Independence has tumbled out of the Topicatorium for this month’s blog chain post. I think it has something to do with some celebration some country somewhere is having about something that happened a while back. I think there was a King involved, one of the Georges. And some tea party in Boston, wherever that is.
Yet again, I demonstrate how much the education system in my country bothers with things that happen outside the UK… that or how well I paid attention in History…
Seriously, this month we have decided to talk indepenence and slavery and, until the Americans finally figure out that the Revocation of the Declaration of Independence* wasn’t actually a joke but a serious Royal Declaration, July the 4th will remain a day of Independence. My words today will be about slavery and, in particular, some very personal anecdotes on the subject.
My story starts in a pub in Birmingham. I was there for a social get together with some friends and was having dinner at the pub in question. I ordered my food and paid by card and the barman noticed my name. “Oh, that’s the same name as my grandfather’, he said. I was momentarily confused as to why ‘David’ was a noteworthy name. I mean, it’s not that uncommon. Then I realised he was talking about Lascelles which is, I have to admit, an unusual enough name. We talked for a while and it turned out that it wasn’t his grandfather’s surname that was Lascelles, it was his first name. Apparently it was quite a common name among some West Indian communities. We pondered at this for a while then shrugged it off as a strange coincidence. I ate my food, drank some beer and chatted with friends and went home thinking nothing more about it.
Fast forward a few years and we decided to attend an interesting looking exhibition at The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition was about the life of Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who made a name as an author and whose autobiography was significant in the cause of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. There were artifacts and information panels about his life, his writings, the other members of the society (especially those members who were also members of the Lunar society which was a local club of intellectuals) and the slave trade in general. A lot of it was very sobering.
However, the big shock came at the end of the exhibition where there was an info panel about slaves being freed and the ways in which it could be achieved (being freed by the owner, buying their freedom, etc). Amongst all that information, it was mentioned that freed slaves often took some aspect of their owners’ name as their own. Prominent among the examples was the name Lascelles.
So, there was the explanation for the ‘mysterious coincidence’ noted in the pub that time. At some point in the past few hundred years, a family with the name Lascelles had owned slaves in the West Indies. Since they seemed to be noteworthy enough to be mentioned in a museum exhibit, they probably owned quite a few of them. The barman’s Grandfather had been named because of this tradition**.
Now, I have no way of knowing if the Lascelles’s who were owning slaves in the West Indies were related to me in any way. In much the same way as I have no way of knowing if I am related to the Lascelles who charged into England at Duke William’s back in 1066 and was guilty of ‘causing affray’, ‘accessory to regicide’ and theft of land (crimes they have yet to be called to account for and are unlikely ever to be). I haven’t done the geneology and don’t have the patience for it. However, seeing your own name connected with such a serious historic and social issue is rather ground shaking. I have to admit, I felt incredibly guilty, even though I personally had never condoned nor participated in the trade. I suppose the slave trade in general tends to incite strong feelings in many people, especially if you have a modern liberal outlook, and a personal link, however tenuous, makes it a hell of a lot more immediate.
This guilt was assuaged slightly in a more recent time. One of my many casual acquiantances online is a woman whose family were also involved in the slave trade. In her case she knows this involvement for definite because she has it from history passed down through the generations that several of her ancestors were slaves. We happened in the course of a long e-mail conversation to stray into the slave trade (it was quite organic – we somehow ended up on the drunken antics of Benjamin Franklin and it moved on from there…). I mentioned the above story and her comment was that, from what she had seen of the history of the trade, if a freed slave took the name of a family it was generally out of respect to the family because they had been well treated. So, I feel slightly better for that. Not much, but I take what I can get.
In many ways the slave trade was an example of how politics and economics together can cause something quite evil to be perpetuated. Greed and opportunism caused it to come into being in the first place but governments pandering to economic lobby groups and refusing to change the law for so many years was what kept it legal long after many people (like Equiano, Wilberforce, Clarkson and more) had pointed out the cruelties in the system. If there is a moral to this post beyond the obvious ’slavery is bad’ then I think it should be to be aware of how business and governments together can conspire to create great harm. It happened with the slave trade but it is by no means a matter of history – it is still happening now.
Blog chain time again… you all know the rules by now. Read these blogs or else… er, I’ll come to all your houses and throw gravel at your neighbour’s window and claim it was you wot dun it…
Participants and posts: orion_mk3 – http://nonexistentbooks.wordpress.com (link to this month’s post) knotanes – http://knotane.wordpress.com/ (link to this month’s post) meowzbark – http://erlessard.wordpress.com/ (link to this month’s post) Ralph Pines – http://ralfast.wordpress.com/ (link to this month’s post) randi.lee – http://emotionalnovel.blogspot.com/ (link to this month’s post) writingismypassion – http://charityfaye.blogspot.com/ (link to this month’s post) pyrosama – http://matrix-hole.blogspot.com/ (link to this month’s post) bmadsen – http://hospitaloflife.wordpress.com/ (link to this month’s post) dclary – http://davidwclary.com (link to this month’s post) Poppy – http://poet-slash-writer.blogspot.com/ (link to this month’s post) areteus – http://lurkingmusings.wordpress.com/ (link to this month’s post) Sweetwheat – http://gomezkarla.blogspot.com/ (link to this month’s post) ThorHuman – http://knikriverstatic.com/ (link to this month’s post) Tex_Maam – http://tex-maam.blogspot.com/ (link to this month’s post) MelodySRV – http://createamelody.com/ (link to this month’s post)
* Yeah, that version is very out of date. They need to update it with the new PM. Tell you what, you give us Obama and you can have Cameron and Clegg. Two for the price of one offer, can’t say fairer than that. I think Obama would much prefer governing here, we already have the medical health care system he wanted and no one will claim he is an illegal alien because he comes from Hawaii. Just to check, though: Obama does come with the entire US government budget, right? Cos, you know, we could do with that money right now…
** I very much doubt he himself was a slave, given the timings involved, but these traditions do get passed along family lines and it is possible he was named for his Grandfather or Great Grandfather.