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From London to Marrakech

Episode 13 of 20

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Wednesday 02 May 2012

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 13. FROM LONDON TO MARRAKECH - Sunken gold from West Africa sheds light on the complex relationship Elizabethan England had with the Moors of the Mediterranean.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

  • African Treasure

    Date: 1600

    Size: W:28.5mm

    Made in: Marrakech

    Made by: the Sherifs of Morocco

    Material: Gold  


    Our encounter with African treasure begins not in lands far away but in seas only twelve miles off the coast of Devon. It was here in 1994 that a hoard of Moroccan gold was discovered.


    This astonishing array of golden riches tells of vast Moroccan wealth. The 450 coins speak of powerful dynasties and of far-reaching trade networks spanning the globe.


    But behind the glistening gold lies a more disturbing tale of xenophobia meted out by the people of London to the Moors in London, leading to the eventual expelling of Moors from Elizabethan England.


    Shakespeare didn’t shy away from the subject of inter-racial marriage and around 1604 he takes us back to Venice to explore the treatment of his most famous Moor, Othello.


    This object is from the British Museum


    Watch a video of the African Treasure

  • Quotations

    'Mislike me not for my complexion, The shadowed livery of the burnished sun, To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.'  

    The Merchant of Venice, Act 2 Scene 1


    'I spake of most disastrous chances ... Of being taken by the insolent foe, And sold to slavery.'  

     Othello, Act 1 Scene 3

  • Background

    • The treasure was discovered in 1994 by a team of amateur marine archaeologists and semi-professional divers on the seabed 12 miles off the Devon coast
    • They found about 400 gold objects (coins, ingots and jewellery) along with other items such as lead weights and pewter tableware - but no ship wreck
    • The ship was almost certainly travelling from Morocco to Europe when it sank
    • Moor' was quite a loose term to an Elizabethan: depending on the context it could mean Muslim, white North African, Indian, Native American or Jew
  • More from Radio 4: Courting the East

    Courting the East

    Historian Jerry Brotton uncovers a web of intrigue and alliance between the Ottomans, the Moroccans and Queen Elizabeth I, which provided the context for Shakespeare's Othello.


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  • More from Radio 4: Black Elizabethans

    Black Elizabethans

    Justin Champion examines how the presence of Moorish, Black and Asian immigrants in London contributed to a veritable melting-pot of cultures and influences.


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    Neil MacGregor is this week focusing on European encounters around the world between 1450 and 1600. Today he is with the with the first truly global money - silver pieces of eight.


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    Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent

    Neil MacGregor's world history explores the great empires of the world around 1500 - the threshold of the modern era. Today he examines the signature of Suleyman the Magnificent.


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