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A slave's Grave in Henbury

Scipio Africanus grave in st. Mary's the Virgin church yard Scipio Africanus grave in st. Mary's the Virgin church yard

During the year when we are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, it is good to remember that Henbury contains a special piece of this terrible period of our history.

The grave of a young black teenage slave boy can be found in St. Mary's churchyard near the north (main) door of the Church.

The ten cottages (8 detached and 2 semi-detached) sold in 1943 in an action to an artist and poet Mr Donald Hughes at the price of £2,325!! Right after he passed it to National Trust hands. The pump in the middle originally had an obelisk over the spring, but this was replaced by the present shaft and weathercock. The water was so good that visitors would ask for a glass to have a drink from the pump!

It has long been a place of pilgrimage for tourists and others interested in Bristol's history. Named Scipio Africanus by his owners after the great Roman general who conquered Africa in 202 BC, the young black slave was born in 1702 and died aged 18 in 1720.

By the mid eighteenth century, Bristol was the foremost trading port in Europe for the notorious and appalling triangular slave trade – slaves being captured on the west coast of Africa, taken to work on the plantations in America and the Caribbean in exchange for sugar and tobacco which were then brought home to Britain.

Some slaves were brought over to work in Britain and Blackboy Hill on the Downs marks the place where they were sold at auction.

It is estimated that there were around 10,000 black slaves in Britain in the early eighteenth century. But the fact that we know the date of Scipio's birth suggests that he may have been born in Britain to a slave mother – perhaps already working for his owners – and that he was simply adopted into the household as a child slave.

Children became slaves to rich families in this way and were often treated as pets or exotic novelties to be shown off to guests.

Scipio was probably one of these, and, compared to their compatriots working of the plantations probably enjoyed a fairly comfortable, if short life.

Scipio was the servant of Charles Williams, the 7th earl of Suffolk. In 1715, he married Arabella Morse from the Astry family and lived in the family home in the now demolished Great House of Henbury.

Scipio may well have been much loved by the Earl and his wife because it was very unusual to have a formal grave within a churchyard, let alone an ornate head and foot stone, painted and decorated with black cherubs. The little poem on the headstone:

"I who was born a pagan and a slave
Now sweetly sleep a Christian in my grave.
What though my hue was dark my Saviour's sight
Shall change this darkness into radiant light.
Such grace to me my lord on earth has given
To recommend me to my Lord in Heaven.
Whose glorious second coming here I wait
With saints and angels Him to celebrate."

Whilst we rightly recoil at the idea of Scipio's blackness needing to be changed to make him acceptable, and appalled at the idea of someone needing to be "recommended" in order to be received into the Presence of our all loving God, we can be glad that such an important fragment of black history lies in the heart of Henbury.

Source: Henbury and Brentry Newsletter

Last modified onSunday, 17 September 2017 22:53
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