Somebody has betrayed the Legacy Steering Group….

The Legacy Steering Group (LSG, initially known as the Slave Trade Legacy Roundtable and now formally known as the Bristol Transatlantic Slavery Legacy Group) was founded by Deputy-Mayor Asher Craig in February 2019.  The LSG was launched in the wake of the decision to change the name of the Colston Hall and because of persistent calls for a memorial and museum to remember the millions of Africans who suffered and died during the period of transatlantic slavery, of which the port of Bristol was a major participant.

In the UK, Bristol lags well behind other cities in physically recognising the suffering and historic legacy of slavery such as Liverpool with its famous International Museum of Slavery. Several European cities including Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Nantes in France and most recently Lisbon in Portugal have either constructed significant memorials and museums or are planning them.  As one historian from Bristol University pointed out to Asher Craig in March 2019 at the second Roundtable meeting:

“Bristol’s reputation abroad, when referring to the city’s response to its slaving past, was very bad”. He also said that Bristol shouldn’t limit its ambitions regarding a slavery memorial and museum, “the city should think big and be better than Liverpool”.[1]

One group who have consistently produced proposals for locations for such a memorial and designs for an interpretation centre in central Bristol have been the Abolition Shed Collective. Formed in 2017 from members of several groups (including Countering Colston, Bristol Radical History Group and the Long John Silver Trust) they have proposed two projects involving Bristol City Council (BCC) owned properties, the first located in two empty warehouses on historic Welsh Back and the second at the Seaman’s Mission and Chapel near Pero’s Bridge. The former project was scuppered by the ruling Labour group in BCC in 2019 when they continued with their unpopular and wasteful plan to turn the warehouses into a pizza restaurant. The latter remains a viable plan, at least for now.

You might expect that a group of unpaid, Bristolian volunteers (which, by the way, included a Lord Mayor) who, off their own backs, have opened up international links and have put together proposals for a memorial for “remembrance, reflection and reconciliation” concerning the Africans who suffered under slavery would be something that the elected Mayor and his deputy would welcome. However, it appears that the concrete proposals that Abolition Shed Collective (ASC) were putting forward were a ‘problem’ for our leaders from the very beginning. Asher Craig initially fobbed them off by telling ASC to get some private funding. Despite this slap in the face campaigners continued to push the plan for the development of the BCC warehouses on Welsh Back.

The persistence and enthusiasm of the ASC and the groups that supported them who clearly cared about the memorial, the history and the city’s international reputation appeared to upset Marvin Rees and Asher Craig. Members of the ASC joined Asher’s Roundtable in 2019, and conscious of the City Council’s failures to deal with the issue of a memorial for decades, continued to try to get something done about it. In August 2019 Marvin Rees demanded to know “who the campaigners were” and Asher was even more irritated claiming “the City was now taking this seriously” and accused the campaigners of being “bullies”.

Despite Asher’s ridiculous statement one member of the ASC persisted with the Legacy Steering Group acting as a delegate and reporting back to more than 60 people in several interested groups (BRHG, Counter Colston, The Long John Silver Trust). Over the following year the delegate was repeatedly not invited to meetings of the LSG, taken off mailing lists without explanation and their proposals were not allowed onto the agenda. Despite these attempts to exclude or silence the delegate, they persevered with offering proposals from the ASC with the aim of achieving a commitment from BCC for a memorial and museum.

At an online meeting of the LSG in January 2021 Asher Craig announced that the Society of Merchant Venturers (SMV), the unelected, undemocratic wealthy businessmen’s club with a torrid history of organising and facilitating Bristol merchants involvement in the transatlantic slave-trade, wanted to join the group. She also dropped a second bombshell in claiming that the Merchant Venturers have a statutory right to meet with Council leaders twice a year and that she was undertaking these meetings because “Marvin Rees did not want to”. Craig claimed this ‘right’ of access to Council leaders was down to the Venturers Royal Charter of 1552. When this fact was reported back to BRHG by the delegate in the minutes to the meeting there was consternation. Other than the Downs Committee, had anyone heard about statutory meetings between Council leaders and the Merchant Venturers before? The news of the ‘secret meetings with the SMVs’ leaked out, though not into the mainstream media, and there was talk of Freedom of Information requests to confirm their supposed statutory nature.[2]

At the end of the LSG meeting in February 2021 Craig rounded on the ASC delegate accusing them of tweeting out about her ‘secret’ meetings with the SMVs. Without allowing any response from the delegate, Craig ranted on about an unsigned, draft LSG “confidentiality agreement” and even resorted to pulling the ‘race card’ as an explanation of the delegates supposed ‘betrayal’. Disgusted and rightly pissed off the delegate left the meeting without even being given the opportunity to point out to Craig they had never had a Twitter account and had never sent a tweet in their life. Within hours the delegate made the decision to resign from the LSG and penned the following email to Craig and the rest of the group:

It is with regret that I wish to tender my resignation from the Slavery Legacy Group. Last night, in front of the whole Group, I was subjected to a tirade of abuse from Deputy Mayor Asher Craig over an alleged breach of confidentiality. Apparently I had tweeted that executive leaders from BCC (in this case Deputy Mayor Asher Craig) met twice a year, in secret, with the Master of the SMVs and that they had done so for the past 500 years. I didn’t have the opportunity to say that I don’t Tweet and that I don’t even have a Twitter account. She accused me of not having any respect for her, not having the decency to contact her prior to tweeting, and for being white in a basically black forum(!?). It seems that the rant was sparked by the forthcoming invitation to the Master of the Society of Merchant Venturers to talk to the Group. Despite the fact that the SMVs, Craig admitted, “had blood all over their hands”.

I volunteered my time for the Group (and its predecessors) and have sacrificed a fair bit in order to try and bring communities together in what is a really sensitive area concerning Bristol’s past. My main gripe with the Group is that it’s not diverse, does not have cross-party support and seems to want to operate in a bubble of secrecy. Why? This kind of action is widely regarded as being inappropriate for such a sensitive issue where openness and transparency should be the watchword.

There are over 60 people in the Abolition Shed Collective, all of whom I’ve been keeping informed, in the hope that we would be allowed to present our ideas and initiatives. The opportunities we have sought have been repeatedly denied, and other outside groups have been put on various agendas ahead of us. Bristol has another golden opportunity to have a garden of remembrance, memorial to the victims of enslavement and interpretation centre just waiting for a compulsory purchase order to set the ball rolling. Even if our ideas weren’t implemented the space (next to the Arnolfini) and Old Chapel (close by and currently at risk) could be brought back into use for the people of Bristol.

After years of trying to engage with various Roundtables and Legacy Groups, all we seem to have achieved during this Mayor’s tenure are dodged debates, fudged issues and talking shops. This kicking the can down the road has basically encouraged (or forced) people to take matters into their own hands – witness the toppling of the Colston statue.

If ever there was an award for prevarication, this administration should get it.

The resignation email was ignored by Craig, along with the many hours of service given voluntarily to the Legacy Group by the delegate and their supporters to try and make amends for the lack of action by Bristol City Council.

So we are now left with a Legacy Steering Group which is apparently more interested in the Merchant Venturers and has excluded most of the local historians and activists who have campaigned for years for an appropriate memorial to those Africans who suffered under slavery.

And we might ask, what are these so-called statutory meetings between Council leaders and the Society of Merchant Venturers? Can we have some transparency? Can the people of Bristol see the minutes? Why did we not know about them?

[1] Prof. Mark Horton quoted in minutes to March 2019 LSG meeting.

[2] There is one example of similar kinds of meeting taking place. The Guild of Guardians a ‘charity’ based at the Mansion House state on their website that “It is unique in that through its membership [The Guild of Guardians] it affords the opportunity for the private sector to discuss with senior politicians the policies of the City Council”. “About the Guild of Guardians”, The Guild of Guardians, accessed 22 March 2021 https://www.mansionhousebristol.co.uk/.

 

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