Let me talk about books and history, and I’ll gladly blog upon a mystery and some very circumstantial surmising upon it. I am very lucky to have a collection of wonderful old books and I am fortunate enough that my meager budget for collecting them means most are truly love-worn and filled to the brim with the memories of past centuries.
One such book is a little duodecimo volume printed in the 1650s and still bound in its original Cromwellian leather. Among other things, the book contains my earliest price-label; written in Latin on one of the blank end papers (a time when, even if the book was in English, you had to understand Latin to know how much it cost!). It also contains inscriptions and bookplates tracing it to the library of the Dukes of Norfolk during the 18th and early 19th centuries, before being given as a gift to a cousin.
However, there is another inscription, so written over and faded with the years that it took me some time to realise the tantalising significance of the tiny message:
your Black Bamb Bi No
There, in handwriting matching that taught roughly in the last quarter of the 1600s, is possibly a hint at a growing abhorrence that so terribly scars the history of our nation in those and later days; the slave trade. I have very little knowledge of the history those early days of slavery, and welcome any corrections by anyone more knowledgeable. However, it seems that young black boys were often servants to the gentry of Britain, and well into the 18th century even appear in portraits alongside them.
So, who is this “black bambino”? And could this signature really be that of an African slave? Well, there are certainly some suggestions and hints within the signature – and this is where I get excellently circumstantial:
Firstly, the book is signed ‘your’, it doesn’t say ‘his booke’ or any such common ownership inscription, this is a gift signed with a simple note. The note is affectionate and stands out in a usually formal time, bambino must surely have been a nick-name given to the man who wrote the note. Secondly, bambino is spelt entirely wrong, while the other two words are spelt fine – so perhaps this shows that he was educated in English while Italian was a language he had simply heard spoken by people around him.
So, my assumption from these minor evidences was that this could be the note of very possibly black a slave or servant, who had bought the book as a gift for someone close to him – the use of the word bambino suggesting a superior figure. And if the man bought this book as a gift and was a servant then it could be that the figure he bought it for was his master!
But – if so – who was this servant? And who was their master?
Kindly allow me not only to indulge further in circumstantial tales, but instead let me entirely dive headlong in to them:
I mentioned that the book had for over a century belonged to Dukes of Norfolk – the Howard family, although the earliest remaining notes of theirs (some had been scribbled out in the book) brought their ownership back only to about the second quarter of the 1700s. This leaves some few decades between our young bambino giving the book as a gift and the book for certain being in the hands of that family.
Supposing the book had been gifted directly to a member of the Howard Family (since there is no other evidence of who may have owned it in those years), is there a link between the Howards and Italy that could cause them to nickname a late seventeenth century servant their ‘black bambino’?
Well, the title of that particular Dukedom was restored in 1660 following Cromwell’s fall and given to Thomas Howard, a man who had become mentally unstable following an illness and spent his entire life in an asylum in Padua – Italy. His successor as well, his brother Henry, also spent time as a young man in Italy, following the family fleeing the Civil War.
It could be then that this servant, apparently educated in English by a family with ties to Italy, could have been a servant brought with the family on trips to visit the frail Thomas Howard in his asylum, or perhaps a companion of his brother, Henry, met during his youth during his adventures across Europe.
For what ever reason, the person who wrote the note decided to immortalise themselves at “your Black Bamb Bi No” on the pages of a little book of royalist letters well over 300 years ago!
Until next time, excellent Reader!