On 19 July 1545, the 91-gun Mary Rose, the flower of the Tudor navy, embarked from Portsmouth with five hundred men on board to confront a French fleet that was sailing towards the Solent. Just two kilometres out to sea, still in sight of the shore and before even encountering the enemy, the carrack began listing, water pouring through its gun ports. Within minutes it had dropped to the sea floor, dragging all but a handful of its crew with it. While it would prove hard to salvage any pride from this humiliation, Henry VIII was determined to recover something from the wreck. A Venetian named Peter Paulo Corsi was charged with assembling a team of divers from across Europe to bring the prized ordnance to the surface. One of these was a black man named Jacques Francis, probably born in West Africa, where he had mastered the art of free diving, a talent surprisingly not found in Tudor England.
The history of Britain’s black population is now ineluctably associated with a vessel from more recent times, the Empire Windrush. But the sinking of the Mary Rose is just one little-known episode from an earlier age in which black men and women played a less well-known part. Indeed,