Interview with Miranda Kaufmann

The author and black history researcher speaks on the importance of passing historical knowledge on to the next generation, and reveals her competitive sporting nature

December 13, 2018
Miranda Kaufmann

Miranda Kaufmann is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies in the School of Advanced Study, University of London and an honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool. Her first book, Black Tudors: The Untold Story, was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize and the British Academy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

Where and when were you born?
London, in 1982.

How has this shaped you?
I think it gave me an international outlook and curiosity about other people and cultures. It was also a hugely intellectually stimulating place to grow up. I benefited from all the museums, galleries and theatres; and just walking down a London street is often a history lesson in itself. I still always ask, “who or what was this place named after?” “who built this building and why?” and “what historical events took place in this very spot?”

How and when did you become interested in black history as a research topic?
I stumbled upon it during my last year as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford. I was in a lecture about early modern trade, and the lecturer mentioned in passing that the Tudors had started trading to Africa in the middle of the 16th century. This intrigued me and led me to investigate further.

Have you had a ‘eureka’ moment?
It was probably when I read the line “There are of late divers blackamoors brought into this realme” in a Privy Council letter of 11 July 1596. Until that moment, I had no idea that there were any Africans in Elizabethan England. I had imagined that Tudor sailors had encountered Africans on their travels, but not at home. From then on, it became my mission to find out all I could about these “blackamoors” – how they got to England, where they lived, what they did, and how they were treated ­– and to share their story with the world.

Why should we care about your work?
Because in these days of vituperative and divisive politics around the issue of immigration, it’s important to know that we are in fact an island of immigrants, and that there have been Africans living here for hundreds of years. Furthermore, the experience of Africans in Tudor England shows that racism has not been a constant and inevitable phenomenon, which gives us hope that we can defeat it in the future.

What is the biggest misconception about this field of study?
That all Africans outside Africa before 1900 or so must have been enslaved, powerless victims.

What are you working on now?
I’m continuing to give public lectures about Black Tudors. I’m collaborating with schoolteachers to bring Black Tudors into the classroom. I’m continuing to organise the “What’s Happening in Black British History?” workshop series at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies with Michael Ohajuru. I’m also the lead historian on a project called “Colonial Countryside”. We’re working with creative writers and 10-year-old schoolchildren to explore the histories connecting 10 National Trust properties to Caribbean slavery and the East India Company. And I’ve just begun researching my next book, on a related topic: “Heiresses: The Caribbean Marriage Trade”.

How do you manage to balance so many plates?
I’m not entirely sure. It certainly helps that I find it all fascinating. But seriously, I’m extremely lucky to have a lot of support: from colleagues on various projects, from my editor, from childcare providers, but especially from my wonderful family and my dedicated husband.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be afraid of failure, or to ask for help.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was very sociable, but I also loved the intellectual challenge and thrill of learning. I spent a lot of my time playing university rugby, and I was college rugby captain for a long time. I was so overzealous in recruiting new players that younger girls would sometimes run away when I approached!

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Winning my first rugby blue.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Personally, meeting my husband. Professionally, finally finishing my thesis. Becoming “Dr Kaufmann” was in many ways a springboard to all the other things I had always wanted to achieve.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I really admire my colleague Corinne Fowler, director of the Centre for New Writing at the University of Leicester, because she spent years applying and reapplying for funding for the Colonial Countryside project that we’re now working on together, when most people would have given up after the first or second rejection.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best thing is that I get to spend my time doing something I’m passionate about, and that I believe, in its small way, is making the world a better place. The worst thing is probably that historians are often expected to work in isolation.

What keeps you awake at night?
My daughters.

What do you do for fun?
Dance in the kitchen with my husband; teach my daughters to play rugby; host fancy dress parties (ideally with historical themes); and watch films and plays (I’m currently obsessed with Six: The Musical – a witty retelling of the lives of the wives of Henry VIII). And, of course, I love visiting historical sites.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not paying more attention in French lessons: I ended up marrying a Frenchman, and I get a bit lost at his family gatherings.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Never take “no” for an answer.

What would you like to be remembered for?
Inspiring more young people to study history.


Tawana Kupe has been named the next vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria. The Zimbabwean academic will replace Cheryl de la Rey, who is leaving to head New Zealand’s University of Canterbury from mid-February. Professor Kupe will be the university’s first black vice-chancellor and the first non-South African to lead the country’s largest university. He is currently vice-principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. Professor Kupe said that universities had a “responsibility to develop educated, well-informed and professionally skilled people who can address local and global challenges and contribute towards creating successful and thriving societies”.

Jennifer Martin will be the University of Wollongong’s next deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation). She will join the Australian university from Griffith University in March, where she is director of the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery. Her vision, she said, was to pursue a research strategy based around “excellence, respect, integrity and collegiality”. “I am delighted to be inheriting very strong foundations in research and innovation, and will be looking to build upon those,” she added.

James Naismith will be the first director of the new Rosalind Franklin Institute, which is set to open near Oxford in 2020. The former Bishop Wardlaw chair at the University of St Andrews moved to Oxford in 2017 to become director of the Research Complex at Harwell, as well as professor of structural biology at the Univer-sity of Oxford. He will lead the new £100 million life sciences research centre from June 2019.

Lucinda Parr will be the University of Bristol’s next registrar. Currently secretary and registrar at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, she will join Bristol in March.

Mark Kenny, former chief political correspondent at Fairfax Media, is to join the Australian National Univer-sity as a senior fellow at its Australian Studies Institute.

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