How Lancaster is looking to address its historic links to the slave trade

PUBLISHED: 09:46 05 October 2020

Lancaster Maritime Museum in the former Customs House on St George's Quay, an area once central to Lancaster's slave trade

Lancaster Maritime Museum in the former Customs House on St George's Quay, an area once central to Lancaster's slave trade

Photo courtesy of Lancaster City Council

Once one of the UK’s largest slave ports, Lancaster is now reflecting on its past and considering how to recognise its black heritage.

Lancaster's slavery memorial - Captured Africans - which was unveiled on St George's Quay in 2005. Photo courtesy of Lancaster City CouncilLancaster's slavery memorial - Captured Africans - which was unveiled on St George's Quay in 2005. Photo courtesy of Lancaster City Council

Lancaster’s historic links with slavery have been brought into much sharper focus this year following Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the defacing of memorials to slave traders.

Now the city, once the UK’s fourth largest slave port, is reviewing how to appropriately acknowledge this side of its heritage and Black History Month in October provides an opportunity to highlight the positive steps already taken.

In 2005 it became the first former UK slave port to commission a sculpted quayside memorial – Captured Africans – by Manchester-based Kevin Dalton-Johnson.

But some might argue that North Lancashire had its first slave memorial many years before – Sambo’s Grave at Sunderland Point.

Geraldine OnekGeraldine Onek

Sambo is thought to have been a West Indian trading ship crew member who died at Sunderland Point in 1736. Sixty years later, locals paid for a memorial at his grave. People from all over the world visit this unique site, often moved that his grave is still so well cared for, almost 300 years after his death.

Now Lancastrians are looking at new ways to recognise the area’s black heritage.

The first Lancaster Black History Group was established this year to do just that. Its chair is Geraldine Onek, originally from Sudan, who moved to the city in 1988.

‘Our main aim is to be a community group for Lancaster residents who happen to be from the Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) community to try and fight against racism through education,’ said Geraldine. ‘We want Lancaster to be an example of how black history can be celebrated.’

Part of Lubaina Himid's Swallow Hard dinner service at the Judges Lodgings Museum. Photo courtesy of Lancashire County CouncilPart of Lubaina Himid's Swallow Hard dinner service at the Judges Lodgings Museum. Photo courtesy of Lancashire County Council

The group would like to see the city’s ‘hidden’ black history become more visible. This might involve installing plaques in places, including the building which now houses the Sugar House nightclub, which has connections with the slave trade, and in streets named after slave traders.

Lancaster Priory Church, where some slaves were baptised, has also formed a group to commission a slave trade memorial. Its patron is MP David Lammy whose independent review of how BAME individuals are treated in the criminal justice system was published in 2017.

The memorial will probably be sited in the churchyard where the grave of the Rawlinson slave trading family was vandalised in the spring.

The Rawlinson family memorial in Lancaster Priory churchyard which was vandalised earlier this yearThe Rawlinson family memorial in Lancaster Priory churchyard which was vandalised earlier this year

The Priory’s Memorial Garden already has a grisly reminder of slavery as the mummified hand of a slave servant, Frances Elizabeth Johnson, ‘owned’ by the Satterthwaite slavers of Castle Hill was buried there 200 years after it was cut off and became a family heirloom.

‘We can’t change the past but we can try and change the future and hope to have an active memorial which people can really engage with and be a place of reflection,’ said church warden, Andrew Nicholson.

Lancaster City Council has also led conversations about how the area can better reflect on its past.

Coun Jean Parr, cabinet member for arts, culture, leisure and tourism, said: ‘Our local heritage must be examined with open and honest eyes, and a willingness to tell the true story of Lancaster’s dark past in slave trading.’

This autumn and winter, Lancaster Maritime Museum is due to host an exhibition by the Preston-based Turner Prize winning artist, Lubaina Himid.

The centrepiece of the Memorial to Zong exhibition is her artistic interpretation of the story of Liverpool slave ship, the Zong, which saw 132 enslaved people thrown overboard when it ran low on drinking water in 1781, sanctioning an insurance claim for their loss as ‘human cargo’.

The nearby Judges Lodgings museum, houses another of Himid’s slavery-themed works, Swallow Hard: The Lancaster Dinner Service, commissioned in 2007 as part of the bicentenary project, Abolished?

The Judges Lodgings also displays fine examples of Gillow furniture, made using mahogany and exotic woods farmed by slave labour. Samples brought back from Jamaica by Robert Gillow in 1720 may have been the first import of mahogany into Britain.

The many buildings and sites associated with local black history are featured in the recently updated Slave Trade and Fair Trade Town Trail, originally produced by Lancaster’s Global Link based on research by Prof Alan Rice, co-director of the Institute for Black Atlantic Research at UCLan in Preston.

For Black History Month, Lancaster Black History Group is collaborating with Preston Black History Group on Black To The Future, online films celebrating local black people’s achievements. Looking ahead, the group would like to see a permanent exhibition of black history in Lancaster.

Said Geraldine: ‘We don’t want to re-invent the wheel, just shake things up a bit as black history contributed so much to British history.’

To find out more about Black History Month, go online to blackhistorymonth.org.uk.

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