Abney Park and Abolition: Agency and Memory in the fight against Slavery

By: Charlie Morgan Abney Park cemetery is by far the most prominent cemetery in Hackney and, as one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, one of the grandest in London. Furthermore, it’s Hackney’s first nature reserve and this is reflected in the wild, seemingly unplanned layout of the burial plots. Yet it is also one of the greatest repositories of social and political history in the borough and once you begin to look at the graves you soon uncover the stories that lie below.

In her blog post, Kate Donington highlighted the complexity and diversity of Hackney’s relationship to slavery. The borough was home to both slave-owners and slavery abolitionists and while she drew our attention to the former, Abney Park highlights much more of the latter. In 2007 the Abney Park Trust created a map entitled ‘Abolition’ and on it can be traced the graves of many notable abolitionists. Most well known is perhaps Joanna Vassa. Vassa was the daughter of Olaudah Equiano whose personal account of enslavement became a key text of the abolition movement. Less is known about the life of his daughter and for many years her grave was a secret of the undergrowth. However, after being tipped off by an American researcher the Trust uncovered her tomb and had it renovated.

Unfortunately the inscription upon Vassa’s tomb has become ineligible but others can still be seen clearly. In 1992 the headstone upon the grave of Reverend Thomas Burchell was renewed by two of his grandchildren and they made sure to keep the original inscription which notes the prominent part he played in ‘achieving the freedom of the slaves and in pursuing the hold ends of his ministry’. While Burchell, a Baptist missionary, was a firm campaigner for abolition it was his deacon in Jamaica, Sam Sharpe, who played a greater role. In 1831 Sharpe led a general strike turned uprising of about 60,000 enslaved people against the British in Jamaica and, although Burchell did suffer brief imprisonment for supposed ‘incitement’, it was Sharpe who would in 1832 be executed in the town square. Unlike Burchell, who could return to England and be put to rest in Abney Park, Sharpe was tossed in the sands of Montego Bay Harbour and it was only later that his remains were found and interred beneath his church.

This is not to undermine the work of Thomas Burchell but, considering the imbalance between who can and cannot be located, to question the use of burial sites as historical learning tools. Following the 1831 rebellion, the British public saw the white Baptist missionaries as, depending on their political persuasions, either the heroes or the victims of the uprising; what was important was that their focus was never on the enslaved people of Jamaica. In an attempt to prevent that narrative resurfacing today, and recognising that enslaved Africans who rebelled against slavery are never going to be found in London cemeteries, it is important to question whether a reliance on sites like Abney Park places agency in the wrong place.

After Sam Sharpe was executed his owner was paid £16 compensation. We also know that the plantation owner who took the largest role in suppressing the revolt was William Stanford Grignon. A search on the LBS database shows that he was awarded four claims, including 650 16S 8D for claims in Montego Bay. Back in Hackney, and close to Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington Common contains its own connection to the history of slavery. In 2009 a tree was planted by Hackney Council and given the following plaque:

By referring to all the people, the plaque presents a far broader understanding of the abolition of slavery than Abney Park has the capacity to do and specifically acknowledges the enslaved people who fought and died for their freedom. Similarly, by clarifying this as African enslavement, the plaque recognises that it was foremost African people who were enslaved and highlights the unique brutality of transatlantic slavery.

While debates over terminology are sometimes dismissed as pedantic, all words carry different meanings and often reflect fundamental disagreements. In the case of the history and abolition of slavery, and especially when teaching the subject matter to school children, whether individuals are described as ‘slaves’, ‘enslaved people’ or ‘enslaved Africans’ can reflect key debates around issues of identity and agency. Furthermore, it has been suggested that there is an over-reliance on the term ‘slave trade’ and that a description such Maafa (Swahili for ‘Great Disaster) does a better job in conveying the true horror of the abduction, forced labour and murder of millions of Africans. Which historical sites to use and which descriptive terms to use are crucial questions that will need to be addressed in the creation of an educational resource. The issues brought up by Abney Park and the memorial tree will be reflected in all the work we do.