Lancaster faces up to its shameful slave trade past

Lancaster became the first city in Britain this month to establish a permanent memorial to victims of the slave trade. While applauded nationwide, the issue caused some divisions within the city sparking a debate about the purpose of such monuments

Full sixty years the angry winter's wave,

Has thundering dashed this bleak and barren shore

Since Sambo's head laid in this lonely grave

Lies still and ne'er will hear their turmoil more.

(Inscription on Sambo's grave, Sunderland Point)

ON Christmas Eve last year a small picture story appeared in the Lancaster Guardian, tucked away at the bottom of page five.

The city, we informed readers, was to be the setting for a new piece of artwork in memory of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade.

Plans for the sculpture, submitted by the newly formed Slave Trade Arts Memorial Project (STAMP) had been unanimously passed by the city council.

In approving the design planners noted it was 'appropriate', 'interesting' and had 'some relevance to the local area'.

Not everyone agreed.

But few could have predicted the furore the proposals would spark – a debate that would rumble on in the Guardian's letters page right up to March this year.

Reader Betty Norton wrote that a monument... "depicting misery and shame is no enhancement to the city. It will turn visitors away."

She suggested rather that Lancaster should make more of St George's Day by having 'a balloon release, morris dancers and special stalls'.

One irate respondent commented that he found the proposed artwork "simply repulsive".

These and other criticisms were countered with many letters of support, not least from Dr Alan Rice, reader in American cultural studies at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) and one of the founders of STAMP.

"In all of this we must remember that Lancaster was once the fourth largest slaving port in Britain," he tells me. "And even though very few of those slaves actually passed through here, the wealth created by this trade benefited Lancaster immensely. We have to tell the story of those thousands of people who were transported across the oceans just in order to satisfy human greed."

The original idea for a slave memorial was a 'meeting of minds' according to project manager Sue Ashworth of Lancashire County Museum Service.

Workshops centred around the impact of slavery were already being held with teachers and pupils throughout the city but many felt that a more permanent focus was needed.

"We've always acknowledged the slave trade ever since the Maritime Museum first opened 20 years ago," says Sue. "But it was always dealt with in a very dry way that just focused on the facts, the tonnage and the products involved. We saw an opportunity to let people actually contemplate what had happened rather than just be bombarded with figures. There doesn't have to be a disparity between something that's informative but also appeals to your senses."

The physical form the eventual sculpture would take was one of the more contentious issues, as the arts organisation behind the design sought to find something that would tell the story but without alienating modern sensibilities.

Almost two years before when the idea was first mooted at book festival Litfest, professor of contemporary art at UCLAN Lubaina Himid had said:

"A monument should not exist to shame the living. Being too embarrassed or shocked or sickened by the reality of facing a past guilt every day, achieves very little."

This was the fray into which the chosen artist Kevin Dalton-Simpson found himself and he candidly admits he found the prospect 'daunting'.

In rejecting traditional images of slaves shackled in chains or begging for mercy he opted to depict the slave trade itself in an attempt to 'turn the idea of slavery on its head'.

"I was acutely aware of the fact that here was I, a black man, coming into this overwhelmingly white community and creating a memorial. We really didn't want to get it wrong or be misinterpreted and that meant making sure that people engaged with the work and didn't feel guilt or blame because that isn't the point."

Kevin admits that he purposely avoided other memorials for fear of being unduly influenced.

But as Alan Rice points out he would have found very little inspiration even if he had looked for it.

A press release issued by STAMP ahead of this month's unveiling boasted that 'unlike other places that have shied away from moments of history they are least proud of, Lancaster will now have a sensitive marker to this loss of life and liberty'.

But Alan insists there are more practical reasons why this became the first city to commemorate its past in this way, which has as much to do with Lancaster's size and its homogeneous nature.

"First of all we were lucky in managing to achieve this in only three years whereas other places have been trying for much longer. We had a small steering committee that was largely agreed on what should happen and we also had the support of the Millennium Commission who were happy to provide funding because the site chosen was near to the bridge they had already paid for."

But he also points to the fact that Lancaster's lack of ethnic diversity ironically made this process far easier in that most of the people involved were singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak.

A city like Liverpool, for example, is still conscious of its own living legacy of slavery and this had led to tensions about what purpose any memorial should serve.

"It has meant that different groups have questioned what form it should take and this has caused arguments that, in the past, has resulted in not very much being done," agrees Alan.

So how do those early critics of Lancaster's slave memorial feel today, now that the project has finally been brought to fruition.

Eric Wilkinson was one of those Guardian correspondents who took issue with the alleged extent of the city's involvement in the trade.

"I still feel that if people need a reminder of the slave trade then they need look no further than some of the houses that were built in the city during that time," he says.

A contention that implies, perhaps, that slavery is of another world. So is this chapter little more than a regrettable glitch in our history, but one that we have now confidently left behind?

When Jesse Jackson witnessed for himself the devastation suffered by black communities in New Orleans earlier this month he was moved to tell reporters, "It's like looking down the hull of a slave ship".

Closer to home, the guest of honour at Lancaster's recent unveiling was the American academic Preston King who was only recently allowed to return to his homeland after being expelled for refusing to be drafted because he was addressed by a white officer as 'boy'.

Perhaps William Faulkner, one of the 20th century's greatest chroniclers of race and segregation put it best when he said, 'the past isn't over…it isn't even past.'