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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Black Georgians at BCA - feeling the echoes on the streets of south-west London

Brixton's Black Cultural Archives goes back to the eighteenth century for this small but powerful exhibition for the autumn: Black Georgians - the shock of the familiar.

The walls of the BCA's main gallery are lined with old prints, cartoons, paintings, documents, and quotes, focusing on the lives of some of the estimated 15,000 black Africans who lived in the British Isles in the tumultuous era, 1714 - 1830.

The "shock" of the title refers partly to the fact that there were so many Africans living in Britain so long ago. The exhibition makes the point that while a handful of former slaves found  fame, acceptance and wealth, the majority lived in the same abject poverty as most of the indigenous population. Many escaped slavery only to find themselves in an equally bad, possibly even more humiliating position of domestic servitude - which has sinister echoes in present day London.

There were the exceptions, and one of these rather steals the show by the sheer beauty of her portrait. It's only in reproduction here, but the amazing double portrait of  Dido Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Lindsay,  attributed to Johann Zoffany (1779) is stunning, and haunting. No wonder they use half of it for the posters.

So, two posh girls showing off in their finery in their millionaire uncle's back garden in Hampstead - what's so great about that? Well, the one on the left is black, and she's so full of life, so animated, it's hard to believe the painting's over  200 years old.

Her strong personality shines straight out at us, almost defiantly. She's pointing at her own face, as if to say, "Yep. I'm black, and yep, she's my cousin. So, why the hell are your staring at me like that?"

She's half standing, holding a bowl of fruit, as though she might have been about to offer them to the other girl…but no, she also appears to be on the verge of skipping away from her cousin, who's put out her arm as if to pull her back. Yes it's one of those wonderful, playful paintings that can be read in many ways.

There she is: the BCA poster featuring the mysterious portrait of
 Dido Belle, outside the BCA on Windrush Square, Brixton.
Dido's story is as amazing as her appearance. Her mother was a slave, Maria Belle, her father a naval officer, Sir John Lindsay. As the story goes, Lindsay "rescued" Maria from a Spanish ship his fleet had captured, and took her as his concubine. Their daughter was born in 1761. Four years later, Lindsay took her back to London and left her with his esteemed uncle, Sir William Murray, who happened to be the Lord Chief Justice and owned Kenwood house. But he also held surprisingly radical views and was respected by the abolitionists. It's been suggested that Dido herself could well have had a part in changing his views, and looking at her you can well believe this.  In his care, Dido was brought up as a "gentlewoman" alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray, who's the other girl in the painting.

But despite  enjoying many of the privileges of aristocratic life, she was not always treated as an equal. For example, she did not join the family for formal meals. But nor was she treated like a servant, and seemed to enjoy a deal of fun as companion to her cousin.

Another exhibit caught my attention for a different reason: it's a list of the names of some of the African boys brought to England to attend a new and distinctly experimental African Academy, which opened in 1799 at No. 8  Rectory Grove, Clapham. A little later it was moved the Church Buildings on Clapham Common Northside, not far from Holy Trinity church where the Clapham Sect met and worshiped.

The list, inscribed in black ink on parchment in that marvellous copperplate style, conceals an incredibly sad story that isn't actually told here:
8 Rectory Grove, Clapham: now a house worth millions, but in 1799
the site of the African Academy, a misguided and ultimately tragic
educational experiment.
what's actually so good about this exhibitions the way it triggers curiosity, intrigue, with just the right amount of info, the right quotes, and lots of very provocative prints and cartoons from the collections of

I could never claim to be a local history freak, but this small, thought-provoking exhibition set me off on a maniacal quest to find out more about this strange, ultimately very sad school.  Because one of the first things I found out was that, within five years of its opening, all but six of the original 21 African pupils had died, either from pneumonia due to the harsh winters and damp conditions, or from a measles outbreak one summer.  The school (not surprisingly) was closed  in 1805.

The story of the African Academy is told with extraordinary poignancy in the letters home from some of the pupils, on the Learning Zone website. 

I was leaving the exhibition, curiosity fired up. The text alongside each of the exhibits nearly always ended with a question: "Why? How would you have felt…? And so on. And this approach, which in some museums just seems a bit annoying, really worked here. Because we don't know enough.

The resonances, from the Caribbean to Kenwood to Clapham, and the horror of slavery. Then the thought of those unfortunate, shivering African boys, many were the sons of tribal chieftains in their home countries, being marched across the muddy Common for compulsory attendance at church services.

The same Common which - 150 years later - the great great grandchildren of some of their enslvaed fellow-countrymen would be taken to from the SS Windrush, for temporary lodging in the deep air-raid shelters of Clapham South. It's such a strange bit of geographical coincidence: did the Ministry of Labour's planners in 1953 realise this, or was it just simple expediency? There were surely plenty of other disused deep shelters around the underground network, many in the East End near to the docks.

Thinking such thoughts, I was about leave the BCA when one of the two members of staff chatting at the reception counter asked me what I'd thought of the expo. This was a  tall, softly spoken guy with great dreadlocks, tied back and right down his back. We chatted for a bit. When I told him I now wrote mainly for my own blog he looked a bit disappointed  ("Another blogger!") - but really just seemed genuinely interested to know my views, and to talk about Brixton and Clapham and history and the Archives.

As he spoke, I thought he might be the curator of the exhibition (who I had heard on radio, his name was S I Martin, the historian and slave trade expert). So I ask him, and he says…"No, I'm the director…" Yep, it was Paul Reid, one of the small group of people whose work over decades has made this dream, a beautiful building to house this archive in Brixton, into a reality.

And as you leave the BCA, you'll find yourself further detained by the colourful installation in the courtyard - a new take on the old pavilions and pergolas of London's 18th century pleasure gardens, such as the one just up the road in Vauxhall. It's the work of Brixton-based design studio 2MZ, and like everything else here it brings together many different cultural influences. Catch it in a bit of late autumnal sunshine and it's a true joy to behold!

2MZ's "Pleasure Garden" installation in the courtyard of the Black Cultural Archives

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