‘And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place.’ DEUTERONOMY 12.3
‘Black deaths do not have a good press, especially when they occur in the custody of our custodians. The media leads the public to believe that our guardians can do no wrong. Racism leads them to believe that blacks can do no right. The silence of the custodial system is compounded by the silences of racism.’ DEADLY SILENCE: BLACK DEATHS IN CUSTODY, Institute of Race Relations, London, 1991
Anger, one Sunday in June, overcame
decorum in that diverse city,
and – no doubt, inspired by the toppling
of other graven tyrants – righteously
pulled down the effigy, with a thump of stone
and a hollow gong of metal, and tossed it
from the quay into the harbour waters.
The Royal African Company received
its charter from Charles II and James,
his brother, hence the US east coast seaports
Jamestown and Charleston. It was established
by the restored royals to provide them,
free of interference from the Commons,
with their own spending money. Board members
included the philosopher, John Locke.
The company’s profits came mostly
from enslaving West African men, women
and children, and transporting them across
the North Atlantic’s turbulence. More than
two hundred thousand were taken, and nearly
fifty thousand died on the journey,
the firm’s double entry bookkeeping shows.
One prominent member of the board
was Edward Colston, a Bristol merchant,
the city from whose harbour the slavers sailed,
and which, in due course, would make chocolates
and cigarettes. His philanthropy
inveigled the streets like a bad conscience,
almost a rebuke of victimhood:
his name on a hospital, a school,
a bun flavoured with dried currants and allspice
topped with sugar, given to the poor yearly
and still made for sale by local bakeries –
and himself looking thoughtful in bronze
with a periwig and a walking stick.
Apologists who claim he was merely
of his time, an accidental racist,
and collateral ethical damage,
like Henry Wills and Elizabeth Fry,
should remember John Locke, his damascene
moment unrecorded, who threw his shares
into the fire. ‘Slavery is so vile and
miserable an estate of man …that ’tis
hardly to be conceived’. That June Sunday
civic anger overcame decorum.
Note: The above is a revised version of the piece originally published on 25.6.20. The revisions are the result of e discussions with a regular reader, Elise Oliver – please see Comments.