The Gilt of Cain

The Gilt of Cain

Here is the ask price on the closed position,
history is no inherent acquisition
for here the Technical Correction upon the act,
a merger of truth and in actual fact
on the spot, on the money – the spread.
The dealer lied when the dealer said
the bull was charging the bear was dead,
the market must calculate per capita, not head.

And great traders acting in concert, arms rise
as the actuals frought on the sea of franchise
thrown overboard into the exchange to drown
in distressed brokers disconsolate frown.
In Accounting liquidity is a mounting morbidity
but raising the arms with such rigid rapidity…
Oh the reaping the raping rapacious fluidity,
the violence the vicious and vexed volatility.

The roaring trade floor rises above crashing waves:
the traders buy ships, beneath the slaves.
Sway machete back, sway machete again
cut back the Sugar Rush, Cain.
The whipsaw it’s all and the whip saw it all
The rising market and the cargo fall
Who’ll enter “Jerusalem” make the margin call for Abel?
Who will kick over the stall and turn the table?

Cain gathers cane as gilt-gift to his land
But whose sword of truth shall not sleep in hand?
Who shall unlock the stocks and share?
Break the bond the bind unbound – lay bare
The Truth. Cash flow runs deep but spirit deeper
You ask Am I my brothers keeper?
I answer by nature by spirit by rightful laws
My name, my brother, Wilberforce.

Lemn Sissay

BlogLemnSissay

Gilt of Cain

In London and with some time to myself so I went off in search of a sculpture I had long wanted to track down.  ‘The Gilt of Cain’ was unveiled in 2008 to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade.  The site is significant: Fen Court in the City of London is the site of a church which had strong connections with the abolitionist movement in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Rev John Newton, the slave trader who became a vicar and ardent abolitionist, served as the Rector of St.Mary Woolnorth which stood on this site.

The sculptor Michael Visocchi worked with the poet Lemn Sissay to create a sculpture made up of columns and a podium.  The columns represent sugar cane and the podium could be taken for a pulpit or a slave auction block.  The work is grey granite with carved words taken from the Lemn Sissay poem ‘Gilt of Cain’.

It was a wet and gloomy Sunday morning when I went looking for it.  Once there, I discovered that there was a building site next to it and a blue fence had been erected right up against the work of art.

Never mind the rain, as it was a Sunday in the City of London, I had the sculpture to myself and was undisturbed.

Belle

This film is based on an amazing and true story.  In Kenwood House for many years there was a painting on the wall of Kenwood House, Hampstead, the seat of Lord Mansfield who was the most senior judge in Britain. He was Lord Chief Justice in 1770s.  The painting attributed to Johann Zoffany was exceptional because one of the two subjects was black and was present in the painting, not as a servant to confirm the importance of the sitter, because of her rank and place in an aristocratic family of England.

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Around this painting a film has been created which explores the themes of race and gender.  Dido is the ward of Lord Mansfield.  Her father, a naval officer, took the child he had with her slave mother to England and left her with his uncle, Lord Mansfield.  Dido lived with them as part of the family but, with respect to the conventions of the time, she did not eat with the family at meal times.  It was permissible to show her off once the meal had been taken.

As her cousin, Elizabeth, looked for a suitable match or rather as her guardians looked for one for her, there was no thought given to Dido.  The love interest in this film comes from the young radical white man who argues for an end to slavery and wins the affection of Dido while at the same time falling foul of Lord Mansfield.

Belle Movie Stills

Throughout the film the notions of class, rank and gender are emphasised along with the obvious theme of race. Where people fit into the order of things is the most important factor in determining identity.  There may have been some comfort in knowing your place.

For a film to portray an important (and often hidden) part of history is interesting but I worry that our modern views are layered over uncomfortable stretches of history so that we can feel better about ourselves.  In one scene, towards the end Dido and our young radical kiss on the street.  Members of the public walk past without noticing or remarking on it.  Would it not be better to show the scene as it would have been?  Would not members of the public have attacked the couple for their offensive behaviour?  In making things okay for us now, with our modern sensibilities, perhaps we let our collected selves off the hook for parts of history that should be remembered for what they were.

Limbo: Edward Kamau Braithwaite

Here is a poem about slavery that plays on the multiple meanings of the word ‘limbo’.  There is a clear reference to limbo dancing under the metal rod that was used on slave ships but the poem also references that state that exists outside of certainty.  The rhythm of the poem with repetitions echoes the beats of the drum as the limbo dancing takes place.

Limbo

And limbo stick is the silence in front of me
limbo

limbo
limbo like me
limbo
limbo like me

long dark night is the silence in front of me
limbo
limbo like me

stick hit sound
and the ship like it ready

stick hit sound
and the dark still steady

limbo
limbo like me

long dark deck and the water surrounding me
long dark deck and the silence is over me

limbo
limbo like me

stick is the whip
and the dark deck is slavery

stick is the whip
and the dark deck is slavery

limbo
limbo like me

drum stick knock
and the darkness is over me

knees spread wide
and the water is hiding

limbo
limbo like me

knees spread wide
and the dark ground is under me

 

down
down
down
and the drummer is calling me

limbo
limbo like me

sun coming up
and the drummers are praising me

out of the dark
and the dumb god are raising me

up
up
up

and the music is saving me

hot
slow
step

on the burning ground.

Edward Kamau Braithwaite

BlogBraithwaite

 

The Fruits of Early Industry and Oeconomy

The slavery gallery of the Museum of London Docklands had many artefacts and information boards to bring you up short.  This print by W. Ward of George Morland’s painting is one example.  It is the scene of a wealthy British merchant enjoying the ‘just’ rewards of his hard work as a buyer and seller.  Through the window you can see the wharf where the goods that led to wealth can be seen.  The merchant is at business, attended by a clerk, while his family and dog add the picture of domestic bliss.  On the wall is a painting of their country estate, confirming their wealth and status.

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The print is from 1789 and, in keeping with the times, aims to show what rewards hard work can bring.  It isn’t just the goods seen through the window that illustrate the buying and selling, though.  At the right of the picture is a young black servant boy offering a basket of fruit to the lady of the house.  He, too, is a fruit of the merchants endeavours!  The wealth of many merchants and the economy of much of London was built on the trade in human beings.

 

The Museum of London Docklands is a Treasure House

The Museum of London at Docklands is a fascinating place telling the story of the East End of London.  The galleries on London’s link to slavery are, in my opinion, the most important part of the whole place.  Telling this part of Britain’s story is so important if we are to understand the culture and times we live in.  However, as Margaret MacMillan points out in her excellent book, ‘Uses and Abuses of History’, nations like to shape their history around the narrative that suits their purposes; the ‘bad bits’ are often left out.

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It is to the credit of this museum, then, that this dark aspect of the past is explored in such detail.  The exhibition is called ‘London, Sugar and Slavery’ and the link between the economic link between the trade in sugar and the trade in humans is clearly made.  It is fitting then that the building housing the museum is an old sugar warehouse and of note that one of the first things you see on entering is a poster advertising a reward for a runaway slave.

BlogSugarSlavery3The exhibition shows the cruelty of the trade as well as the harsh reality of life on a plantation.  Chains and whips have a sinister look when you realise they were used on people.  The story of abolition is also shown, though, with the emphasis on those who started campaigning for an end to the slave trade long before politicians became involved.

Throughout the exhibition the role of capitalism in the transatlantic slave trade is made explicit.  The voices of the oppressed are matched by those who claimed they (and Britain) would be ruined if the trade were disrupted.  Interestingly, it was the campaign to boycott goods such as sugar that forced some politicians to take notice.  Even when the trade was abolished, though, compensation was paid by the government to merchants.  London grew rich on the profits of the trade so it is just that this gallery is here to act as a reminder of London’s past.

In the final section of this exhibition there is brief mention of the links modern London has with Africa and the old Empire.  London’s diversity is part of its strength but there is a bigger story awaiting another gallery space: the way people of African heritage were welcomed or not during the 50s, 60s and 70s.  Maybe that is part of Britain’s story still waiting to be told.

Museum of London Docklands is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Desert Boy

I saw this play in a very small theatre in Bath in 2010.  The intimate nature of the venue probably helped heighten the experience but I remember being blown away by the play and the way the playwright handled the themes.  It stuck in my mind and I think of it still so it definitely merits its place in my hinterland.

BlogDesertBoy

My memory is that the play was performed by only four or five actors which is amazing given that the story crosses continents and time frames. The writer Mojisola  Adebayo has written a play about a young man in Deptford, London who lies bleeding and near to death. He is called Soldier Boy and he is the streetwise teen who thinks he can handle himself and thinks he knows everything.  Yet, he lies by the side of the river, dying and wanting his mother.  Instead, a stranger appears.  This is Desert Man.  His task is to transport the teenager back in time and to another place.

As the story unfolds we go from Deptford to the Sahara and Timbuktu.  Modern shopping malls and pubs as well as plantations and prison ships are featured as we make the connections between the lives of the young black man in Deptford and young African males.  The story covers knife crime and slavery but the themes here are of struggle, identity and honouring your history.

BlogDesertBoy2

‘Desert Boy’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?