Comment: Exploring Northamptonshire's Black debt

Writer and educator Tré Ventour explains why Northamptonshire needs to look at its own colonial past

As part of a new series we’ll be featuring regular comment pieces from different voices from across Northamptonshire.

By Tré Ventour

Since the Murder of George Floyd in May 2020, there has been a resurgence around the world to interrogate contemporary and historic racisms, including that relating to colonialism and enslavement. 

In June, Black lives matter demonstrators pulled Bristol’s Edward Colston statue down.  Colston was one of Britain’s most famous philanthropists and invested huge sums of money in the city of Bristol. However, his money is tainted with the blood and toil of enslavement, as he was  employed by the Royal Africa Company [RAC], the largest human-trafficking corporation throughout  the era headed by Charles II and then his brother James Duke of York (became James II) after him. 

The removal of the statue was controversial and led to much debate over whether it was the right thing to do and exposed how uncomfortable we are as a country with examining the role we played in enslavement. The author and broadcaster Afua Hirsch writes that Britain has “...managed to  contort [its] memories in such a way as to celebrate abolishing something, while forgetting how fundamental a prior role it played in developing it”. In my experiences as an educator and Northampton resident, the local consciousness is similar to that of wider Britain.

A Facebook post by social action group Black Lives Matter Kettering reminded me of abolitionist William Knibb and how in discussions about enslavement, many of those around me have been all too happy to talk about Britain’s abolitionists but are uncomfortable in discussing the prior role Northamptonshire had in upholding a system which used the rape of women to enable the business of enslavement to continue unabated. As Reni Eddo Lodge says “...children born into slavery were the default property of slaveowners, and this meant limitless labour at no extra cost. That reproduction was made all the easier by the routine rape of African women slaves by white slave owners.”

Enslavement was an economics system that stripped Black people of their rights, dignity and humanity in all ways, including the dismantlement of all things African via intellectual genocide, including history, music and faith. 

Prior to the Murder of George Floyd, meaningful public debates  around Britain’s relationship with enslavement and colonialism were few and far between. For  example, the complicity of Christianity in upholding enslavement and thus the system of white supremacy. In the University College London [UCL] database ‘Legacies for British Slave Ownership’ you can see that the Church was one of the biggest proprietors and were compensated in the scheme (1833) for their ‘loss of property’ not to the enslaved themselves.  

Looking at the database, I was able to find a Welsh clergyman who is more than likely the man that owned my ancestors in Jamaica 1833. When we discuss enslavement, it is often presented as a detached history but that social history is written into the landscape of this country, in our  institutions – from universities and banks to transport and churches. What's more, this history is in  the very names of many Black British people today. What is Ventour but the name of the people that brutalised my ancestors? Benjamin and Rosiette Ventour were paid a combined sum of £852, 23S  and 5D for their loss of property, (meaning people), my ancestors going back nearly two centuries.  

If enslavement is the crime, then my surnames are the crime scene. My first names, the ones my parents gave me – Tré Isaac – are my only genuine names, since the others are written with the blood of the British Empire. And as Glasgow Councillor Graham Campbell says, “when you are part  of the crime scene, you cannot let the evidence walk away.” 

In Northamptonshire’s Black Caribbean communities, they more than likely got their European names as a result of their  enslaved ancestors under colonial rule in the Caribbean. When employers see a  Smith or Baptiste on a CV or a job application, that person could well be Black and descended from  enslaved peoples. We are remnants of our ancestors. It runs in the blood.  

This history is as much in the names of those that live here as it is in the heritage of Althorp House. Pre-George Floyd, colonialism was presented as afternoon tea and  double-entry bookkeeping. Personally, though afternoon tea is delicious, it connotes  enslavement, colonialism, sugar plantations and clergy planters. Here in my home county, there  were many benefactors but we do not see it like they do in the United States because as Reni Eddo-Lodge writes  “although [enslaved] people moved through British shores regularly, the plantations  they toiled on were... in Britain's ...most … saw the money without the blood.” 

The UCL database shows references to Northamptonshire with residents owning enslaved  people, and plantations in the Caribbean including on the islands of Antigua, Jamaica and Barbados.  One myth is that only men owned enslaved people. Though born in Jamaica, Frances Cox by 1851 was living in Walgrave, Northamptonshire. During the compensation pay-out, she was given  £2194 8S 3D (rounded £148.8k: National Archives, 2017) for one hundred and four enslaved people  on the Carlton estate, St Ann, Jamaica. Another local woman, Eliza Mary Markham living on Abington  Street, was compensated to the sound of over £200,000 in today’s money.

Other beneficiaries of the  bail-out scheme hailed from all corners of the county, including Wellingborough, Higham Ferrers,  Oundle, Wadenhoe and Towcester living very varied lives from a variety of different backgrounds  with a one Reverend Henry Jonas Barton of Wicken being awarded the equivalent of £168.4k  (rounded) for his ‘loss of property’, one hundred and ninety-nine enslaved people.  

Whilst on one side there is a history of the Church as abolitionists,  (presented as ‘good history’), the countering point is that they also were one of the biggest  profiteers of enslavement. This leads me to think about motifs to enslavement on a local level in  Northamptonshire. All Saints Church is situated at the nucleus of Northampton Town Centre. On top,  stands the statue of Charles II. 

Put there as a thank you for his contributions to rebuilding the Church  after the Great Fire of Northampton 1675 giving 1000 tons of timber from the royal forests of  Rockingham and Salcey (at the time). This gesture tied with the revocation of the ‘chimney tax’  made the King likeable to 17th century Northamptonians. Many throughout the country then gave to  the fund. In 1712, John Hunt sculpted a statue to King Charles on the Church’s parapet.  

When Colston’s statue came down, many of us were so focused on what was happening in Bristol we did not care to look closer  to home. Whilst Colston was a major player, Charles II was the equivalent of what today we’d call a  Chief Executive Officer [CEO], as Hirsch  states “... the relationship between the monarchy and  slavery was formalised in 1672 with [his] establishment of Britain’s first slave-trading corporation – the Royal African Company.” The system that enabled Charles, Colston and the RAC endures.  

Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council’s nine-point plan highlights a number of  things that the county can do to further race equity agenda. One such thing is for local authorities to  interrogate street names and statues that may have links to enslavement and colonialism. At this  moment, I am not asking them to get rid of the Charles statue. However, I think a Black history project on the  role of the Royal Family into enslavement and colonialism is a good way to engage our community. 

I have seen lots of talk on Northamptonshire’s history involving Walter Tull and the shoe industry. I  have even written some of those Tull articles myself. Why not look at something different?

Northamptonshire has a colonial legacy not just in the built heritage but also in many of the  people that live and work here as well. Let’s elevate the local consciousness and perhaps get people to ask questions about how the county sees itself. 

About the author:

Tré Ventour is a Northamptonian writer-poet and freelance educator in race and Black history. He has also written for Happy HoodThe Nenequirer and Wonkhe. His poetry, race and Black history work has had him speak locally and internationally, having also been featured by The Guardian and Radio 4. He also contributes regularly to Thoughts by the Criminology Team, the blog run by University of Northampton's Criminology department.