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Commemorating Abolition

Sambo's Grave, Lancaster

Sign to Sambo's Grave
Sunderland Point, near Lancaster - Sambo's Grave, a famous landmark

A gravestone that 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):

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. (J.T. 190)

Setting of grave
View over the wall to the grave in a rabbit warren at the bottom of a farmer's field

Sambo 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.

Memorial plaque
The Memorial Plaque first placed in 1796 by the Rev. James Watson, headmaster of Lancaster Royal Grammar School

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.

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.

Rev’d  James Watson (1796)

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. There is much to say about the implications of the memorial for the late eighteenth century construction of an anti-slavery sentiment that elided Africans as actors in their own struggles at the exact time of the Santo Domingo uprising, 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.

However, it is not its meaning to an eighteenth century audience which I want to tease out here, but the way in which the memorial has been an important site for remembering the horrors of slavery over two hundred years later. 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 inhabitants (Elder 2001). 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 (Sartin 2001).

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 (probably at least 5,000 dead and over 30,000 transported). The new Millennium bridge just opened in early 2001 could have been named for a Lancaster slave in the same way as Pero’s bridge in Bristol; however, such memorialising of the slave trade was never even debated despite the way it speaks to Lancaster’s seaborne trade by means of its spectacular ships’-rigging-like design.

Sambo's Grave
The gravesite on a beautiful spring day with memorial plaque in foreground and coloured stones left by children surrounding the homemade cross

To an extent 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” (Himid 2001). 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.

Outlook from grave
The view from the gravesite out to the Fylde Peninsula and the Irish Sea

James E. Young, in talking about the open-air memorial to the Holocaust in Lincoln Park, San Francisco designed by George Segal and installed in 1982, regrets the way the scattered bodies of the victims “become part of the great outdoors” thus, in his view, undermining its impact as memorial space as it makes them “too much part of the present moment” (64). For me though, the real world intruding on memorial space can sharpen its impact. Life going on in all its banality sharpens the grief of lives too early interrupted by exploitation and genocide.

Beach near Sambo's grave
The beach near Sambo's Grave

The appropriateness of the schoolchildren’s gesture of memorialisation is emphasised by an earlier memorial left at the grave in the mid-1990s. A Ghanaian visitor struck by the fact that Sambo would have originally come from West Africa, left a carved statuette on the grave to link Sambo to his homeland. Less appropriately another 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” (289) that guards against amnesia. Nora has the perfect symbol for such a coastal site:

... 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. (289)

Watson’s eighteenth century plaque, its vandalism and replacement, the crucifix and African statue, flowers placed, dying and replaced and finally the children's coloured stones 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. Nancy Wood reminds us that analysis must embrace not only memories that achieve public articulation, but those that are denied expression or recognition, as well as those memories that are displaced or merely alluded to. (10)

Decorations by local children
The grave is decorated with feathers and personal mementoes

Nancy Wood describes how such lieux d’oubli (sometimes embodying a literal “organisation of forgetting”(10)) can be transformed by social and political activism into lieux de memoire and Sambo’s grave is a prime exemplar of such a phenomenon (17), gaining much of its power as a site because of its minor and local scale. Enslaved Africans dispersed throughout the Atlantic triangle are most effectively remembered at such local sites that conjure up their thoroughly routed existence.

Sambo’s tragic biography and creolised name posit an eighteenth century reactionary sentimentality which is overlaid by a twenty-first century pilgrimage that remembers him as representative of the lives wasted in the exchange of bodies for goods. As such, Sambo’s grave is atypical, being a physical memory of black British historical presence in an environment where the memories of such bodies are typically elided. His grave can only perform as a radical narrative of the black Atlantic by the force of our memorialising activity. By performing his memorialisation, however, we disavow the silence his grave could be said to more properly bear witness to - a fitting and mute commentary on the sacrifice of bodies to the greed of the slave traders. A mute voice speaks, but only as we ventriloquise it and surely that makes the memorialisation successful mainly for ourselves.

Black figures have chain-danced to freedom throughout this study, from Robert Wedderburn and Mary Prince in their escapes from slavery to literary radicalism, through Shine on the Titanic and Lubaina Himid’s seaborne African women to Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Finally, though we are confronted with the stasis of a grave site a long way from home which foregrounds the reality of the black Atlantic for all too many diasporan Africans. In praising the radicalism of this study’s heroes and heroines - chain-dancing to freedom - we needs must bear witness to the countless thousands whose chains barely danced, most of whom have no memorials. At Sambo’s grave, however inadequately, we remember them all.


Old sign to the grave

Extract from Alan Rice’s Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic (Continuum 2003)

  Last updated by Liz Hodgson (emhodgson@uclan.ac.uk) Feb 2007