They call it the Slave Grave, but who was I.D.?

P1020124

 

Here lieth the Body of I. D.

A Native of Africa

who died in ths Town

Sept 9th 1801

 

God hath made of one Blood, all nations of Men. Acts 17 ch. ver. 26

*

Our recent outing to the Bishop’s Castle Michaelmas Fair (see Summer came back on Saturday and took us to the fair) wasn’t all giant bubbles, stilt walking and steam traction engines. In the graveyard of St John the Baptist parish church there is a mystery. In the north east corner, and well shadowed by English ivy, holly and hazel is the finely carved gravestone dedicated to an African whose only identity is indicated in the letters I.D.  Also, unlike the other memorial stones, the inscription is sited on the western rather than the eastern face. It is hard to read now, and even harder to photograph.

100_7350

There seems to be some strong indication (see the quote below) that I.D. stood for John Davies. ‘I’s’ were often used interchangeably with ‘J’s’ in old records and inscriptions, and the only burial record for around the date on the gravestone 9th September 1801, is for one John Davies on the 12th of that month. There is apparently some original annotation in the church record that links this name to the gravestone.

So what can be deduced from this scant evidence? Clearly whoever undertook to bury the African did not spare any expense. The stone is beautifully carved. The Bible quotation also indicates their disposition towards equality in a line that was also quoted by slavery abolitionists such as Dr Joseph Priestly. I.D. may not have been a slave at the time of his death, but a free man and/or the servant of a rich landowner. It was usual for slaves to be given their masters’ names. Yet the elegance of the stone itself indicates someone who had attained high status, and was very highly regarded.

In an interesting article in the  South West Shropshire Archaeological Society no 19, 2008, Judith Payne discusses the evidence. Firstly, she says no record can be found of a John Davies living in the town of Bishop’s Castle. However, this does not preclude his being a slave or servant – perhaps to gentry who owned a house locally as well as elsewhere. It had long been the fashion for wealthy Britons to have black servants.

She also suggests that he might have been travelling with someone connected with the abolitionist movement, since abolitionists were active and had much support in Shropshire. A 1790s petition against slavery delivered from the county was nine and half feet long, and in November 1793, Thomas Clarkson, a prominent campaigner, was known to be visiting Bishop’s Castle.

Another possibility is that I.D. belonged to the household one of the land-owner politicians who around 1801-2 was attempting to end  the Clive family’s political control of the town. Bishop’s Castle was a notorious rotten borough.  Payne also posits that the reason for the simple I.D. instead of the full name, was because whoever buried him, knew that this was not his true name. That he was placed in a Church of England graveyard further implies that he was a Protestant.

I also had the notion that whoever had I.D. buried, might not necessarily have known him. They were perhaps some local benefactor with a passion for abolition, someone who wished to make reparation for the shame of slavery by giving some poor itinerant black man a decent burial.

And there we have it. The mystery remains. But the stone itself has been listed by Historic England. Here is what they have to say:

 We have no absolutely certain information about the person commemorated by this headstone. However, the burial register records the internment of John Davies on 12 September 1801, and contains an historic annotation linking Davies with the I.D. tombstone. Shropshire is not notable for its links with the West Indies and the slave trade, but it seems likely that ‘I. D.’ came to Bishop’s Castle or to one of the country houses hereabouts, at least initially, as a servant. The quality of the headstone, with its elegant inscription and decoration, suggests that the person commemorated held a certain status, whether as a servant or not. The biblical quotation is one sometimes employed by abolitionists, and its levelling sentiments suggest that the person responsible for erecting the memorial was sympathetic to the movement. The positioning of the tomb is very curious, it being turned away from the other graves in the area. This headstone faces west, towards an ancient yew tree; the inscription is therefore hidden from general view.

Historic England listing

 

100_7362

We are not ones for religious dogma in the Farrell household, but as we left I.D.’s grave, and walked away from this picturesque English churchyard, we were heartened by this small monument of human compassion with its fierce sense of justice. Why in the name of the universe does skin colour matter? Why should people be judged superior on the basis of whiteness. Why do many still look down on people of colour because they were once enslaved? If the palaeontologists are correct, we are all Africans under the skin. And if Africa is where we evolved, then everyone’s ancestors would have been some shade of brown.

But this unsolved mystery is not the end of this particular story. At the top of Bishop’s Castle’s steep main street that leads up from the church, we came upon a current and timely expression of human compassion. Someone had placed a notice in the window of their house:

100_7236

Written in response to Ailsa’s Travel Theme: letters – and commemorating a visit to Bishop’s Castle where different ‘letters’ came together to form powerful messages of common humanity.

 

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

33 thoughts on “They call it the Slave Grave, but who was I.D.?

    1. A love story – but not necessarily the obvious – that’s a really interesting idea. It feels like a key, that could indeed unlock a bigger story. Thank you for that perceptive comment.

  1. Reaffirming my belief that, for the most part, people posses good and caring souls. This was a great way for me to begin my day Tish, thanks.

  2. Cemeteries are treasure troves for story tellers and this one is fascinating! I’m not keen on the idea of this man having an English name, I wonder how long he lived here.
    As a ‘brown person’ my experience is that racism very much exists still in the UK, it’s just a bit more sneaky than it was when I was growing up.

    1. Yes, sneaky is what I thought. Miserable actually. It was awful too, how slave owners robbed people of their names and christened them after their owner-abusers. But then recently uncovered UK records have shown how a slave inherited his English father’s estate, complete with slaves owned on plantations, and he simply maintained the status quo, stepping into his father’s shoes. Of course there would have been social pressures to do just that. But it shows how ‘black and white’ does not cut it when it comes to human affairs – whether for good or ill.

  3. Now this is why I love to wander around old graveyards. Thanks for all the background story on this headstone too Tish, fascinating stuff. It could certainly be a prompt for a writing challenge. Who was I.D.?

      1. Haha… I will leave the story telling to you and those who are better at it. Could be the base of a very interesting tale though. A shame there is no more known about him or who he worked for. No trace of a John Davies? Or maybe it is a Welsh name and the I really is an I. Idris Davies sounds good. He must have been wealthy to have servants. Oh the imagination could run wild with this one.

  4. This is a lovely post Tish, and beautifully links basic humanity now and in the past. I also love graveyards and find myself researching the stories of strangers as a result of headstone inscriptions that intrigue me.

  5. How intriguing! I wonder if he could have been an independent traveller. Maori were visiting Europe and the UK as early as 1806. And yesterday I learned about a highly successful African American prospector on the West Coast of New Zealand in the 1860s. People travelled so much more than I ever imagined.

    1. I think that is very true, people did travel huge distances, even back in prehistoric times. Also in Britain there had been people of African origin/descent since Roman times – the Romans employing merceneries from across the known world. So we really should beware of setting limits on what people got up to in the past, or indeed how far they travelled. Interesting about the Maori visitors. That is not something I knew about.

      1. Of travellers…. in ancient times…..have I mentioned the Lion Hunters series by Elizabeth Wein? I haven’t read all of them but I love the idea of an Arthurian/Aksumite connection.

      2. I know the name of this writer (we both belong to the Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators) but have not read her work. Thanks so much for the tip.

  6. Fascinating story there, Tish. sounds like the springboard for a piece of fiction to me – who was this chap and what was his story, how did he end up buried there, in that position in the graveyard and who paid for the stone. Realy interesting.

  7. I was going to make a flippant response about trying to get my skin brown on every conceivable occasion, Tish, until I got to your photo at the end. What a wonderful family! When is this nightmare ever going to end?

Comments are closed.