Henbury, Bristol

Damage to statues and other monuments has made for heated headlines and sharply divided opinions this summer. One act seems particularly heinous, however: the deliberate destruction of a grave marker commemorating ‘Scipio Africanus’, an enslaved black teenager who died in Bristol in 1720. We do not know the young man’s birth name (the name on his headstone is that of a Roman general famous for defeating Hannibal in 202 BC, and was presumably given to him by a household he served) nor the circumstances of his short life before he became a servant of the Earl of Suffolk, but he was evidently held in some esteem – his colourful memorial (listed Grade II*) is highly unusual for the time. The paired head and footstones are covered with carved relief decorations depicting black cherubs, flowers, and skulls, as well as a poetic (if somewhat condescending) inscription proclaiming Scipio’s transformation from pagan to Christian, and from darkness to ‘radiant light’.

During lockdown, I have spent a lot of time drawing sites and monuments that mean something to me, and among these places of heritage I drew the Scipio gravestone as I feel it represents a key part of the nation’s story. To hear shortly afterwards that the memorial had been smashed – reportedly in retaliation for the pulling down of a statue of Bristol philanthropist and slave trader Edward Colston during the recent Black Lives Matter protests – was heartbreaking. Whatever your politics or your views on individual statues, the wilful desecration of a grave in such a deliberately provocative act is abhorrent.

But while the internet can be used to share acts of hatred, it can also be used to facilitate all that is good about being human. On learning of the vandalism, I set up a JustGiving page (www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/richard-osgood) hoping to raise around £1,000 towards restoring the stone. I did this in the knowledge it would cost the Bristol Parks Department much more – as the MoD’s Senior Archaeologist, I have seen the expensive outcome of tank versus milestone on Salisbury Plain! – but within only a few days over £5,000 had been donated, with the promise of more to ensure the stone can be protected in future. Our past truly can inspire so many people to show a collective kindness, emphasising that,while history can be problematic, it needs to be discussed.

But while the internet can be used to share acts of hatred, it can also be used to facilitate all that is good about being human. On learning of the vandalism, I set up a JustGiving page (www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/richard-osgood) hoping to raise around £1,000 towards restoring the stone. I did this in the knowledge it would cost the Bristol Parks Department much more – as the MoD’s Senior Archaeologist, I have seen the expensive outcome of tank versus milestone on Salisbury Plain! – but within only a few days over £5,000 had been donated, with the promise of more to ensure the stone can be protected in future. Our past truly can inspire so many people to show a collective kindness, emphasising that,while history can be problematic, it needs to be discussed.

Text by Richard Osgood


This article appears in issue 366 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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