Main image: Sambo’s Grave, Sunderland Point, Lancashire, England.
I always believed the lives of slaves should be recorded equally with their deaths. Writing Torrents of Fire increased my interest into where slaves were buried in the UK.
Why are these graves important?
Scattered across the UK are a tiny number of memorials to black lives, united by the experience of being born or sold into slavery. Some transcended this misfortune and led lives that were successful and well-documented. Others are largely anonymous, known only through how their masters chose to remember them. What each share is the legacy of a headstone. As Historic England notes:
“We know very little about the lives of individual men, women and children brought to England as slaves. Graves represent one of the few forms of tangible evidence regarding the existence of slaves in England, and such graves are rare; the vast majority died without trace.”
Many of these headstones are deteriorating fast, and some are probably too degraded to ever be fully documented. Documenting these graves, therefore, is a time-critical project.
Although the transatlantic slave trade has such an important place in British history, there are very few permanent reminders of the individuals who were central to the trade – the slaves themselves. For the most part, slaves lived far from British shores, impinging little on the everyday lives of the average citizen. The few markers of their mortal remains in British soil, therefore, have a poignant significance. Not only does each headstone tell us that those left behind wanted this life to be remembered, but those who commissioned the headstones often have remarkable stories too: some faced arrest, others were horrified by the role played in the slave trade by members of their own family, and some out of deep affection and religious conviction.
Whilst some graves are in cities with known associations with the transatlantic slave trade, such as London and Bristol, the vast majority are far from these major centres. Some of these graves are well-known and cherished within the locality, whilst others are hidden, and others simply unknown. There are likely to be more not yet recognised, and we would like your help in identifying the final resting places of those of colour whose lives were not always their own to lead. It also honours the individuals and communities who were – and are – determined that they should not be forgotten. After all, this is our shared history.
Servant or slave?
This is a complex question, with the legalities often left deliberately ambiguous. The James Somersett case of 1772, which is so vividly described in Torrents of Fire, decreed that chattel slavery was not supported in common law in England and Wales. Thus ‘slaves’ on overseas plantations became ‘servants’ on British shores. Whilst they were protected in theory, in practice, the status of such ‘servants’ was very insecure. The risk of being kidnapped and forcibly returned to slave plantations was very real.
How can you help?
If you are a local historian or genealogist going through local records, such as parish or census records, or newspapers, you may come across unusual classical names such as ‘Scipio’ or ‘Caesar’, or names like ‘Africanus’, ‘Guinea’ or ‘Gambia’ that suggest a foreign birth. They may include descriptions such as ‘black’, ‘dark/e’, ‘blackamore’, ‘african’, ‘mulatto’, ‘Indian’. County record offices are another rich vein for research. Are there any local stories? For example, in a number of communities these graves are well known, and indeed may even be known as the ‘slave grave’. If the grave no longer exists, traces may be found in church maps of graveyards.
It is extremely important that the inscriptions be fully recorded. Inscriptions give vital clues to the social networks of the time. As well as plantation owners returning with slaves who then become part of households, we can also see the activities of missionary societies, abolitionists, as well as ex-slaves who become wealthy enough in their own right to determine how they would be buried and memorialised. Some were so absorbed into their communities, that their status as either a slave or by colour, became irrelevant. If the inscription is damaged, are there any local records of what was inscribed?
Where is the grave located? Is it in consecrated ground? Graves of those who were not Christian were often buried either outside churchyards, or on the very periphery. The position of the grave relative to other graves may also be significant – is it on the periphery, or at a different angle to the other graves?