Black History Month - The Grave of Black Sambo – Lancaster and the Legacy of Slavery
Full sixty years the angry winter's wave
Has thundering dashed this bleak and
Since Sambo's head laid in this lonely grave
Lies still and ne'er will hear their turmoil more.
Full many a sandbird chirps upon the sod,
And many a moonlight elfin round him trips
Full many a summer's sunbeam warms the
And many a teeming cloud upon him drips.
But still he sleeps - till the awakening sounds,
Of the Archangel's trump new life impart,
Then the Great Judge his approbation founds,
Not on man's colour but his worth of heart
James Watfon Scr. H.Bell del. 1796
Motivated by my friend Coolbreezing, here is my little contribution to Black History Month. It is a tale of the sorrow of the African slave dying unlamented, a long way from his home.
Sambo’s grave is almost unknown outside North Lancashire, but this evocative yet poignant message spans centuries of shameful history. It might not be the greatest piece of poetry, but it at least shows that somebody cared about the fate of this young man.
Before we reflect upon Sambo, it is important to explore a little local history, understanding the involvement of Lancaster in the trafficking of human cargo.
The Location of the Grave
LANCASTER AND THE SLAVE TRADE
Modern day Lancaster is a small and unassuming city in the North West of England, originally built around a Norman castle. It is the county town of Lancashire, and the reigning monarch is officially the Duke of Lancaster, ever since the Wars of the Roses in the 15th Century. Around the castle lie many opulent houses and buildings, constructed during the 18th Century, when St George’s Quay saw the tall ships disgorge bales of cotton sourced from the slave-worked plantations of the US. Hordes of stevedores loaded the empty holds with iron from the nearby Lake District, much of it fashioned into shackles and chains for the next consignment of human misery waiting on the coasts of Africa.
In the 18th Century, Lancaster was a thriving port, not as large as nearby Liverpool, but a major part of the infamous slave triangle. This three-way route consisted of British ships transporting iron, cotton and tobacco to Africa, where the merchants traded those goods for slaves. The Captains transported their human cargo to America, and reloaded with cotton, destined to fuel the huge weaving mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire. This ensured that the holds were filled for all three legs of the voyage, enriching the owners and contributing to the fortunes of Lancaster.
Before the rise of St George’s Quay as the centre of activity, the ships docked at Sunderland point, now a small hamlet at the very tip of the Lune Estuary. It is difficult to equate this small village, huddled against the frequent gales with a trading port, but it served as a stopping point for the trans-Atlantic ships. Here, they would unload or wait for high-tide and the taverns of Lancaster.
Sunderland Point Tour
Sambo's Grave Slideshow
THE STORY OF BLACK SAMBO
Modern Sunderland Point is an isolated place, cut off from the mainland at high tide, and is still home to a few hardy souls. A causeway spans the notorious MorecambeBay mudflats and salt-marshes, and bringing curious and adventurous tourists to the point. Many come to watch the abundant and varied seabirds of MorecambeBay, but others make a pilgrimage to visit the grave of Black Sambo.
Sambo, or Samboo, as the gravestone indicates, is something of an enigma and little is known about his history. He was probably African, and most of the surviving folklore indicates that he was only a boy. In the 18th Century, many Ship’s Captains believed that owning a personal cabin boy was a symbol of wealth and prosperity, the sign of an English gentleman. He arrived at Sunderland Point with his owner, in 1736, where he is believed to have contracted a disease and died.
It is also entirely possible that he froze to death in the harsh Lancastrian winter, which must have been a shock to his un-acclimatised system. Whatever the reason, he was left at the point whilst the ship continued on to Lancaster, and there he died, alone and un-mourned.
An alternative version of the folklore states that he was washed up on the shore, the lone survivor of a ship-wreck, and lived for some years in the village before he died. Unfortunately, little is known about his life or the circumstances leading to his arrival in Lancashire.
Sadly, because he was black and not a Christian, he was not buried in consecrated ground. His body was interred in an unmarked grave behind the village inn, which is now an exposed promontory overlooking the sea. This same trackless sea carried him far from his home and brought him to die in a foreign land.
For over sixty years, the grave was unmarked and largely forgotten, so the story of Sambo could have ended there. Instead, a retired schoolmaster discovered the story and raised some money for a memorial. He also wrote the touching epitaph that now marks the grave. There is anecdotal evidence that the use of the term ‘Sambo’ as a racial slur arose from this grave, a sad and unwanted addition to the history.
Whilst the history books say that Sambo died of a fever, the romantic notion and local folklore states that he died of a broken heart because he had been abandoned by his master. I suspect that it may have been because he missed his home, a lifetime away from the coast of North-West England. Surveying the desolate and windswept beauty of Sunderland Point, that somehow seems to fit the inherent sorrow of the tale.
THE GRAVE OF BLACK SAMBO – NEVER FORGOTTEN
As a school-kid, I remember visiting the grave, placing flowers and saying a prayer for Sambo. Every school in the area takes groups there, and it shows that there is always something redeemable in the human spirit. Britain carries a lot of guilt for the slave trade, quite rightly, and the grave of this lonely young man reminds us of that. It should also remind us that the fight must continue, every day. Thousands of humans are still sold into slavery on a daily basis, and there should be no let up in the struggle against the slavers.
Hopefully, this bleak and desolate storm-lashed shore can teach us all a lesson of tolerance, compassion and human dignity.
A Few Links
- African slave trade - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Morecambe Bay Movie Makers - The Lune Valley : Our Heritage
- Slave Routes - Europe
- Sambo\'s Grave, near Sunderland Point, itself near Lancaster, UK, 24 July, 2005
Photos taken around Sambo's Grave and Sunderland Point, near Lancaster, UK