Thanks to Richard Styles and Kel Portman for the above photos.
Sometimes a walk is as powerful as a play or film or football match,
You can’t sleep afterwards,
Your mind keeps revisiting snatches of conversation,
Or landscape technicolour pictures appear in your head,
Or memories of moments but they’re not memento mori,
It’s all alive and vital,
Not Coleridge’s Lime Tree Bower My Prison,
Instead, a diorama of recollection:
We talked, inter alia, of the following:
The Sublime, the Gothick, the Picturesque,
The unacknowledged ubiquity of slavery money,
And its Keynsian multiplier effect,
Both immediate, delayed or submerged;
‘The Shame that dare not speak its Name’;
Alexander Pope, Coleridge, Wordsworth,
King Arthur, fable, myth, memorialisation,
The invention of tradition,
Heritage and Counter-Heritage,
The Grand Tour,
A Celtic monk’s marginalia as we passed a puddle:
‘In the water’s canvas bright sunshine paints the picture of the day’;
Tobias Smollett, Daniel Defoe, Tristam Shandy, Ozymandias,
Sapperton Tunnel, the source of the Frome, the Slad Brook,
The watershed at Miserden,
The edgelands around the Thames and Severn Canal,
King George the Third’s visit to the tunnel,
18th century sight-seers,
Inland navigators, canal leggers, bricklayers;
Ecophilia, Topophilia, Logophilia,
Ocular-centred walking and the visually impaired,
Podcasting and the recording of …
The senses when out walking,
The squelch and oozing of water beneath one’s boots,
The fragrance of spearmint,
The cry of a buzzard,
The taste of spring-water,
The sharp touch of a nettle,
Learning how to describe what we see when we see …
The Blake-like vision of the universe within the palm of one’s hand;
Or remembering Caliban:
‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.’
We talked of different walking practices:
The pre-researched, the contextualised, the informed,
The drift, the derivee, the detournement,
The unexpected, the ad-lib spontaneous extemporised,
The performative, the collective, the democratic, the led,
How Kel practises a 5,000 pace rhythm,
With a mix of the random and the rendezvous,
Collecting keepsakes from the flotsam and jetsam
Of the landscape,
Material for ambulatory art;
Taking readings of elevation and distance,
The mensuration of a trip through a botanist’s eye,
Eye Bright, and clumps of autumn crocus;
Musing on the duality of meanings of ‘folly’,
The search for the hidden narrative of slavery,
Triangular metaphor in a landscape,
Viewed through a Claude Glass gaze,
Then cross-examining the practice of walking,
Methodology and form rather than content:
How eight to twelve is just the right number,
There is no dilution of experience for anyone then,
But there is a critical mass to generate the diverse and heterodox,
And the walk can operate collectively and democratically,
Sharing thoughts and observations,
Ambling through cycloramas and panoramas
Of space and time,
Even if the path lies straight in front of your nose.
The Tempest and Sapperton Church
I am not saying there is a direct link between the Jacobean panelling in St Kenelm’s and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I am merely pointing at the way they are connected by the zeitgeist of ‘The Age of Exploration’, and its consequent mix of ‘the exotic’, imperialism, slavery, the engendering of an ideology of racism, and Christianity’s attitude towards the ‘heathen’.
The Tempest was probably written in 1610-11; the panelling is Jacobean. Neither came out of thin air. The late 16th century saw Elizabethan expeditions to ‘the New World’ (Raleigh, Roanoke etc.), whilst a colony was successfully founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Tobacco production and the fabled tale of Pocahontas followed in its Jacobean wake.
As regards Africa, and the Americas, Sir John Hawkins’ slaving voyages gained the royal backing of Queen Elizabeth as early as the 1560s. This inter-continental new world now meant that England – and Gloucestershire – were now situate within the broad reaches of the ‘Black Atlantic’ and the ‘Atlantic Archipelago’. We have an early parish record entry to confirm this: in 1603, on the 22nd November, in Bisley, John Davies, ‘ye black’, was buried.
Yet despite Hawkins’ predatory slaving on the African coastline, and despite exploitative English protestant attitudes towards first nation peoples in the Americas, a considerable body of evidence points to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment as the crucible for the development of an ideology of racism. Not the 16th or 17th centuries. So what did the figures on that 17th century panelling mean to those who commissioned them? And how were they first ‘read’ by those who first viewed them? And how have those readings changed over time? And how do we read them now?
Before we think about that, however, we have to think about the memorial in the church to Henry Poole, who died in 1616. It includes the ‘head of a black man’. The Poole family were wealthy landowners before the reign of King James, and even though Henry became even wealthier, are we going too far in seeing the black head as symbolic of the source of a new treasure chest?
Mark Hewlett wrote to me after a visit to the church:
‘It seems that the Poole memorial may not have been constructed until circa 1730, more than 100 years after his death. I am not sure why it took so long. This may make the inclusion of the head of the black man even more obscure. The head is set in the wall at the side of the monument. It clearly seems to relate to the memorial but not to be an integral part of it. See the attached pic – head is on the wall on the right. It is difficult to know what to make of it. Is it a depiction of a slave? Is it a black servant? The head seems to be represented in a classical way. Is that a laurel wreath? The person depicted seems to wearing a purple (?) garment… not really very slave like? Possibly not really very servant like. Why did the maker of the monument include the head of a black man (more than 100 years after the death of Thomas Poole)?’
The information booklet in the church tells us: ‘To the right, on the wall, is a bust of a black man. Maybe the Pooles had West Indian plantation connections. At any rate they were clearly very fond of this man, presumably a retainer.’ Well, well.
Now to the Jacobean panelling: this was, of course, originally in the secular setting of Sapperton Manor: the Atkyns family bought the manor house from the Pooles in 1661; the first Earl Bathurst then acquired it before demolishing it in 1730. The panelling was then donated to the church.
So with a nod to post-colonial studies and to historical phenomenology, what do those figures on the panels tell us about attitudes towards ‘race’, ‘the exotic’, wealth, slavery, the ‘noble savage’, Christianity, ‘the heathen’, ‘The Age of Exploration’, and ‘The Age of Empire’? What can we disentangle with minute observation? And can we be value-free in our minute observation and consequent description?
The figures, male and female, reveal bare torsos, often with necklaces, or charms or amulets. The aureoles on the female breasts are accentuated. Legs and genitalia are concealed behind a panel decorated with sinuous tendrils, cornucopia, and feline, demonic heads. Hair and headdresses adorn faces that show a variety of expressions, through differing positions of lips and mouth, together with direction and type of gaze. One male shows alarm and anger, with his hand clutching his chest – has his necklace or amulet been stolen from him? The beards on the males are more suggestive of Jacobean, European fashion.
How does Caliban and The Tempest fit into all of this?
‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and mad’st much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in ‘t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light and how the less,
That burn by day and night. And then I loved thee,
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you,
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island.’
‘You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!’
‘No, pray thee.[Aside.] I must obey. His art is of such power
It would control my dam’s god, Setebos,
and make a vassal of him.’
‘I’ll swear upon that bottle to be thy true
subject, or the liquor is not earthly.’
‘I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island,
And I will kiss thy foot. I prithee, be my god.’
‘No more dams I’ll make for fish,
Nor fetch in firing
Nor scrape trencher, nor wash dish .
‘Ban, ‘ban, Ca-caliban
Has a new master. Get a new man.
Freedom, high-day! High-day, freedom!
Freedom, high-day, freedom!’
‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.’
‘I say by sorcery he got this isle;
From me he got it. If thy greatness will,
Revenge it on him, for I know thou dar’st,
But this thing dare not.’
‘As wicked dew as e’er my mother brushed
With raven’s feather from unwholesome fen
Drop on you both. A southwest blow on you
And blister you all o’er.’
‘For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,
Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up. Urchins
Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,
All exercise on thee. Thou shalt be pinched
As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging
Than bees that made ’em.’
CALIBAN[aside] ‘These be fine things, an if they be not
sprites. That’s a brave god and bears celestial liquor.
I will kneel to him. ‘ He crawls out from under the
‘As I told thee before, I am subject
to a tyrant, a sorcerer, that by his cunning hath
cheated me of the island.’
How does ‘Ye Black’ buried at Bisley in 1603 fit into all this?
That terse parish record entry:
‘John Davies, ye Black, buried 22November 1603 Bisley’,
Can blow your mind when you pass the village,
Cycling to Oakridge and Sapperton,
On the trail of the Mason-Dixon line,
Africa, and America,
And the sugar plantations
In the West Indies;
It’s high up, Bisley,
The wind blows cold, the rain sweeps in,
The snow can settle,
And ‘vapours rolling down a valley
Make a lonely scene more lonesome’;
So how do we rescue you, John Davies,
‘From the enormous condescension of posterity’?
How do we recreate your life to give voice to you?
These questions might be rhetorical,
They might be existential and ontological –
What was your real name?
Why John Davies?
How did you end up in Bisley?
Where were you born?
How long was your life in Bisley?
Did the weather quickly kill you?
Had you no immunity against the common cold, flu and so on?
Could you speak English?
Did the locals point at you, laugh and mock?
Were you a slave?
A fashion accessory?
Were you baptised into the Christian faith?
Were you buried in consecrated ground?
Did you cry yourself to sleep?
How did your mind cope with this exile?
And with this stolen identity and stolen self?
Did you die of melancholy?
Was death a blessed release?
How can we memorialise you?
‘John Davies, ye Black, buried 22November 1603 Bisley’,
How should we memorialise you?
And now to ‘The Enlightenment”: How does that fit into all of this?
The ideology of ‘race’ developed more forcefully and systematically in the 18th century, alongside the slave trade. The associated rise of capitalism with associated ideas of individualism, self-help, and property, were also part of the mix contributing to the development of racial ideology. In consequence, slaving and slave ownership were seen as quick and obvious ways to gain honest wealth.
Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett:
Smollett’s descriptions of a surgeon’s life on board ship in the Royal Navy are much trumpeted. But there is much – forgotten or ignored – on slaving too, at the end of chapter LXV and the beginning of chapter LXV1:
‘In less than a fortnight after our separation, we made the land of Guinea, near the mouth of the River Gambia, and trading along the coast as far to the southward of the line as Angola and Bengua, in less than six months disposed of the greatest part of our cargo, and purchased four hundred negroes, my adventure having been laid out in gold dust.
Our complement being made up, we took our departure from Cape Negro, and arrived in the Rio de la Plata in six weeks, having met with nothing remarkable in our voyage, except an epidemic fever, not unlike the jail distemper, which broke out among our slaves and carried off a good many of the ship’s company; among whom I lost one of my mates, and poor Strap had well-nigh given up the ghost. Having produced our passport to the Spanish governor, we were received with great courtesy, sold our slaves in a very few days, and could have put off five times the number at our own price; though we were obliged to smuggle the rest of our merchandise, consisting of European bale goods, which, however, we made shift to dispose of at great advantage.’
‘Our ship being freed from the disagreeable landing of negroes, to whom, indeed, I had been a miserable slave since our leaving the coast of Guinea, I began to enjoy myself… I calculated the profits of my voyage, which even exceeded my expectation; resolved to purchase a handsome sinecure upon my arrival in England, and, if I should find the squire as averse to me as ever, marry his sister by stealth … ‘
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Commentaries usually centre on Crusoe’s relationship with Man Friday and his key capitalist values of practicality, self-improvement and self-help. But we also see those values applied to slaving – ‘negroes’ have become commodities and an easy passage to wealth and status.
‘You may suppose, that having now lived four years in the Brazils, and beginning to thrive and prosper very well on my plantation, I had not only learned the language, but had contracted acquaintance and friendship … and that in my discourses … I had frequently given them an account of my two voyages to the coast of Guinea … how easy it was to purchase upon the coast for trifles … negroes, for the service of the Brazils, in great numbers …
It happened being in company of some merchants and planters of my acquaintance … three of them came to me the next morning … the question was, whether I would … manage the trading part upon the coast of Guinea, and they offered me that I should have my equal share of the negroes without providing my part of the stock.’