A child, brought into the earth kicking and screaming.
Born into a place of heat and hot clay earth, home surrounded by family, family like him, look like him, eat the same food, know their own history, identity and place in this small arid part of the huge unknowable world they have inhabited since forever. So a small child starts to grow up in this part of Africa, it is part of him, he knows no other place, knows every contour on the landscape, been told to read signs, how the sky tells a story, the rivers, the animal tracks, the sea.
The sea is where the change comes from and what a change it is.
His still too small bones will lie underneath broken mouldering plastic Furbies on an isolated point off the coast of Lancashire, England. Luridly poster painted pebbles will be laid on his grave shakily telling you that ‘i heart you Sambo’.
Sorry to call you that name, it is not the one you were given as a baby but a name, a common given by the oblivious to the quietly ignored, the ‘blacks’. It’s a name you are given as a mistreated dog still has an affectionate name and food in the bowl, not knowing if it is going to get a kick in the ribs or a hard ruffle of the neck.
Why did Sambo end up here in the arse-end of nowhere, a place so much in the arse end of nowhere it is even now cut off from modern times when the tidal waters gradually and regularly climb over the road making Sunderland Point an island? To be fair, you can generally get to a decent tapas restaurant if that is what we will base civilisation on in about half an hour, tide and traffic permitting but a scene is trying to be set here.
This is an unconsecrated isolated grave because the bones that lie underneath belonged to a black person and thus not a Christian. This is a grave that had the best intentions but the best intentions can be the most patronising and presumptuous.
Let us start again with a pub. Pubs are often the start of a great historical narrative.
The Golden Ball, still known as ‘Snatchems’, a mile down the road from the port of Lancaster, on the bird flocked tidal estuary, the river Lune that flows from the sea towards Lancaster and the remoteness of the Lake District and then back again.
Because this is the place where allegedly in the eighteenth century, a person like yourself comes to have a drink then finds themselves being given another, then another- things start becoming somewhat peculiar and the next thing you know you are tilting but not just in a hungover way, there is creaking above and that slight slippage of land escaping you to the left. And there is nothing, nothing you can do about it, no mobile in your hand to text a last desperate message on, nothing to do apart from look as your home and family slowly slides away from you, the worst hangover in the world.
The King’s Shilling is the money pressed into a fleshy sweaty drunken and unresisting palm that shows that you have willingly taken the token of consent to go onboard and in all probability never see your family again. You slowly slide away, Sunderland Point being the last sight of your country for so many of you.
Let us never mention the good old days again.
So Sambo, what happened to Sambo?
Now the quietly dreaming Sunderland Point is home to an isolated smattering of houses and a small pretty terraced row on the shore, the famous 250 year old cotton tree, incorrectly yet romantically said to have grown from a single seed imported in a bale of cotton, now a lost landmark vanquished by the fateful combination of furious gales and old age.
However in the 1800s, before it was supplanted by Glasson Dock, Sunderland Point was a thriving port for ships too big to sail into Lancaster. It rivalled Bristol as a busy international hub, huge ships finally docking after many perilous months and years sailing a still vaguely unknown world, not so much Here Be Monsters anymore but more now the fear of what has become known.
Would the natives in foreign lands, staring and waiting as the huge bulk of a ship slowly emerges, be friendly and trade their goods nicely, not knowing the price of their exotic commodities, their spices, sugar, tobacco, rum, their exotic woods?
Would they know their worth in an establishing international market, know the worth of the offerings that they sold to the sailors, would they know that rich merchants would fall on their goods and make these merchants even richer as their goods were sold again to the public of worth, the drip down economy dripping down until people fight for the rotten yet excitingly exotic banana on less salubrious market stalls, fight in the Master’s kitchen for orange peel with a happy amount of rotting flesh upon it?
Would the natives still then be happy with the cheap trinkets in exchange or would they be suspicious, dangerously able, ask for a proper trade deal? When they understood the value of what they could sell, what would be next and what could be forcibly taken off them with guns and warfare, strong knives and the might of the British navy behind them?
Would they indeed for the right price sell slaves or could they be forced to? Lancaster, like Bristol had many links with the slave trade. Whilst not quite as many refined city buildings and country houses were built as a result of the riches the slavery industry brought as they were in the South West of England, it was still a flourishing ‘business’.
A somewhat sadly rusting incongruously placed memorial for these forgotten slaves of Lancaster, showing the hideous cramped conditions they were held in and died in lies just off the quay opposite the entrance to a car-park. Occasionally a lost bemused tourist looks at it.
‘Sambo’ allegedly arrived from the West Indies in 1736, a servant to the captain, not a slave, an almost distinguished role for such an ‘exotic’ person in such a time. How did he arrive as a slave and work his way up to a somewhat more refined position or was he kept as a plaything, a rare amusing novelty as many slaves were treated in this country? Was he something to show off, to dress in flouncy clothes, a live pictorical of the old wooden figurines depicting black butlers, heads down and serving still to be seen in antique shops.
Again his death is treated in the manner of a faithful dog. When other slaves were thrown overboard and their nameless deaths so frequent that a pub in Lancaster, still existing on the quay, The George and Dragon used to be a slave morgue, Sambo was looked after in a way. He had the disputed luxury of an actual grave because old misty eyed narratives state that he died pining for his master, a healthy trustworthy servant who thought he had been abandoned when his master left on business and due to the language barrier never understood that his master was coming back, a truly Victorian interpretation, the alleged reaction akin to that of a faithful Labrador.
Maybe it can be interpreted as differently, the terror of the only person who knew his origins, his homeland, his port vanished, the only chance of ever ever going home again as the captain was the only person who knew where Home was, not just a case of Stockholm Syndrome. If the captain was gone then so was his former life. What point now in kowtowing and fake smiling and bowing anymore? What was the point of life anymore?
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.—Lonsdale Magazine, 1822
Then again, a young black person, so far from home, so many new diseases and illnesses- maybe along with so many other thousands of sailors and slaves, he just died, maybe we should not sit misty eyed over a vague story of one dead. Maybe this was a lonely unhappy death prettified to please the white middle and upper class who ‘owned’ such a person, maybe best to treat his death as romantic, this slave was so happy with his ‘owner’ that he could not bear the thought of living without him.
Let us not sit up and visualise the thousands of other slaves who died but less romantically, less visibly, due to the sheer horrific amount of numbers involved. Let us not think about how they died, terrified, diseased, starving, dehydrated, unknown. Let us not think about the hurried careless way their corpses were flung into the depths of the ocean, the way their deaths were treated as a loss of valuable cargo, something to claim for on insurance.
The drinkers stolen from the pubs in this country who wished to go home, the less smeary eyed might have stared in horror at Sunderland Point as it faded so quickly into the distance, so near, so far, remember how few people could swim?
But the worst crime.That so so so many more slaves who fared so much worse and from such further away places and who also never got to go back home, never even got to feel solid land under their feet again. The fourteen year old boys who wanted to prove that they could be a man and provide but died in the sea crying for their mum is a tragedy but the many stolen from so far away, traded as trinkets and slaves and even if they survived the voyage had a hideous half life ahead of toil, servitude, novelty, rape and bowed eyes down compliance.
Sambo’s Grave is a locally popular grave, children leave pebbles there with such messages as ‘you were a good slave’, spectacularly missing out the intentions of the school trip. Now even more emotional tributes have started to be laid at his unfortunate grave, pursed lipped Barbie dolls with whip-lashed white salted hair, the mouldering Furbies along with the painted pebbles of shaky crosses and love hearts, the votive offerings almost too much now.
It’s a windswept and unforgiving place, Sunderland Point. I venture there and shiver against the harsh breeze. It seems wrong that ‘Sambo’ was buried in the periphery of an eternal storm so far from home and people trek to his grave, leave a flower or a teddy to moulder but we will never learn his real name, his real emotions or how he came to be here. So people come to leave a votive offering, an apology, a symbol of remembrance, a mouldering symbol to a child who never had the chance to be a child and whose name is gone forever.
His grave has become a folk grave, an unconsecrated symbol of death without all the religious symbolism, this gave is a shrine without a named religion, a mourned death without the knowledge of the body within, a communal place of sorrow and grief than erodes all boundaries, classes and skin colours. A roadside shrine but without the tattered police tape and a picture of a grinning likely lad that never left his last ride in a fast car.
This is a grave where the children come and leave the things they know children like, whether they have been dead for centuries or not, whether they grew up too quickly, too far away and died too quickly. A child lies here and children need toys.
Children are competitive and thus as with the detailed sorrowful inscriptions on stones, almost as written to a dear departed brother.Thus maybe one slightly battered but much loved Barbie was set to fight the freezing sea wind, so then was another toy left, then another until so many warped plastic offerings result in the face of a wide faced doll raised on a stick, the skyline twinkling behind her empty eyes, what is left of her hair stiffened and tragic, the pockmarks of where her nylon hair was once shown, now blackened. This is a picture more for a horror story than for a poor unknown boys grave.
At the time of writing, it was not possible to visit Sambo’s grave again due to a sea wall being built by the community ( what a thing that was to see, a community working together to build themselves a seawall, grins and thermos flasks, sandwiches and banter like something out of Dad’s Army) and I am torn as to whether Sambo’s Grave should be left with the hideous plastic but heartfelt offerings or kept in a more sombre dignified manner befitting the life and death of a child slave.
James Watson, ironically the brother of the renowned slave trader, William Watson, raised money, sixty years after poor ‘Sambo’s death to place a headstone upon the little piece of disturbed soil.
|Here liesPoor SambooA faithfull NegroWho(Attending his Maſter from the Weſt Indies)Died on his Arrival at Sunderland|
|Full sixty Years the angry Winter’s Wave Has thundering daſhd this bleak & barren ShoreSince Sambo’s Head laid in this lonely Grave Lies still & ne’er will hear their turmoil more.Full many a Sandbird chirps upon the Sod And many a Moonlight Elfin round him tripsFull many a Summer’s Sunbeam warms the Clod And many a teeming Cloud upon him drips.But still he sleeps _ till the awakening Sounds Of the Archangel’s Trump new Life impartThen the Great Judge his Approbation founds Not on Man’s Color but his_Worth of HeartJames Watſon Scr. H.Bell del. 1796|
Interestingly, the Rev, James Watson who composed this heartfelt elegy came from being the son of a labourer to the Headmaster of Lancaster Grammar School until 1794.
In 1779, he apparently got involved in a spot of trouble regarding his treatment towards the son of the mayor, Mr Thomas Hinde. Even in these times when corporal punishments was regarded as something positive, a way of making a man a man, instilling discipline and resilience along with compliance, the behaviour towards this particular boy was said by the Corporation in control of Lancaster Grammar school at the time to have have been ‘improper and inhumane and unjustifiable’. He vigorously stood up for himself, complained to the panel that they did not understand the role of a school teacher which ‘highly incurred the displeasure of the council’ but after a firm rebuke and a warning not to step out of line again continued in the same position for fifteen more years until his resignation and a ringing endorsement of his services from the same Corporation.
Oh for the Good Old Days
Not so far away, in a more sheltered spot, a consecrated spot in the graveyard of St Martins in Windermere lies the grave of a slave who died again, not with his own name but one ‘given’ to him- Rasselas Taylor.
His surname was after the Taylor’s’ family home and his first name and his second after Samuel Johnson’s, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abbisynia, a name with strong connotations as being one of the few positive stories of freed African Slaves with Johnson being a vigorous opponent of slavery.
His tomb now has the privilege of being Grade Two listed, no blank eyed mustering Barbie doll torsos lie here. It is erected to ‘A Native of Abbisynia’, Rasselas Belfield.
He was purchased as a child by the rich and thus esteemed Windermere resident Major Taylor for five pounds due to pity or novelty and travelled the long way back to another man’s home in 1803 and spent the rest of his life with the family.
The Taylor family as with many other grand families of the time, main source of wealth was from slavery but they apparently treated him well, he was a valet, a prestigious post in the 1900s and the expensive tomb that commemorate him when he died aged only 32 showed that he was considered, at least in death and hopefully in life, part of the family. What he thought about his enforced role in this family, we shall never know.
A slave by birth I left my native Land
And found my Freedom on
Britannia’s Strand; Blest Isle! thou
Glory of the Wise and Free Thy touch
alone unbounds the chains of slavery
A new more sombre less garish grave has now been made for Sambo, less folk offerings but still facing the fateful sea.