace in masterfully defeating his peers. During that time, he studied under several prominent Parisian musicians, gaining notoriety for his compositions and abilities. As an aristocrat, he served in the army during the revolution, commanding a regiment of free black volunteers, and also led the ensemble of the Concert des Amateurs, in which he played violin.
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Men of Distinction – James Peters (1879-1954).
Managed to become the first black man to represent England in an international rugby match in 1906, but due to racial bias, was later withdrawn from national selection. Nicknamed “Darkie Peters”, the highly regarded athlete went on to represent his country several times between 1906 – 1908 (the South African national team refused to play against him), as well as serve out a lengthy and distinguished playing career in rugby league and union as a member of Plymouth Albion and Devon.
Men of Distinction – Bo Jonsson Grip (1330’s-1386).
There’s powerful, and then there’s Bo Jonsson Grip powerful. By any means necessary, Jonsson (Grip is Swedish for griffin), a Swedish noble, managed to nab the highest titles available (including ruler of Finland), was in possession of the largest landholdings in Swedish history (even more than the royal family), and served as the right hand man of the king. He exerted tremendous control over the politics of the day, and his influence over foreign and domestic matters was unparalleled; in addition, his wealth and position allowed for crucial input regarding royal matters and matters of succession. It is even said that he got away with the murder of one of his second wife’s admirers due to his high status. Bo Jonsson…distinguished.
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Men of Distinction – Walter Tull (1888-1918).
Born to a Barbadian carpenter and an Englishwoman, Tull was a renown professional soccer player (having played for Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town), and was the first black commissioned infantry officer in the British Army. Upon the death of his parents, young Tull was sent to an orphanage along with his brother, who interestingly enough, became Great Britain’s first black practicing dentist. Tull’s soccer career flourished, making many first team appearances for his clubs before he enlisted in the infantry at the outbreak of World War I.
Tull distinguished himself on the battlefield, and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in 1917, despite the British Army forbidding persons of color to hold such rank. He fought in 6 major engagements, was noted for gallantry, and was recommended for a Military Cross. Tull was killed in France in 1918, just 8 months before the war’s end.