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Africa, the geographical term that emerged in the ancient world, refers to one of the three oldest continents, together with Europe and Asia, as far as the human knowledge is concerned. European countries, however, viewed and treated the continent of Africa and its inhabitants differently.
Grand Duchy of Lithuania
© DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania has never been a leader in that context. Notwithstanding that the economy of the GDL was based on agricultural production, the country has never experienced the necessity of bringing in black slaves. Serfs did all the agricultural work in the GDL. Bernard O'Connor, the Irish medic who worked for the King John III Sobieski in the second half of the 17th century, wrote that serfs were restrained from buying land and taking care of their property to a much larger extent "than our black people". Due to large distances, only very few black people and Arabs (Moors) and only episodically have been brought to royal courts and estates of the aristocrats. They remained almost invisible in the social landscape of the GDL. Black people were seen as an attractive rarity or as "exotic ones". Together with primitive barbarians, they were treated, at best, as jesters or, more usually, as court servants of lower ranks.

Fear of the unknown, or why is the devil black?

The abovementioned racist attitude traces its roots to Ancient Greece, where dark-skinned men and women were considered people of lower value who should be under the white ones. The religious foundation was offered to support that theory in the Middle Ages, when black people were turned into half-humans and half-demons; this was when the motive of the black-skinned devil became common.

Geographical discoveries of the 16th and 17th century have broadened the geographical horizons of the Europeans, but have almost failed to change their attitudes towards the nations living far away. Europeans continued to treat the "exots" like barbarians and they remained freaks even in the courts of the ruling elite. Black people came into fashion in the 17th and 18th century in Europe and Russia. Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens worked on several of their portraits in the early 17th century.

Dark-skinned people have always been a marginal part of the society in the GDL, therefore their life and status has never really attracted any attention of the historians. That is a multi-layered problem which encompasses different aspects of social and cultural history. In the meantime, we are only able to provide some detached examples shedding light on their life in the GDL or on the changing understanding of the society as far as the old African continent in concerned.

It is very unlikely that people in the pagan Lithuania knew anything about such a distant continent as Africa in the 13th and 14th century. Warlike raids were the only way to broaden geographic knowledge for the Lithuanians of the time. Military campaigns would bring certain geopolitical understanding, but Lithuanians remained unaware of foreign and unexplored territories. Even after the Christianisation of the country, the awareness related to Africa and its peoples remained very low in Lithuania for a considerable time. The papal documents that encouraged residents of Poland and the GDL to take part in crusades against "heathen Saracens" and that began circulating in the middle of the 15th century, could serve as rare sources helping deepen the knowledge.

It was at about that time that the Polish chronicler Jan Długosz mentioned the "hot soil" of Africa in his writings for the first time, while German sculptor Veit Stoss (Polish: Wit Stwosz) depicted one black king among two white ones on the main altar of the St Mary Church in Krakow between 1477 and 1489. Alexander Soltan, the subject of King Casimir IV Jagiellon and the representative of the aristocracy in the GDL, travelled across the whole of Europe in 1467–1469 and visited Jerusalem too. That points to the fact that only bits of obscure information about Africa were able to reach Lithuania in the 15th century. Black inhabitants of that continent, on the other hand, were still extremely rare "guests" in the GDL.

Live decorations of the royal court

At the turn of the 15th century, it was already trendy in the courts of the ruling elite across Western Europe to have black people or Moors captured during military raids or bought inside the country. Together with jesters, they served as certain attributes of the court, a kind of freaks.

Lithuanians also feature among such "exots" in the West; the earl of Derby purchased two Lithuanian kids for one mark during the military incursion in Lithuania in 1390. It is likely that the rulers of the GDL could also have black-skinned people in their courts. It was about that time that they first appeared in the neighbouring Muscovy after moving in from Constantinople together with Sophia, the relative of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos and the future wife of Ivan III, the grand duke of Moscow. The chronicler mentioned that the bride's suite included "the blues" and "the blacks" – the Arabs and the Africans never seen in Rus before.

The geographical horizon of the ruling elite of the GDL was broadening in the 16th century, particularly thanks to the influence of the cultural upsurge of the Renaissance. The information about Africa was becoming more concrete in the beginning of the century. Initially the new knowledge was based on written works from the West. From the 16th century onwards, people were able to read writings in Polish too. Marcin Bielski's Universal Chronicle (Polish: Kronika Swiata) published in 1551 in Krakow provides true and concocted information about the continent so little known until then.

The book offers a particularly detailed description of Egypt, Africa's exotic fauna and of the continent's inhabitants who "have black skin because of too great sun" and live in communities their only attire being "a sleeper in their nose". The line in the 16th century letter by the Royal Secretary Augustinas Rotundas Meleskis indicates that the society of the time was becoming "accustomed" to seeing black people. He wrote that everyone who adheres to the verities of the Gospel, even if that person is from "the land of black people", is "more deserving of love and honour" than that who is wealthy but godless.

Almost all rulers of the GDL kept at least one black servant in their courts since the middle of the 16th century. The list of courtiers of Sigismund II Augustus, who arrived in Lithuania in 1544, includes one black servant. According to Stanisław Tomkowicz, the Polish historian who made the list public, this kind of servant does not look common even in the royal court, and this is why nobody seemed to bother to provide his given and family names; the document features the description "black-skinned" instead. Catherine of Austria, the third wife of the last Jagiełłon, had one black female dwarf among her courtiers in 1563.

King Stephen Báthory had several black servants. Actors dressed as black people took part in the wedding of Sigismund III Vasa and Anna of Austria in 1592. King John II Casimir Vasa took part in the ballet in the group of "black people" in 1663 and, most likely, had to wear the appropriate makeup. In the 17th and especially in the 18th century it was common to find at least several black people among the royal courtiers of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth. They were a must during King John III Sobieski's triumphal marches. Two black-skinned men rode two camels in front of all the party when the king was entering Gdansk in 1677.

The rulers would finance the creation of artistic work related to Africa and black people. Samuel Mock, a German artist who worked in the royal court in Dresden in the 18th century, painted The Lovemaking of the Black Man and the allegoric scene Africa, Asia, America. The unknown court portraitist, who worked for Augustus II the Strong, depicted Countess Ana Kozel together with a black servant. Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto (Canaletto), who also worked at the royal courts of the PLC at that time, painted several black men in the scene dedicated to the election of the last ruler.

The demand for real and "repainted" black people

The aristocrats of the GDL were getting more information on Africa through contacts with Spain and Portugal, the countries heavily involved in maritime travel to Northern Africa. Mikołaj "the Red" Radziwiłł (Lithuanian: Mikalojus Radvila Rudasis), the voivode of Trakai, used to send his rented merchant ships to Portugal in the middle of the 16th century. He would receive the goods he needed, such as spices, and the information on faraway lands. He apparently used to bring in black people from Portugal too. Black people began appearing in the courts of the local aristocrats in the second half of the 16th century. Voivode of Vilnius, Mikalojus Radvila Juodasis (Mikołaj "the Black" Radziwiłł) had four or five of them in the middle of the 16th century; they spent time playing ball before learning to play trumpets and drums. Judging by the correspondence the aristocrats exchanged between themselves, the demand for the "exots" was extremely high.

It was back in 1529 that Krzysztof Szydłowiecki, the Great Chancellor of the Crown, asked Polish diplomat Jan Dantyszek, who was in Spain at the time, to give him at least one black man as a present. Black people were the object of negotiations between Mikołaj "the Red" Radziwiłł and his nephew Mikalojus Kristupas Radvila Našlaitėlis (Mikołaj Krzysztof "the Orphan" Radziwiłł) in 1567. Whenever the aristocrats ran short of genuine black people, hired actors had to replace them after painting their bodies black. For instance, a whole group of such actors took part in the wedding of the Lord Grand-Chancellor of the Crown Jan Zamoyski and Gryzelda Bátory in 1583, while three "blacks" were riding camels.

People from the GDL sometimes reached African lands. Nobleman Mikołaj Krzysztof "the Orphan" Radziwiłł was the most famous among those travellers. He was one of the first Lithuanians to climb to the summit of the pyramids in Egypt, to visit Cairo, to depict the acropolis in Memphis and to write about the flood of the Nile in 1583. Andrius Rudamina, the Jesuit nobleman from Lithuania, travelled along the eastern edge of Africa in 1625 as a missionary on his way to India. Mykolas Boimas, the Jesuit from the Boimas family in Lvov, stayed in Mozambique for a considerable time in 1644.

City dwellers across the GDL were aware of black people too between the 16th and 18th century. It was popular to dress up as Jews, Turks and black-skinned people for the carnivals of that time. During the war with Sweden in 1625–1626, troops led by Kristupas II Radvila (Krzysztof Radziwiłł) captured several black people from Portugal near Biržai together with prisoners of other nationalities.

The names of pharmacies and the signboards they used indicate that the black people constituted the known yet unusual detail of the social landscape in the GDL. The pharmacies of that time also combined features of an inn and a shop. They usually offered a variety of Oriental spices, perfumes, sweets and drinks alongside medicines and strived to underline their exclusiveness on their signboards. Recipes from that period and later years feature recommendations as to what substances one needs to blend in order to become "black as a black-skinned man". In the GDL, just like in Poland, pharmacies had a tradition of showing African elephants or black people on their signboards. That is why the pharmacy in Vilnius run by Mykolas Gambina in 1580 bore the name Under the Blacks, just like other pharmacies in Krakow, Warsaw and elsewhere.