Memorial 2007 Annual Lecture, hosted by the ICwS and delivered by Paterson Joseph, Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, actor and author on 28th September 2023.

Seeing is Believing: Memorial as Story.

On the 28th September 2023, the Memorial 2007 Annual Lecture was delivered by Paterson Joseph, Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, actor and author. It was hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in the Chancellor’s Hall, Senate House, University of London.

“To our ancestors …. it is a great honour and privilege to address some remarks to you on the subject of a permanent memorial to the lives of the millions of stolen, exploited and murdered souls who lost their lives during Britain’s involvement in the wicked transatlantic slave trade.” The opening words of Paterson Joseph as he addressed an audience of over 100 at the Memorial 2007 Annual Lecture.

On a personal note, he recounted his own childhood. Born in London to St. Lucian parents who had arrived in Britain in 1958, he was the fifth of six children and grew up in Willesden Green, northwest London.  Going to school in the late 60s, he was labelled Educationally Sub Normal, as were many children of African heritage in the 1960s and 70s. He referred to the BBC documentary ‘The Sub Normal’, that touches on some of the horrors and injustices of that systemic racism where children were treated as if they had a naturally inferior intellect. Despite this, some managed to survive but a lot struggled.

He rejected school as soon as he was able and from the age of 13 played truant or “bunked off.”  With his only desire to read, he hid in Willesden Green Library for much of the day, for as long as he could. An avid reader, he read everything, some excellent, some just rubbish like the countless Mills and Boon novels his sister collected. Romantic novels for the ladies.

Books were an escape, the greatest form of storytelling. Squiggles on a page becoming pictures in the head, perfect, indelible and unique to the reader, unforgettable. He loved the old novels like Dicken's Oliver Twist, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Later he moved on to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. He loved the skill by which these writers used the English language. It changed the way he pronounced words and pointed out that his accent was not the result of drama school but of reading and his habit of reading aloud.

In the novels and literature he read, he did not feel the loss of connection with characters because they were not black. He learnt that human beings can empathise with other human beings because of our shared humanity. Yet, he also felt a sense of a missing part of these stories. What were black people doing? He asked himself, were there any black people before the mid-20th century? If so, where is the obvious evidence for such a presence? He did not grow up in an environment of intellectuals, academics, historians or activists and had no links to those who knew ‘our history’. People who need to have three jobs to sustain their family, cannot always be expected to teach them history too: That should be the job of the academic system but like most in this country, he was taught very little about black history outside of a footnote about slavery, abolition and Britain’s colonial enterprise. To find ‘our history’, you either had to be lucky enough to have weekend classes, a black led after school club or attend a rare black school or even more rarely know someone who knew all about this “Black History stuff”. Failing that, his Black History came to him ad hoc, randomly, snippets from some unreliable sources. So much so that at times he remained ignorant. He did what most Black Britons do, “just getting on”. Getting around or getting under all the objects in his way due to the colour of his skin. He thought he had no time to dwell on history or so he thought. It turned out that it mattered to him to know that history. How else was he going to answer the question “Where are you really from?” If he struggled with those sometimes, curious, often plainly racist questions, how would his son be able to answer them? It was not just because of the person interrogating him, but his own sense of “who I am?”  Where he belonged would always be a question. He decided that this was not a way to live and he needed to know.

In his mid-30s he set out to do just that. It was an act of curiosity that led him to Charles Ignatius Sancho.  Sancho’s life ended up being the ideal form in which he could explore these questions of history, belonging and truth. Charles Ignatius Sancho was born on a slave ship, orphaned by the age of two, baptised in Columbia and shipped to England to live with three unmarried women in Greenwich. They treated him like an object, a pet, an ornament, an accessory that showed wealth and high status. This show of ostentation was not particular to England alone but all over Europe. Sancho ran away briefly from the three women because according to Sancho and his biographer, Joseph Jekyll, they would not teach him to read. Presuming that ignorance was the best guarantee of obedience. Even now, black children accuse other black children who love to read of trying to be white. It is propaganda at its most effective and self-destructive. It was a chance meeting with John, Duke of Montague, in Blackheath Park, that changed Sancho’s life. Montague believed in the controversial idea of black intelligence and gave Sancho secret access to his library. The clever young man devoured everything he could lay his hands on. Later, when free, he became a musician, a highly accomplished composer, publishing at least three existing works of music. He wrote a play that has yet still come to light. His music is wonderfully joyful and his portrait by Gainsborough in 1768, astonishing.  Sancho was deeply knowledgeable about the art world. His skill in the letter writing art, the art of the epistolary art, as it is called, added to his fame.

He is the first known man of African descent to vote in a British parliamentary election. The first known person of African origin in the United Kingdom to be a patron to an artist. The first to receive an obituary in a national newspaper and other notable achievements. At the same time, he was a vocal anti-slavery voice long before the abolitionist movement had taken off. A staunch monarchist, he worked for the Montagues, courtiers, who were very close to the throne.

Sancho was not a fan of republicanism, certainly not in the form he saw rising out of Britain’s disputes with the soon to be United States. He desperately wanted America to remain in the bosom of Britain’s global family. These facts are a mosaic of deeds and events, pieces of a man as Gil Scott-Heron sang, not the man himself. Finding a way to round these fragments up to create a coherent memorable whole was a challenge Paterson set himself in his monodrama, ‘Sancho Act of Remembrance’ and more so in his recent novel ‘The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho.’ To Paterson, this seemed most urgent as he believes that without knowledge of one’s own forerunners, we can have little or no context for what we are living through today. Additionally, other aspects such as slavery reparations and an acknowledgment of Britain’s most brutal and negative past.

In 2018, Paterson performed at the National Black Theatre in Harlem. During the Q&A, he was asked the much-repeated question since he started his monodrama ‘Sancho an Act of Remembrance’ in 2016. “Did Britain ever have slavery?” (in an American accent). He pointed out that this is not as an ignorant question as one may imagine. “How else can Britain be perceived except by the story it tells itself and the world?” There was a bit of slavery, then Britain came to her senses with the help of “great white men like William Wilberforce and ended the trade on moral grounds.” Two thousand sailors lost their lives in blockading the other European slave trading nations and Britain is therefore heroic and exonerated from all guilt because of this heroism. “A lie and a convenient effective piece of innocence propaganda.”

The film ‘A Story of Bones’ on the British territory of St. Helena, charts the story of where thousands of Africans were abandoned after being rescued by the British navy. To this day they are still in need of a respectful burial denied to them by the UK government.

Paterson referred to Prof. Hakim Adi’s forthcoming publication on African and Caribbean People in Britain. The failure to connect Britain to its colonial exploits and exploitations is not an accident. The idea that Britain was the land of the free “that it could never, never, never support slaves is an insidious lie.” Paterson maintains that this has permeated thought on Britain and slavery for many centuries and continues to this day. This ‘national amnesia’ has been aided and abetted by teachers and historians who have been instructing those teachers from at least the time of Britain’s first venture into the role of coloniser in the 1660s until today.

“Did Britain ever have slavery?” When he explains to an American audience that Britain was the chief enslaving nation, with a licence granted in the early 18th century to procure African captives for other European nations, he is met with looks of shock. British audiences do not fare much better. He has had many people approach him after Q&A sessions to confess that though they have first class degrees in History from Oxford and Cambridge, they were totally unaware of a Black history until he had introduced Sancho and his world to them. There is anger when they realise they have been sold a story that passed over Britain’s part in this foundational piece of human cruelty. Foundational because slavery, African chattel slavery, is the basis of so much of the world’s economy, from banking to insurance, stocks and shares. In order to contextualise who Sancho was, how extraordinary his achievements and how significant his final act, the vote, we must look at the world into which he was born. The stage on which his life was lived.

From 1609 onwards, Britain began to acquire overseas territories in an ambitious attempt to expand the Empire. In that year it began with Bermuda. British adventurer’s aka state sanctioned pirates, went on to grab Virginia and Massachusetts in North America and by 1632 had colonised Barbados, Antigua, Nevis and Montserrat. The significance of these land grabs for Africans cannot be underestimated. It was the need for cheap labour, labour who could more readily support the brutal working conditions in these tropical climates that led to the beginning of Britain’s trade in African captives. It is true to say that Britain also transported white criminals, as well as the Irish who were political prisoners Oliver Cromwell wanted to see removed as far away as possible from the British Isles, along with other undesirables. As historian Eric Williams stated “White servitude was the historic basis upon which negro slavery was constructed.” However, the industrial trade in African captives was left to Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and Holland to take to another level altogether. In addition, Africans were stripped of their heritage, language, culture and humanity that was not mirrored in the terrible treatment of white indentured labourers. Theirs was a harsh life but had Sancho’s parents lived, would have been even more inhumane still.

In 1655, when England under Cromwell seized Jamaica from Spain, several state monopolies sprang up to more efficiently steal Africans to work the plantations, particularly the burgeoning sugar cane fields. Britain’s consolidation of territories in West Africa followed, for them to more readily facilitate the traffic of human souls across to their Caribbean possessions. The vicious so-called Triangular Slave Trade was established. One of those monopolies was the Company of Royal Adventurers trading in Africa which was established in 1660 after the restoration of the monarchy, winning an exclusive charter to trade in African captives in 1663.

The Royal Africa Company was established in 1672 after the original company ran into financial difficulties. This was a much-expanded operation including troops, forts and factories in West Africa, as well as the right to exercise martial law in a grab for land, gold, silver and humans. Even before 1663, it is estimated that Britain’s state sanctioned privateers, pirates, had already transported over 100,000 Africans across the Atlantic to supply free labour for Britain’s slave worked plantations. At least 10,000 Africans a year from 1663-1673 were brutally wrenched from their homes to work, without pay or recompense, in the cruel slave system. So much wealth was generated by this inhumane and criminal activity that a new coin was minted in 1663. A golden guinea made from African gold and stamped with the crest of the company, an elephant and castle. In its many years of trading, the shareholders of the Royal African Company included Charles II and the royal family, over a dozen Lord Mayors of London, aristocrats, writers, composers and philosophers, including Samuel Pepys, John Locke and George Frideric Handel.

Slavery was embedded into the very establishment of early Empire building, commerce and power. Those trading in captured Africans had only a faint qualm, perhaps, when a group of these men demanded to know whether black captives could be considered mere goods? The Solicitor General’s legal opinion was negroes ought to be seen as goods and commodities within the Acts of Trade and Navigation. Thus, dehumanising Africans in the process. The new business of Great Britain formed by the Act of Union in 1707 was human trafficking, concluded Prof. Hakim Adi. The Bank of England and the national debt were created in 1694. They were established to raise finances to carry on the trade in captured Africans and to fight Britain’s wars, mainly against that other slave driven superpower, France.

These wars led to the Treaty of Utrecht, which granted Britain the right known as Asiento de Negros. It related to Sancho’s life story in a most significant way. The law of 1713 granted Britain the exclusive monopoly of trading in African souls for thirty years. As Sancho’s slave ship had landed in Columbia, Paterson had presumed his life was connected not to the British slave economy but to the rival Spanish one. However, the Asiento gave Britain the right to transport captive Africans for the Dutch, the Portuguese and to the many Spanish slave colonies as well as Britain’s own. Britain had a hand in Sancho’s life from the very beginning.

The need for the Enslaved Africans Memorial is more urgent now than ever, as this country has the habit of shutting down arguments about reparations before they are even laid out. Many say Britain was not as bad as America or Belgium or France, repeating an opinion based on a wildly inaccurate curated history. Cherry picked facts that paint a picture of near innocence and complacency of Britain’s place in the cruellest known trafficking story humanity has ever known.

Rather than beginning with an acknowledgement, Prime Minister Sunak, in reaction to the pronouncement by Justice Robinson of the International Court of Justice, who declared that Britain was in danger of being isolated in its refusal to even acknowledge its full part in the wicked trafficking of African souls, declared that there would be no apology and no reparations. The wickedness continues. Oku Ekpenyon calls this ‘political amnesia.’ Coincidentally, I have long called this ‘national amnesia.’ Like a family, a nation forgets who they are at their peril. It is a crisis of existential importance because without history, without knowing the truth of who you are, what you have done, good or bad, there can be no true self knowledge or indeed self-improvement. We see this clearly in the stagnant thinking around the truth of Britain’s deep involvement in the international trade in African lives.

Paterson paused in his address and read an extract from his new novel ‘The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho.’ Sancho’s story was not one of unrelenting misery. He was battered by circumstances but rallied every time. At twenty-three, he left the ladies, who he called the Greenwich Coven or the sisters three as in Macbeth’s witches and escaped to London. It was a harsh life and he spent a lot of his little money and most of his time in living a wild life. According to his letters away from the path of purity. He cleaned up his act, worked as a musician, where he also worked for the late Duke’s family. On one of these occasions, he met an older black man, John Clarke Osborne, who invited him to see how Africans entertained themselves in London. Taken to a tavern in Fleet Street, known to be frequented by Black people, Paterson called it the Black Tar Tavern. Tar as in ‘sailor’ because every ethnicity that sailed the Atlantic was there. Indian Lascars, Arabs, Irish, Africans, Caribbean Blacks, all were revelling. Paterson attempts to describe the eclectic music and dances in the Secret Diaries.

Clarke Osborne took him to meet his family and Sancho met for the first time Mrs Clarke Osborne, Mary and the woman who would become to mean everything to him, the young Ann Osborne. Paterson then read from his book a poetic rendition of Ann Osborne.

These forgotten Black lives can only be raised from the woefully threadbare archives by an act of knowledge mixed with an empathetic imagination. This is what Saidiya Hartman calls ‘Critical Fabulation.’ This is taking from that threadbare archive, a story based around other similar lives to the one being looked at, to paint a fuller picture. To achieve this, we must first care then take the trouble to retell the story as accurately and humanely as possible. While it might be argued that this is less authoritative than a simple laying out of salient facts, the curation involved in the relating of traditional history needs to be addressed and has been the hidden issue undermining the old ways of reporting history from the start. Objectivity is just not a human skill when it comes to national history. Consequently, there is a need for a plurality of approaches and actions in the field.

It came as no surprise too many to hear that every UK publisher Paterson had sent his early manuscript to objected to it out of hand. They claimed it was not authentic because Sancho was too articulate to be a victim. Paterson called it “Slavery porn.” The need to see us suffer without hearing what we think of our suffering. Dehumanising the dehumanised once again but Sancho refused to be silent. He chose to express himself in word, deed and music. That is why he is a great African Britain. Our forerunner.

One publisher however saw him for who he was. It was no surprise that this publisher was one of the rare Black publishers in the UK, Sharmaine Lovegrove, of Dialogue Publishers. The ‘Secret Diaries’ are what Paterson thinks of as his literary version of a memorial to a forgotten African Britain of great importance to our national story. Through investigating his life, Paterson has managed to unearth truths about many African and Caribbean Black British lives.

Paterson returned to the subject of the Enslaved Africans Memorial. He said monuments are not dead things, they speak to us of who we were, it follows then that it speaks to us of who we are, at least who we think we are. Like history, monuments can be curated too. The statue of Colston can be left where he rightly belongs at the bottom of Bristol Harbour, along with the hundreds of captured African souls who drowned shamefully in the seas around Britain. However, with others we may want to leave them where they are and augment them with the truth exposing crimes and lies not burying and drowning them.

“What would such a Memorial have meant to me if it had existed when I was growing up othered in the UK?” Paterson asked. “It would have given me a sense of belonging. There are the true stories of African civilisations prior to European invasions that I first read in Cheikh Anta Diop’s African Civilisations but like the brilliant pupil who asked her teacher, Oku Ekpenyon, ‘Where is our history?’, I noted that we had nowhere to go to pay tribute to those souls lost in the human trafficking horror.” Paterson pointed out that our white fellow citizens do not have a place to go to learn what their ancestors perpetrated on millions of African lives. He concluded that this matters to us as a nation, not just the large Black citizenry but for all of us. A nation is like a family we are randomly born into. We need our story to be told, all our stories so we know who we are collectively.

That story is hard to find and most do not have that luxury of the middle and upper classes, time to sit and study the archives, we are too busy surviving. The idea of a place, perhaps more than one place, to meditate on these truths is vital. A nation that does not know its own story, is like a family without roots or history. It is doomed to disfunction, mental anguish, anxiety and tension. Therapy is needed on a national level to help with this and we must all agree to support this or we fall into the mental malaise of denial and as we all know that leads to even more disfunction. As with individuals, so with nations, a monument, a memorial will aid greatly in the process of healing. Being heard, being seen, as Sancho said in Paterson’s novel, can be a kind of revolution in our lives. When we are rooted, we can grow, like people, like nations. Paterson said “I fully support the idea of a second Jewish Holocaust Memorial. Too many want to whitewash and alter that history already but why do we not have one? Is it guilt, shame, a lack of empathy? All the above. It costs putting our national money where our mouths and morals are, and it will be a sign that we are finally matured as a nation. We can take the burden of history on our shoulders and move into a saner truer era of relations between the black and white citizens of the United Kingdom.”

Paterson then concluded by saying “I call for the Enslaved Africans Memorial to be erected, prominently, permanently in our nation’s capital first and rolled out to other British cities thereafter.” This is needed, if as a nation, we are to be mature, honest and brave to face the demons of the past and to pay tribute to the silent millions who never had a chance to speak for themselves. To declare as a nation, to the souls who gave their lives to ensure the United Kingdom became a world leading superpower, that we acknowledge their sacrifice. We see you, we love you and we will never, ever forget you.”

The lecture was followed by a Q&A session where a variety of questions were put to Paterson.

Prof. Kingsley Abbott, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, wound up the evening by thanking Paterson Joseph for giving generously of his time and for his powerful words.... "the wickedness continues. I wish that we had the whole of London in here tonight to have heard you speak.” He also thanked Oku Ekpenyon, Audrey Edwards and the rest of the Memorial 2007 team.

He made three points. Firstly, when he came to London, he was astonished to learn that in a city filled with statues and memorials, there is no memorial that specifically exists for the victims of slavery. “That has to be remedied as a way of acknowledging and reckoning with the past so that future generations can use it as a focal point to learn the truth about what happened.” He understood about the power of memorials when done carefully and sensitively and alongside affected communities. They can have a powerful impact on not only establishing the truth but also on recognition and returning dignity to victims and those affected on accountability and justice and on the right to remedies and reparations which all victims of serious human rights violations have.

Secondly, he pointed the audience’s attention to the maquette and said that it was not just an idea to have a memorial, but a memorial had been produced in a maquette and very thoughtfully done. He encouraged those who had not seen it on the way in to take a look at it on the way out.

Thirdly, he pointed out that the evening was not about fundraising but about education. However, he pointed out that Memorial 2007 does not receive any public funding and run by a small team of volunteers. If anyone felt inclined to make a donation, speak to Oku.

Finally, he drew attention to Paterson’s book and to Tony Warner’s book on Black History Walks. He encouraged people to have some refreshments and stay around and chat. Once again, he thanked Paterson, Oku, her team and his colleague Kay.

Oku Ekpenyon MBE
Senior Research Fellow
Institute of Commonwealth Studies