Stroudwater and Empire (and Morris Dancing)

Stroudwater and Empire (and Morris Dancing)
(Written after reading The Cloth Industry in the West Country 1640-1880
J. De L. Mann)

Chalford has such a labyrinth of weavers’ walks and footpaths –
And on a mid-winter’s day, with plumes of smoke rising from Chalford Bottom
(‘A remarkable place for the great number of clothing mills and the great quantity of cloth made there and in the neighbourhood’),
Mistletoe in the trees, light folded in envelopes of cloud,
It’s hard to imagine that this picturesque Cotswold village
(This ‘little Commonwealth of Cloathiers and Clothworkers –
not like in the Nation’, said John Aubrey in the 17th century)
Was once hand in glove with the East India Company,
As at Sevill’s Upper Mill,
Now a select residential development,
With the stream, now private and sequestered,
Between houses and a car park.

This landscape was once a fretwork of
‘Scarlet, Crimson, Blue and a variety of other delightful colours’,
Uley, Dursley, too, and Nailsworth and Painswick
(‘The land of clothiers, who in these bourns building fair houses
because of the conveniency of water so useful for their trade’),
A fretwork of profits and prices and exports and wages
And strikes and patterns of trade slumps and booms,
Linking the Thames and Severn Canal and the River Frome –
With the Ganges Valley, Bengal, Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Canton,
And with Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, the Marquess Wellesley,
And with muskets, cannon, Stroud Scarlet, slavery, opium, cotton, coffee and tea:
‘The increase in soldiery in India, either European or under European command, provided a much larger market … India was the only country which remained
a preserve for West of England cloth throughout the 18th century.’
‘Gloucestershire seems to have had
almost the sole custom of the East India Company’,
And ‘Up to 1833 the East India Company was still taking for China
a large proportion of Gloucestershire’s production.’

Contemporary websites are not so different from Aubrey’s 17th century
View of felicitous harmony:
They project a multicultural, almost spiritual, perspective
On Stroud cloth and the East India Company:
‘Granted a fifteen-year Charter in Elizabeth the First’s reign, the Company mostly traded for textiles, spices, and tea, ¾ Red is a colour of great symbolic importance to many cultures. For example, Hindus believed that the spirit of red cloth could transform a person’s soul so that a “red one” might become a sorcerer. Soldiers wore red turbans in battle, women wore red clothes and reddened their hands and hair during marriage and fertility festivals. Indian rulers copied the red coats of the East India Company, clothing their own armies in scarlet broadcloth to make them more impressive.’
‘The British East India Company traded widely in Asia from the late 17th century. The East India Company sustained the Gloucestershire broadcloth industry,
as others declined in the late 18th century in the face
of competitive Yorkshire mills.’
‘The indigenous communities trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the East India Company adapted the cloth and integrated it into their own traditions of material culture.’

There is no hint of oppression, imperialism, asymmetrical power, war,
Or the ideology of racism,
But rather more a projection of fair exchange and mutuality,
No hint of the fact that ‘trading and political power were closely interlinked’,
Nor that the East India Company was also involved in the slave trade
In Madagascar, St Helena, Bengkulu and Angola,
Exchanging guns, gunpowder, cutlasses, cloth, and piece goods,
No hint that Bristol merchants bought textiles from the Company
To exchange for slaves in West Africa,
No hint of the fact that the East India Company, in effect,
Governed on behalf of the British government,
For over a century,
Exploiting and contributing to the decline of the Mughal Empire,
No hint of the fact that the Company sold Indian grown opium,
To be smuggled to China, to flout the Imperial ban,
The profits paying for tea for domestic consumption;

Instead a comforting emphasis on:
“Trade in spices, pepper, cloth, cloves, nutmeg,
Cinnamon, silks, tea, cotton, coffee, and so on”,
Instead a typical information plaque in Nailsworth:
‘Gigg is so small and tucked away that it is hard to imagine that it was once the generator of great wealth. In the 1790s John Remmington bought it and other mills. From the profits he added a sumptuous wing to his house up the hill at Barton End. His cloth was bought by the East India Company for sale to China.
An entry in the Company books briefly records the final settlement
after his retirement:
December 1811 Broadcloth J Rimmington £180

But our conclusion acknowledges a different final settlement:
These cottages clambering up the Cotswold hillsides, this Golden Valley harmony of water, wood and stone is derived, in some degree, from war, slavery, racism,
opium and imperialism.

We have written before of Raphael Samuel’s point that Heritage and Tradition can too easily morph into ‘an expressive totality … projecting a unified set of meanings which are impervious to challenge … a fixed narrative which allows neither subtext nor counter-readings’; but, ‘History is an allegorical as well as … a mimetic art … like allegorists, historians are adept at discovering a hidden or half-hidden order. We find occult meanings in apparently simple truths.’

Which leads ineluctably from the impact of the East India Company on our parochial landscape, to Morris dancing.
Just as a landscape can mask an asymmetry of power, imperialism and racism in a celebration of red cloth heritage, so can blackface Morris deceive.

Stroud has its unique anti-slavery arch, of which we are justly proud.
We perhaps feel more ambivalent about the Blackboy Clock in Nelson Street:
‘A clock called the Blackboy Clock, with an explanatory plaque,
That foregrounds horology rather than slavery –
Indeed, there is absolutely no reference whatsoever to the Age of Enlightenment,
And the engendering of an ideology of justificatory racism,
Nor to the symbolism of the black boy being the relentless slave of Time …’
We might also be surprised at our parish register references to ‘ye blacks’
in Stroud-water in the 17th and 18th centuries:

Bisley, 1603, John Davies, ‘ye black’ was buried

Nympsfield, 1719, Daniel, ‘a black stranger’ was buried

In 1773, Francis London, ‘a servant to the Rt. Hon. Lord Ducie supposed to be 17 years of age – a native of Africa’ was baptised;
In 1778, in Rodborough, ‘William Jubiter – black’, was buried;
In Stroud in 1786, Adam Parker, Negro, 32, was buried with a parish funeral;
In Frocester in 1790, William Frocester, ‘supposed to be 11 or 12 years old, born on the island of Barbados, and now a servant of Edward Bigland Esq. residing in Jamaica, was baptised’;
Stroud, 1801, ‘William Ellis, son of Qualquay Assedew, a Negro of Guinea, aged 12 years, was baptised’;
1815, Bisley Testimonial from Richard Raikes, for John Hart, Writing Master, to the post of master at Bisley Blue Coat School:
‘Unfortunately he is a Mulatto, a native of the West Indies’;
Minchinhampton, 1826, Thomas Davis, ‘an infirm travelling Black’ was buried, 67 years old.

We might also feel surprised at the Stroudwater residents who received compensation for the liberation of their slaves in 1834:

Rev. Joseph Ostrehan, Sheepscombe Parsonage: 3 slaves in Barbados and £85 8s 11d compensation; Samuel Baker (Lypiatt Park): 410 slaves in Jamaica and £7,990;   John Altham Graham Clarke (Frocester Estate):  482 slaves in Jamaica and £8, 934 8s 8d;   Mary Elizabeth Clarke (nee Parkinson) (Frocester): 214 slaves in Jamaica and £3,879 4s 0d; Mary Wilhelmina Lindsey (nee Jarvis) (Minchinhampton): 276 slaves in Antigua and £4,194 12s 7d; William Chacon Lindsey – as above – ‘Springfield’, Forward, Minchinhampton; Walter Maynard (Uley): 154 slaves in Nevis and £2, 720 9s 9d.

The Age of Augustan Elegance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment,
And the Grand Tour all have a partial provenance
In the profits of slavery and racism,
They are writ in water in our landscape as well as writ in stone,
But self-evident truths, ideologies and traditions change
With the passage of time and with changes in values:
Sometimes on the part of the elite, and sometimes
On the part of the ‘swinish multitude’.
And as some Morris dancers have said – just like Eric Hobsbawm –
That traditions can be invented and re-invented:
Like ‘blackface’.
It’s true that blacking up has some history of subversion:
Poachers tearing down enclosure fences,
Or citizens at toll house turnpikes;
And I know that some folk see the Morris blacking up
As having pagan connotations;
It isn’t about racial oppression, they say.

But it does have a racial connotation for many of us,
It makes us feel uncomfortable to be in its Morris presence,
It’s not ‘political correctness gone mad’,
It’s a feeling of embarrassment and unease –
Coupled with the fact that, as with the presentation
Of the East India Company,
It can delude, deceive and distort:
The Truth that dare not speak its name…

A morris dancer goes into a bar and the bar keeper says, “Why the black face?”

I have been a fan of Border Morris for many years. I am old enough to have seen it in the early years of its revival, the 1970s.  This exuberant and dynamic form of dance had a major impact on me and I was soon smitten. I fully accepted the “orthodox” explanation that the use of full blackface make-up had no racist connotations and that it was traditionally used merely as a disguise to protect the dancers’ identity so that they would not get into trouble for begging. Indeed, I have repeated this explanation to others over the years, most notably in my many (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to persuade non-folky friends that Morris Dancing was “cool” and they really should watch it.  This was the answer I would have given to the barman in the title of this piece – until recently.

 I feel that I can no longer give the “disguise” explanation.

There is some unavoidable evidence that the use of blackface in Border Morris might be linked to many sides adopting the trappings of 19th century minstrel shows.  It seems that the use of blackface may actually have been intended to be a caricature of a black face.

In addition to this there does not seem to be evidence of a blackface tradition in Border Morris that predates the pre-minstrel era.  As Stuart points out, blacking the face has been used for disguise, criminality and subversion at certain points in the past but it is questionable that this was the case in Border Morris.

In some folk circles there has been considerable resistance to accepting that blackface could well have racist roots. I can understand this.  At first I was reluctant to consider it.  I dearly wanted their to be a clear subversive tradition of blackface as disguise in Border Morris as a authentic link to the past.  However, it is just not supported by the evidence.

There has been a great proliferation in Border Morris in the last 10 years or so.  Many sides have adopted face painting styles to make it clear that there can be no racist connotations.  Colours other than black or non-full face patterns are used.  However many sides persist in using full blackface, presumably on the grounds that it is “traditional”.  The problem with this is that very little about the current manifestation of Border Morris could be said to be traditional. Certainly not the very elaborate (and beautiful) costumes and almost certainly not men and women dancing together!  Why do some sides feel it is ok to adapt tradition for so many aspects of their art, but stubbornly stick to using full blackface in a
way that might be linked to a racist caricature of black slaves?

The next time a sceptical friend or a hypothetical bar keeper asks the question about blackface what do I say?  The best I can manage is a it MIGHT be a tradition of disguise but it MIGHT ALSO be the perpetuation of a racist caricature of black slaves….

To all sides still using full blackface – please change.  Please.

Mark Hewlett.