Saturday, August 1, 2020

Stroud, Gloucestershire


Facing up to it

There has been much talk recently about Britain’s past involvement in slavery. The immediate focus for this discussion has been statues of slave owners and slave traders, but in this post I want to highlight a different kind of monument: this arch in Stroud commemorates the passing of the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. It was built in 1834 by Henry Wyatt, a local businessman and supporter of the Stroud Anti-Slavery Society, and it formed the entrance to Wyatt’s estate on the edge of the town.

Abolition was slow in coming. Britain abolished the slave trade – the buying and selling of slaves – in 1807, but British people continued to profit from slavery, especially in the form of sugar plantations in the Caribbean.* The steady rather than swift process of abolition. was in part due to pressure from slave owners and in part to the national Anti-Slavery Society, which included, as well as famous abolitions like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, Jamaican campaigners of mixed race such as William Hill and Louis Celeste Lecesne. This society initially argued for gradual reform, starting with improving the conditions endured by slaves, followed by emancipation over an extended period, followed finally by the abolition of slavery. But by the 1830s, those who wanted abolition to come more quickly prevailed, helped by local anti-slavery groups, who sent more than 5,000 petitions to Parliament between 1828 and 1830.

Pride when this goal was finally achieved led Wyatt not only to erect this arch as a memorial to the antislavery movement, but also to build it a the entrance to his estate. It’s a grand, classical arch but it’s not designed like a Roman triumphal arch – it’s more modest than that, lacking the massive superstructure of buildings like the Arch of Titus in Rome. At first glance it looks like many an entrance arch to the grounds of a country house, now placed rather incongruously next to modern houses, but with the old entrance lodge nearby and the hills in the distance. At the top, though, there’s a plaque explaining the role of the arch ‘Erected to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the British colonies the First of August A. D. MDCCCXXXIV.’

The house, Farmhill Park, was demolished in the early-20th century, and a housing estate and a school built in the former grounds. The school, called Archway School, seems especially appropriate today. We need to understand the history of slavery and the impact it has had. Education is vital for this, as it must be if racism is to be tackled. As James Baldwin put it, ’Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

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* Please see the Comment section for further information on this.