The Historical Presence

Towards the end of 2019 I began research into slavery and East India Company links, purely out of my own interest and using freely available records from the Legacies of Slave Ownership database and East India Company @ Home.

For a long time I’ve understood that to imagine and also to build a new future, we need to examine the past. I’ve spoken about that in various places, and much of my work carries that ‘echo in the bone’ of injustices which have to be corrected.

I discovered that Robert Aske, the benefactor of the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Schools, held shares in the Royal Africa Company; a grand name for a dirty enterprise in the capture and commodification of human beings mandated by the British State in the form of Charles II. At the fort on Bunce Island just upriver from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, they branded the captives with RACE – Royal Africa Company of England. This literal manifestation of the separation of human beings into castes deemed worthy of liberty and freedom of censure, and those who were to be denied such, have become the foundations of our society today.

I alerted the Haberdasher’s Company to this in Spring 2020. I heard nothing.

I continued to alert them to this several times through the summer of last year. The deafening silence continued.

After many attempts at communicating with them, I updated their Wikipedia page with the facts and appropriate academic references.

Students and parents at the Schools and alumni also began to ask questions.

We all finally got a response with headlines in The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator in March 2021.

A letter was sent simultaneously from the Schools’ governing body to parents and pupils with the news.

In pure PR terms, this approach was a masterclass in good communication; owning the story positively and with good intent after a significant delay and lack of response.

Since then I have met with the Heads of the Schools. They seem sincere in their desire to manage some sort of change.

I advised a collaborative approach – working with their students – to reinterpret the statue at the school in my area, a hill overlooking the City of London. A city built on the proceeds of theft and slavery, then as now.

As I said in that meeting and maintain still, what better advertisement for the ethos of the schools today than to demonstrate the critical thinking of the citizens of tomorrow through a student-led reinterpretation of the Robert Aske statue.

The Haberdashers’ Schools are, in their words “already engaged in comprehensive reviews of their culture, values and ideals which are now being considered as part of a consultation and review process”. There has been a suggestion by the Schools that a rebrand of the organisations might take place, losing the Aske name, or possibly a re-siting of the statue. That’s for the Schools’ Governing Body, pupils and parents to decide. In the case of re-siting the statue, they will need to consult with the appropriate heritage body (Historic England have listed the statue).

In my podcast with Professor Corinne Fowler of Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted, we discuss how co-created responses to contentious issues enable education, inspire creativity, and lead to a better and wider understanding of how the past shapes us still. It is Corinne’s work which partly inspired my suggestion for the re-interpretation.

Now? We’re all waiting for the next move.

TS Eliot put it well in the Four Quarters:

The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence”

For me, a guiding belief remains; that until we claim the future with positivity and hope, the past will always be a stumbling block.

There are some who claim that this rewriting history, as though ‘history’ was something immutable. By that reckoning we would have to believe Genghis Khan’s court biographers over any facts which demonstrated to the contrary.

The real fallacy in this context is a ‘received history’ which is partial or exclusionary of inconvenient facts. Those who claim that reviewing and revising history creates division are also peddling a lie; the division was made the day people were branded with RACE, commodified as chattel, and stripped of their humanity.