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16. Archival silences

By Simone Hanebaum

In the Bodleian Library, there is a genealogical manuscript concerning the Sandford family of Shropshire. It was compiled in 1634 out of ‘the private evidences of this famylie, the publique records of the kingdome, the registers and testimonies of the office of armes, with other venerable monuments of antiquitie.’ These documents were collected by William Reyley, a ‘blewman’, which was the early modern term to describe a black man. Reyley was clearly a educated man, who could read English and possibly Latin. Sadly, the story of how an educated black man found himself in service to a seventeenth-century Shropshire family may remain a mystery. Subsequent searches for Reyley have so far come up empty. Reyley embodies the historian’s greatest frustration: the conflict between the desire to tell a story that is worth telling and the reluctant acceptance of the inability to tell it due to archival silences.

Image: Juan de Pareja (1606–1670), by Velázquez, oil on canvas, 1650. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), public domain – https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437869.

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