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Revisiting Slave Narratives I

Judith Misrahi-Barak


British Selective Amnesia and the Political Imperative to Conserve Black Atlantic Memory

Alan Rice


Slave Trade gravesites/memorials in Europe will be briefly compared as differing lieux de memoire and contrastively lieux d’oubli (Pierre Nora). The presentation will introduce work from Rice’s Radical... Narratives of the Black Atlantic (Continuum 2003) and use copious illustrations to interrogate over - glib generalizations about the value or otherwise of visiting such sites of communal and personal remembrance. An exemplar site will be the local memorial Sambo’s Grave at Sunderland Point, Lancashire which has had touristic valencies since the 1790s and memorial implications since its inauguration in c.1736. The site is an ever-changing lieu de mémoire whose changing shape reflects the community’s desire to understand its own role in the slave trade. Of particular interest are the stones with messages left by children at the site. The political implications of the memorialisation that already goes on at the site will be discussed with reference to wider issues of remembrance, racism, sentimentality and perceptions of white guilt.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Adapted by Alan Rice at the launch of the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project (STAMP), November 15 20 (...)

There is no place you or I can go, to think about, or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or Town Hall lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial I can visit, or you can visit in Liverpool or Bristol or Lancaster, or better still on the banks of Lancaster’s Lune, Liverpool’s Mersey or Bristol’s Severn. (Toni Morrison/Alan Rice)1

  • 2 Rice, Alan, Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic (London: Continuum, 2003).
  • 3 Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso): ix.

1As I have discussed before in my study Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic2, Paul Gilroy encourages us not to focus on the search for “roots” alone, however, for what is just as, if not more important, is its homonym “routes”. For the creation of different black cultures on all sides of the Atlantic seaboard are pivotally dependent on marine rather than land-based exigencies, on cultural exchange rather than national homogeneity and the ideologies that flow from a controlling nation-state. As Gilroy himself succinctly put it: “Nationalist paradigms for thinking about cultural history fail when confronted by the intercultural and transnational formation of the Black Atlantic”.3

  • 4 Phillips, Caryl, The Atlantic Sound (London: Faber, 2000): 82.
  • 5 Tibbles, Tony, Personal Correspondence, May 2001.

2Such “nationalist paradigms” contribute to the lack of a sufficient memorial to the trade in any of Britain’s slave trade cities as British and local municipal governments whose munificence came from their slaveholding past refuse to fully acknowledge its horrors. In Liverpool, for instance, for years, there had been no memorial to the slave trade’s victims. On the contrary, building after building proudly displays its slave lineage on its very richly frescoed outer walls. For instance, the Martin’s Bank building entrance is guarded by wall frescoes depicting African boys manacled at the feet and neck. The only memorial that consciously seems to speak to the existence of slavery as anything but benign and natural is the homage to Nelson’s victories, which has manacled and chained figures at its base. These, however, have no direct relevance to the transatlantic slave trade as they are French prisoners of war. Caryl Phillips describes how “it is impossible to look at this fountain and its sculpture and not think of the slave trade”,4 but such memorialisation is merely accidental. The Merseyside Maritime Museum did seek to plug this amnesia in the city by inaugurating a small plaque at Albert Dock, which was unveiled by Bernie Grant MP in 1999. It depicts a ship and an African sculpture from the Slavery Gallery exhibit. It is tiny though, and dwarfed by the memorials to British imperial endeavour elsewhere on the waterfront. Even though I know it is there, I frequently walk past it unawares. Tony Tibbles, the curator of the Slavery Gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, describes it as merely an “information plaque” and maintains it is not meant to have a memorial function.5 However, with no other specific memorial to the Trade on the waterfront in Liverpool it is forced to do the work of a memorial. One instance of this is that the area around it is a focus for the annual slavery memorial day in August. Overall the plaque seems inadequate and token, particularly in contrast to the grandiloquent Titanic memorial further along the dock, which commemorates the hundreds of merchant marines killed in the disaster and in the subsequent world war. The death of thousands of white seamen in the trade as well as the millions of slaves displaced and killed surely demands recognition on a par with the loss of one (albeit legendary) ocean liner. Liverpool’s desire to forget its part in the trade is confirmed surely by an act of vandalism on the slavery plaque soon after it was unveiled in which the word “slave” in “slave ship” was erased. The vandal (s) by their choice of word to erase spoke up for a city still unable to speak comprehensively that unspeakable word and come to terms fully with its association with the city.

  • 6 Lynch, Eric, Walking Tour of Liverpool Slave Sites, 7 March 2001.

3It might be thought that by opening a Slavery Gallery in 1994 at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool went some way to expunge its amnesia about the trade. However, I contend that the exhibit in itself is rightly too concerned with education to fully memorialise the victims of the slave trade and those who fought against it. Eric Lynch, a Liverpool slave sites tour guide and other Liverpudlians agree and want a permanent memorial to slavery in their city (specifically to those who died in the struggle to end the trade), but the city burghers have so far turned a deaf ear to calls for a small garden area in Mount Royal to become a memorial site - especially pertinent because it contains the remains of an anti-slave trade Liverpudlian, William Roscoe.6

4Part of the problem with constructing permanent memorials is the diasporic history of Africans that militates against their being adequately remembered by stone memorials. Despite these difficulties remembering how they reached their scattered destinations became crucial to African diasporan peoples’ sense of themselves, to the development of what we might call a diasporic memory. The traces of African routedness are most readily found, almost accidentally, scattered throughout the country.

5For instance, there are a number of recognisably black graves in Britain from the period before the abolition of slavery. Although they are relatively rare and are usually erected by white owners or masters they speak eloquently of a black presence. Their meaning is often as much about the makers of the memorial as it is about the memorialised. Typically they demonstrate the Christian piety of the owner who enshrines his own humanity in his gesture of inclusivisity to his former slave or servant. Thus, the gravestone of Charles Bacchus (an African) in Culworth Churchyard, Northants reads

  • 7 Butler, Helen, Letter in Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter 25 (September 1999): 22.

... died March 31, 1762. He was belov’d and Lamented by the Family he Serv’d was Grateful and Humane and gave hopes of Proving a faithful Servant and a Good Man. Aged 16. Here titles cease. Ambitions o’er. And Slave or Monarch no more. The good alone will find in Heav’n Rewards assignn’d and Honours giv’n.7

  • 8 Wilkins, Frances, Manx Slave Traders (Kidderminster: Wyre Forest Press, 1999).

6Bacchus is posthumously given hope of advancement in an afterlife that might elevate him beyond his earthly role. There he will be judged equally with reference to his soul’s virtue rather than his chattel status. His owner’s “generosity of spirit” is a facile gesture, which costs him the price of a stonemason and does not affect master/slave relations in this world. Bacchus’s gravesite, though has resonances beyond his master’s control; for it shows the trace of a black presence in mid-eighteenth century rural Britain that problematises the idea of a homogeneous Anglo-Saxon Britain. This presence is also attested to by country-house family portraits that often contained a black servant as a semiotic signal of the sitters’ wealth created far away in the colonies. Similarly, the grave of Samuel Ally near Douglas on the Isle of Man marks out the conspicuous imperial wealth of his master Colonel Mark Wilks who had been governor of St. Helena when Napoleon was exiled there. Samuel Ally was a slave on the island whom Wilks emancipated and brought back to the Isle of Man as a servant. He did not last long and was dead by 1822 at the age of 18. The memorial stone traces Ally’s early slave life and his transformation to “a model of TRUTH and PROBITY”. Ally’s brief black presence on the Isle of Man foregrounds the Islands links with the slave trade which had been at their height in the mid-eighteenth century when Liverpool and Lancaster slavers stopped on the island to load illegal duty-free Rotterdam cloths and Manx maritime tradition provided captains and crew members to the trade, including one of its most famous exponents, Captain Hugh Crow. Ally’s grave is a physical marker of a history that until Frances Wilkins’ timely work was buried in the footnotes of history.8

7A gravestone that even more readily memorialises black Atlantic loss is that of the adolescent Sambo which can be found at the mouth of the Lune Estuary near Sunderland Point. According to the Lonsdale Magazine of 1822, he had arrived around 1736 from the West Indies in the capacity of a servant to the captain of the ship (to this day unnamed):

  • 9 J.T. “Samboo’s Grave”, The Lonsdale Magazine and Kendal Repository, iii: XXIX (31 May 1822): 190.

After she had discharged her cargo, he was placed at the inn... with the intention of remaining there on board wages till the vessel was ready to sail; but supposing himself to be deserted by the master, without being able, probably from his ignorance of the language, to ascertain the cause, he fell into a complete state of stupefaction, even to such a degree that he secreted himself in the loft on the brewhouses and stretching himself out at full length on the bare boards refused all sustenance. He continued in this state only a few days, when death terminated the sufferings of poor Samboo. As soon as Samboo’s exit was known to the sailors who happened to be there, they excavated him in a grave in a lonely dell in a rabbit warren behind the village, within twenty yards of the sea shore, whither they conveyed his remains without either coffin or bier, being covered only with the clothes in which he died.9

8Sambo was buried in such a lonely grave because he was not baptised so they had to find unconsecrated ground in which his remains could rest. Like most Africans arriving in Britain as “servants” (usually slaves), he appeared to suffer a profound sense of culture shock being landed amongst strangers with whom he could not communicate. There has been much speculation about the cause of his death ranging from the pragmatic (pneumonia) to the sentimental (profound homesickness). The latter provided the grist for anti-Slavery panegyrics such as the Reverend James Watson’s 1796 elegy, which was eventually appended to a brass plate on a freestone slab at the site itself. Watson collected the money for the memorial from visitors to the Point. His interest in the slave grave is not without irony, however, as his brother was a leading light in the Lancaster slave trade. The tone of the memorial is sentimental in the extreme, praising Sambo as a “faithful Negro” who had died because of his “service” to his master. The poem consists of seventeen verses including the epitaph of the final three verses which appears on the grave. It reads:

Full sixty years the angry winter wave
Has thundering dash’d this bleak and barren shore,
Since Sambo’s head, laid in this lonely grave,
Lies still, and ne’er will hear their turmoil more.

Full many a sand-bird chirps upon the sod,
And many a moon-flight Elfin round him trips;
Full many a Summer’s sunbeam warms the clod,
And many a teeming cloud upon him drips.

  • 10 Ibid., 191-2.

But still he sleeps, till the awak’ning sounds
Of the Archangel’s Trump new life impart;
Then the great Judge his approbation founds,
Not on man’s colour, but his worth of heart.10

  • 11 Smartt, Dorothea, Lancaster Quays. Pamphlet, 2003, n.p.
  • 12 Elder, Melinda, “Lancaster and the Slave Trade”. Lecture. Transatlantic Slave Site Study Tour, Lanc (...)
  • 13 Sartin, Stephen, “Guided Tour of the Judge’s Lodgings”. Transatlantic Slave Site Study Tour, Lancas (...)

9Such a clarion call for the humanity of the slave reflects the late eighteenth century construction of an anti-slavery sentiment that simultaneously elided Africans as actors in their own struggles at the exact time of the Santo Domingo uprising (1791-1803), which exemplified a dynamic revolutionary African diasporan tradition. African agency is downplayed by such a discourse and a character like Sambo is saved from obliquity by the workings of English sentiment long after it does him any practical good. It is the hypocrisy of such sentimental appropriations of dead Africans’ bodies which the London born, Bajan-descended poet Dorothea Smartt is most disgusted with and her poem “Lancaster Keys” specially commissioned for the 2003 Litfest writes back directly to Watson’s elegy and provides at the same time a commentary on Lancaster’s wilful forgetting of the trade that made it rich. Litfest’s decision to print a limited editon of 24,950 of the poems “each representing a person shipped into slavery by Lancaster slave traders between 1750 and 1800”11 and deliver them to all secondary school pupils in the district attempts to make a dramatic gesture of rememory in the cultural life of the city. As Smartt learnt in visits to research her commission, Lancaster has never really come to terms with its status as Britain’s fourth largest slave port with over 180 voyages leaving in the mid eighteenth century and the consequent slave trade contributing greatly to the wealth of the city and its inhabitants12. It is not only the direct slave trade, which indicates the interweaving of Lancaster with the slave economy but also its trade in slave produced and harvested goods such as rice, cotton, sugar and particularly mahogany which made the fortune of the Gillows furniture company in the eighteenth century.13 As in many British slave ports, there is a real amnesia about the slave trade; in Lancaster, for instance, there is no specific memorial to those who were affected by the trade that originated in the city itself. Smartt’s poem seeks to redress this amnesia as the opening of the section “The Brewery Room” reflects on how the routes that Sambo took to get to Sunderland Point were smoothed by the commercial networks established by Lancaster merchants:

  • 14 Lancaster Quays.

Keys to the city awarded
to entrepreneurs in the new world trade.
Adventurers of high finance.
Slavery a key to England’s glory days,
civic largesse and the city’s architecture,
of streets and the high seas
glistening with gold.14

10As the poem indicates many of those involved in the trade were prominent members of the elite that ran the city including mayors of the city such as Dobson Foster. Moreover, the poem delineates how the raw materials exchanged for slaves in the West Indies came back to Lancaster too, helping to create distinctive, prestigious industries at home that belied the trade in human bodies that made them possible. As detailed above the most famous such factory in Lancaster was Gillows, where mahogany from the Caribbean was fashioned into high class furniture. Smartt’s poem shows the interrelatedness of such industry and the slave economy positing Sambo and his fellow slaves as the labourers on whose backs large profits were made:

  • 15 Ibid.

The Plantation Estate, brewery source,
furnished salon of mahogany, Gillows crafted wood, the Sambo farmed and forested.
Torn from root system to harden and die.
To be shaped into something new
and of use to Lancaster Town.
A primrose path of mahogany furniture.
Fallen nature, hardness of heart,
shameless dishonesty, blood courses,
evil courses, water courses.15

11Just as the mahogany has been “farmed and forested” so the Africans have been uprooted to furnish labour for the Plantation, a human commodity which hardens and dies just like the wood that it contributes labour value to. In this way Sambo’s death in Lancaster is a function of his use as a commodity and the denial of his humanity by those who benefit from the trade in all its three corners. The economy of language here so that Sambo is both the subject and object of the verbs “farmed and forested” points to the duality of the slaves’ position, crucial to harvesting the mahogany, but also harvested in Africa to provide the labour power that makes possible the operation of the colonial economy. Both labourer and commodity, Sambo is tremendously overdetermined in his meanings within the British slave-owning Empire. This is never more so than when mercantilism is superceded by sentiment in the late eighteenth-century and Smartt speaks to this in reinterpreting Sambo’s perceived pining for his master that according to such self-serving views led to his death.

This Sambo
pines for his master, mythical, imagined,
key and the centre-piece of his room
But the room is but many,
in one house, in one compound, in one
village, in one district, in one country, in one empire, in one continent spanning continents.

  • 16 Ibid.

The “Ship’s Inn”,
I the Sambo pour out of this Brewery Room
into my fermenting home brew spilling
kicked from its calabash pot.16

12The meaning of Sambo here as sentimentalised torch-bearer for his beloved master is transformed to Sambo as avenger whose legacy has the power to leap out of the confines of white guiltridden sentimentality and reinvigorate debates around slave history from the village of Sunderland Point, through cities like Lancaster to Britain and the intertwining nexus of slave-owning Empires. In such a reading Sambo’s fertile tale cannot be confined to its historical trace but erupts like the “fermenting home brew” of the brewing room he is confined to by illness. Sambo’s revenge is in his reimagination by later generations, that as Smartt shows, relate how Anglo-American cultures kept “for themselves the harvest” yet in doing so “ferment a bitter brew”.

  • 17 Himid, Lubaina, “Revenge: A Masque in Five Tableaux”, Presentation at Transatlantic Slave Sites Tou (...)

13As Smartt details in her poems on the site, Sambo’s Grave provides a memorial touchstone despite its lonely isolation on many road miles from the city itself. This is shown by a recent phenomenon in which schoolchildren have been leaving coloured and painted stones with messages for Sambo to go along with the marker stones and flowers left by adult visitors. This means the grave has become alive with colour and resembles African and African American graves with their relics of the dead placed over the body. Sambo is now remembered, but how? There is a sense in which the scoolchildrens’ bathetic messages - “I made this for you Sambo love from Hayley” (with picture of a ship), “Rest in Peace Sambo, Margaret and Pauline” (with picture of a bridge and the Lune), and “Sambo as promised, Kirsty” (abstract coloured stone) - could be interpreted as just an extension of the Reverend Watson’s sentimentality imbued by the infants from an over-enthusiastic liberal schoolteacher. I prefer not to be so cynical. Without memorial sites, memorialisation is problematic especially in such a contested terrain as Britain’s slave past and Sambo’s grave gives all Lancastrians an opportunity to remember without being guided by museum curators or politicians on the make. Its very isolation with views across the sea means it serendipitously places visitors at the point of arrival and departure for the ships, which had taken part in the trade. Lubaina Himid has talked of such spaces, describing the importance of the beach as a border zone, “a site of pleasure and absolute conflict and division”17. Her succinctly expressed point, that the beach cannot be an incontestably Utopian space in the context of a Transatlantic slave trade that began its horrors on West Africa’s golden beaches points to the presence of conflict and division from the moment of first contact between African and European cultures. The grave negotiates Himid’s stark binaries as a visit across the tidal bridleway with wonderful views back to land and out to sea means a touristic pleasure is interrupted by the chill breeze of the reminder of more sinister sea-borne exigencies that international trade has fostered.

  • 18 Nora, Pierre, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire”, in Fabre, Genevieve and Robert O’ (...)

14The appropriateness of the schoolchildren’s gesture of memorialisation is emphasised by an earlier memorials left at the grave over the centuries. For instance one visitor has left a crucifixion that is highly ironic in light of Sambo being forced into burial on unconsecrated ground. The landscaping of the grave changes as sojourners visit and leave different tokens making it an extremely dynamic lieu de memoire. I would contend that it is a malleable site like this that is the most effective memorial to those that died in the slave trade. Not erected by civic guilt or sustained by false ideologies of a slave-freeing British imperium, it takes on a life of its own sustained by what Pierre Nora would call our “commemorative vigilance”18 that guards against amnesia. Nora has the perfect symbol for such a coastal site:

  • 19 Ibid.

... moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded.19

15Watson’s eighteenth century plaque, its vandalism and replacement, the crucifix appended, flowers placed, dying and replaced, the childrens’ coloured stones and finally Smartt’s poem handed out to all Lancaster’s schoolchildren, all build a bricolage of memory that rescues Sambo from the obliquity traditional historiography had reduced him to. In visiting his grave we remember and memorialise (as far as we ever can) Sambo and slavery, but, more pertinently, we realise how fragile these memories are, plucked from obscurity by guilt and historical chance. Enslaved Africans dispersed throughout the Atlantic triangle are most effectively remembered at such local sites that conjure up their thoroughly routed existence.

16Recently in Lancaster, an activist group has been set up to debate these issues of memorialisation and hopefully make them concrete through the development of a monument to reflect the city’s inolvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The project also aims to make links to continuing issues of global inequity and poverty by highlighting issues of Fair Trade/Slave Trade. This Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project (STAMP) was inaugurated in September 2002 and will work with a number of artists, schools and community groups to increase public awareness of the slave trade and develop a series of commemorative exhibitions and performances from 2003-2005 culminating in a permanent memorial to the Africans who were transported on board Lancaster ships, hopefully to be unveiled in April 2005 during the City’s maritime festival. This project was publically launched in November 2003 during the city’s Litfest with an event that brought together the historian Melinda Elder, the poet Dorothea Smartt and the artist Lubaina Himid. The event was a significant intervention into the cultural life of the city as the participants wrestled with the need to face up to the ghosts of Lancaster’s slave past, which, as I have shown above, Dorothea Smartt’s poem so intricately acknowledged. Himid’s contribution was a finely crafted polemic which detailed the difficulty of the memorial gesture in a culture where memorials are no sooner talked about than hijacked by a variety of interest groups whose political agendas are often hidden by discourses such as taste, historical verisimultude or civic pride. Her opening question highlights the difficulty of constructing memorial spaces in such a context.

  • 20 Himid, Lubaina, “Monument Talk”, Presentation at the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project launch, Duke (...)

The question you should ask first is
Who are monuments for?
Only when this has been asked and the many questions and claims, which will arise from this first question have at least been acknowledged, can anyone begin to talk about what this monument might look like, be like, achieve or change.
The living
The Dead
The ancestors
The descendants
The disciples
The friends
The winners
The losers
The city
The economy
The cultural historians
The artists
The future
The past20

17Himid’s interrogation of motive stands as a stark warning to memorial makers in this highly contested terrain. An artist such as herself who has designed several memorials of tremendous power and artistic merit over the last twenty years, none of which have been taken up by the former slave ports they were designed for, knows that there are still many obstacles to confront before Lancaster has a memorial that will work against its wilful forgetting. Her vision is that a significant and appropriate monument is possible despite these difficulties and that its primary need is to be able to reflect change. As she says:

  • 21 Ibid.

The monument could be for the people of a city and its visitors to be able to learn to accept and give forgiveness. In which case it could relate to today, to the past, to the future and could work visually on several levels. There could be texts, there could be water, there could be structure, there could be movement, colour, and even growing, living things.
A monument needs to move, to move on, to help the people who engage with it to move on, it needs to be able to change with the weather, the seasons, the political climate and the visual debates of the day.21

18Like Sambo’s grave any successful memorial needs to be a dynamic lieux de memoire that will adequately represent generations to come as well as the past and the present. A memorial that conserves memory without being conservative. Such a task is daunting and humbling, but all involved in the project believe that our collective amnesia must be overcome by local gestures of remembrance (however small) that raise the collective consciousness of slavery’s ghostly presence that still haunts the British landscape.


1 Adapted by Alan Rice at the launch of the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project (STAMP), November 15 2003, Dukes Theatre, Lancaster from Toni Morrison quoted in Jill Matus Toni Morrison (Manchester University Press, 1997): 4.

2 Rice, Alan, Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic (London: Continuum, 2003).

3 Gilroy, Paul, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso): ix.

4 Phillips, Caryl, The Atlantic Sound (London: Faber, 2000): 82.

5 Tibbles, Tony, Personal Correspondence, May 2001.

6 Lynch, Eric, Walking Tour of Liverpool Slave Sites, 7 March 2001.

7 Butler, Helen, Letter in Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter 25 (September 1999): 22.

8 Wilkins, Frances, Manx Slave Traders (Kidderminster: Wyre Forest Press, 1999).

9 J.T. “Samboo’s Grave”, The Lonsdale Magazine and Kendal Repository, iii: XXIX (31 May 1822): 190.

10 Ibid., 191-2.

11 Smartt, Dorothea, Lancaster Quays. Pamphlet, 2003, n.p.

12 Elder, Melinda, “Lancaster and the Slave Trade”. Lecture. Transatlantic Slave Site Study Tour, Lancaster Maritime Museum, 6 March 2001.

13 Sartin, Stephen, “Guided Tour of the Judge’s Lodgings”. Transatlantic Slave Site Study Tour, Lancaster, Judge’s Lodgings, 6 March 2001.

14 Lancaster Quays.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Himid, Lubaina, “Revenge: A Masque in Five Tableaux”, Presentation at Transatlantic Slave Sites Tour, University of Central Lancashire, 6 March 2001.

18 Nora, Pierre, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire”, in Fabre, Genevieve and Robert O’Meally (eds), History and Memory in African American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994): 289.

19 Ibid.

20 Himid, Lubaina, “Monument Talk”, Presentation at the Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project launch, Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, November 15 2003.

21 Ibid.

© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2005

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