‘Remember this’: a BLM protest, the past, and Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography

At the Black Lives Matter Safe and Silent Demonstration in Brighton on Saturday, the lead speaker – who began ‘Black lives matter, Britain matters-‘ – said that the protest was not about statues. There were far more profound matters to resolve, so that ‘no act of injustice should ever go unmentioned again.’

BLM Safe and silent protest-0010

(c) ZC Innes-Mulraine Photography

When we knelt for ten minutes I thought of being pressed into the tarmac for that length of time like George Floyd, because it was impossible to think, of anything else.

Debate is moving on from statues. Black Lives Matter has said there are more profound questions than statues. The Prime Minister has agreed.* Zak who has a knack of prophecy said, ‘One is enough’ when I wondered if there’d be a spate of toppling.

Bristol Council sold off Edward Colston’s portrait by Jonathan Richardson a fair years ago  – publicising it and killing its value simultaneously – and I don’t mourn his dunking. I can understand why Bristolians tore down his statue and threw it in the harbour. I can’t feel it but I understand. It was a precise expression of long resentment,. In some ways a very English historical moment. The irony that it happened across the harbour from Pero’s Bridge named for Pero Jones (d.1798), Bristol resident, valet and slave, gives it that final there! Good history. A moment of time in a capsule.

Other statues will be removed to museums, or left in place and recontextualised.  The fact that having South Sea Shares is enough to get someone on the List shocked me. I’d never taken in that part of their trade was in slaves. Before the Company went bust in 1720 in the famous Bubble, South Sea shares were taken up like a privatisation offer in the 80s. A lot of people had them, including people who would later support the Foundling Hospital, all having a flutter on the slave trade. A friend used to say that compassion, what we’d call simple humanity, was only invented in about 1750. There is something collectively sociopathic in the way our forefathers could hive off whole areas in their minds and exempt them from moral judgement. I assume the dead have all knowledge and I’m sure they’re big enough to take it. In her old age, one South Sea shareholder was found on the floor by her granddaughter. ‘I am praying,’ she explained. ‘But I am so very wicked that I pray lying down.’ You see Hogarth’s world through his eyes. The past is and is not another planet. It’s where we came from and it’s our duty to explore it all.

I’m an optimist. I like flashes of common ground, and common sense rather than conflict.  There were two stories I liked about Saturday in the Argus today. Glenys Horton of Hove sat on the steps of Queen Victoria’s statue on Grand Parade, to protect it from vandalism. The Protest took another route, but they would agree with her view of history. To ask statues ‘why they are standing in glory on their plinths. How they became rich and why were they then so revered. There are two sides to their tales. We have to preserve our past and learn from it.’ Absolutely brilliant language too.

The other story was about the Protest. There had been a brief exchange of words at the War Memorial between protesters and men guarding it from vandalism, some by their bearing clearly veterans, others by their beer cans probably not. There was never any threat to the War Memorial. There had been an earlier report in the Argus that one of the protest leaders had climbed up on the roof of a police van with a megaphone. This is what actually happened, and it gives me real hope. Bobby Brown one of the protest leaders was invited on to the van by the police, excellent quick-thinking. I like the courtesy between him and the leader of the veterans, and his words. ‘I beg you, don’t waste your energy on them. Let’s move to the Level, the intended place to speak.’

The word today is educate yourself. I’ve ordered the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745 – 1797), a former slave from Benin in Southern Nigeria. It’s very rare to hear a Black voice from the Eighteenth Century. Abducted as a child, he was taken to Barbados and Virginia, sold to a British Naval captain, made enough money buying and selling, to buy his freedom, sailed as a crewman round the Mediterranean and to the North Pole, briefly being involved in a venture to set up a plantation on the Mosquito Coast. He’d been hired to choose slaves, but he abandoned the project and moved to London where he joined the Abolition Movement, and helped destitute former slaves. He was involved with Thomas Clarkson in creating Sierra Leone. Equiano’s book went through nine editions in his lifetime The graphic depictions of brutality in his book and Equiano’s campaigning round the country changed attitudes and built a groundswell of support for the Abolition of Slavery Bill in 1807.

On Saturday we got the sense of an irresistible force of history with moral right on its side. We heard a woman said to her daughter, ‘Remember this, it’s going to change the world.’

Featured image: Portrait of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745 – 1797) by Daniel Orme after William Denton from the frontispiece of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African 1789

*’The Prime Minister has agreed’ is less than accurate.  His Commission is a very Yes Minister-ish response to a situation that the previous Government had already identified, and feels like a stalling tactic. His Telegraph article 15/06/20 ably defends Winston Churchill’s statue, casually resting his sights on William Hoare’s 1733 portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701 – 1773), reminding us that Diallo, a celebrated Islamic translator in this country in the 1730s, had been a slave-trader in West Africa. This is sneaky, but it is true. The PM left out the rest of the story. On a journey to sell some slaves, Diallo was himself captured and sold into slavery (to the same dealer he traded with). He was then transported to a plantation in Maryland before escaping. He impressed James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, who brought him to England, where he was eagerly consulted by Islamic scholars. Several men clubbed together to buy his freedom. Oglethorpe agreed on condition that Diallo returned to Africa. He remains the only former slave who returned to his old home, where he lived for another forty years. Diallo’s portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery (on loan from the Qatar Museums Authority) where it hangs – the PM told us with chilling precision – in Room 11.


William Hoare of Bath (c.1707 – 1792), Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (c.1701 – 1773), 1733, National Portrait Gallery, London. image (c) Christie’s/Bridgeman Art Library



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