During 2010, and during Black History Month no less, a plaque was quietly erected in the rural town of Brecon, Wales to commemorate the life of a slave trader and commander of the slave ship Hannibal without public consultation.
African people were purchased by agents of The Royal African Company to undertake forced labour and childbearing as slaves for the accumulation of profit. In 1693 700 enslaved African women, men and children were forced below the decks of the Hannibal under the command of Captain Thomas Phillips of Brecon. Of those people, 328 died a horrible death aboard his ship.
It was Bristol Radical History Group who first initiated a local discussion questioning the moral and ethical significance of the plaque. In 2018 Rosemary Caldicott, while researching for her book Nautical Women, caught the attention of a local newspaper and consequently was invited to give an interview to discuss her concerns as to why Brecon town council had erected a plaque to a slave trader only a few years previously. Rosemary stated that it is:
disappointing that the plaque fails to mention that Captain Thomas Phillips was a slave trader which is a serious inadequacy considering that this is the only fact that characterises Phillips as a notable in history. That is, other than the fact that, few slave-ship captains had presided over such catastrophic suffering and loss of life in a single voyage. Not something to commemorate is it? Read the previous article here.
On the 7th June 2020 the infamous slave trader Edmund Colston’s controversial statue was removed from its plinth and thrown into Bristol harbour by protestors during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the city-centre where the statue had stood since the late Victorian era. The following week Brecon residents were outraged to discover that Brecon Town Council had erected a plaque to a slave trader without consultation, at their expense, in their town, and that incredibly it was still in-situ.
In recognition and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement the Brecon plaque was also removed on or about the 7th June, by persons unknown, and thrown into the river Usk. Finally, the town council was forced to act and swiftly put out a series of tweets declaring that:
Brecon Town Council stands against racism and discrimination. We are proud of our town’s diversity and we celebrate and defend the cultural heritage of all our citizens. Earlier this year, the town council committed itself to review the plaque located on Captains Walk which noted Captain Thomas Phillips’ connection to the town. Work to remove or review the plaque was unfortunately delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the plaque has now been removed before the town council could complete its work, the town council, in consultation with the local community and interested parties will take time to consider what, if anything, should take its place.
The council to their credit held a virtual meeting on 5th August 2020. It was pointed out at the meeting by several attendees that if a new replacement plaque is to be commissioned and paid for by the local rate payer surely it should be to memorialise the African souls who perished during their forced transportation to Barbados from West Africa.
On the 2nd October 2020, the council issued the following press release via twitter:
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS PLAQUE – Brecon Town Council has been consulting with the public in recent months about what should happen to the Captain Phillips plaque that was located on Captain’s Walk. A successful ‘Town Talk’ was held online to seek opinions, and many points of view were received via other means. In line with the majority of viewpoints it has been agreed to not reinstate the plaque in its original location and to donate it in its current form to Y Gaer, [Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery], where it will be displayed as part of an exhibit detailing the wider context. A working group will now look at whether a new work of art or plaque should be commissioned focussing on the victims of slavery, or whether a piece of art can be loaned, and where any such piece should be located.
Bristol Radical History Group applaud Brecon town council in their principled decision not to reinstate the plaque but to display the plaque in Y Gaer with accurate historical interpretation. We hope that some of the superb Black Lives Matter placards may also be displayed to honour the ethical position demonstrated by Brecon people. However, we do query who is to sit on the ‘working group’ and whether the ‘group’ will be comprised of a cross-section of Brecon’s residents. The council is yet to specify any further details of the proposed group. In the interests of transparency, the public should be informed by the council: Who is to sit on the group? What is the process for decision making? Will residents of Brecon be able to engage in decision making, and who will make the final decisions?
On the 6th July 2020 the Welsh Government issued a press release stating a review and audit of all memorials with a connection to slavery and empire. The audit will be led by Gaynor Legall, a powerful advocate for ethnic minority women across Wales.
A poignant and reflective tribute remembering the lives of the African people who sailed and died on the Hannibal was penned in June 2020 by poet Marvin Thompson. Marvin was born in Tottenham, London to Jamaican parents and now lives in south Wales where he works as an English Teacher.
Triptych is a three-part poem that was written in response to the plaque at Brecon’s Captain’s Walk. The poem explores the echoes and reverberations of the legacy and brutality of slavery.
Marvin explains that he was ‘invited via Twitter to write a poem for the Outposted Arts Project, which came about during lockdown. The project is all about how people felt distanced and isolated and how we can use creativity to feel more connected with one another. I researched the town and found the Captain Thomas Phillips plaque which I knew straight away is what I wanted to write about. I was delighted to be invited by the poet JLM Morton to contribute to the Brecon Map as part of the Outposted project. Unsure what to write, I began to research Brecon’s colonial past’.
Outraged by my findings, I set about composing a sestina to honour the lives of enslaved people’. Marvin consulted the Bristol Radical History Group. “Rosemary Caldicott who works at the group in Bristol had loads of details about the plaque and the voyage. She was able to provide me with some fantastic sources of information. In online articles, she wrote with eloquence and anger about Brecon Town Council erecting a plaque that commemorated a slave trader. From then onwards I was able to just write and write with real emotion and feeling.
Marvin’s debut collection, Road Trip  is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In June 2020, the Poetry Society selected Road Trip as one of five Black Lives Matter Inspiration books. In addition, Road Trip is one of 40 recommended collections and anthologies for National Poetry Day, 2020 and received acclaim in The Guardian.
1. ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’ Marcus Garvey.
Dear Brecon Town Council,
A mouth drying to mud, tightening lungs and eyes on the edge of tears:
that was the reaction of my Black British body
when, on this wind-lash of a lockdown morning, I read
who you class as a role model for my Welsh, Mixed Race children.
In 2010 (during Black History Month no less) a blue plaque
was unveiled in Brecon, honouring the life of a Welsh seafarer,
Captain Thomas Phillips. A man who grew rich from selling slaves;
humans like me, my parents, my brothers. Maybe I should show this slaver
more understanding: in later life, he wrote about his ‘cargo’ with tears,
suggesting all people are ‘the work of God’s hands.’ Ah, I see.
Those were different times and Philips showed remorse so my body
should be calmed. Never mind that the racism thriving under our blue skies
was designed by men like Philips. Tell me, should I also read
the captain’s Voyage Journal to my children
and teach them they are indeed picaninnies with watermelon smiles, children
whose ancestors have no place in history and have no name except slave
or nigger and owe all to Wilberforce? I pray that once you have read
this open message, your chest fills with a flaming desire to tear
the plaque from its wall or better yet, add an extra slab of blue slate
and inscribe it with: ‘This Welshman sailed across seas
to enslave humans, growing rich from the sweat of their Black bodies.’
2. ‘It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule.’ Walter Rodney
Huddled on deck, we wait to be fed, the wind slapping our negro bodies.
On our Guinea coast, I saw men I’ve known since we were children
leap overboard before the shackles cut our wrists. They are the sea;
my younger brother is the sea – I felt like a slave
the moment I was dragged from my home, the night a hot, sticky blue.
My brother always told me I spend too much time reading
the stars or discussing the missionaries’ Christ. My tears
are too late. A bowl of cold porridge rests in my palms. I am a teardrop,
not an ocean – the waves are darkening, the sky is darkening and the body
of this ship is swaying. I trace my finger over my chest’s H. The red wound
from the branding iron is now a white scar. ‘That’s a story for children!’
my brother laughed when I told him I’d dreamt Christ – the sky’s blue
is swirling to black and sailors are pushing us away from the sea’s mouth
back down to the Hannibal’s belly and our stench, our slave piss.
The wind is braying and I hear my brother’s voice: We are not slaves,
we are not slaves… Waves rise like hills and a hand tears
at my arm – I spin round to a sailor and our eyes meet. What does he see?
He steps away. I clamber to the ship’s listing edge and fling my body
into the abyss of the squall, its endless, endless blue:
no angels. No smiling Christ and I am wet, a reed
in the waves. I am a brother. I am the sea. I am a cradled child.
3. ‘When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.’ Frantz Fanon
Officer, with respect, I’m 63 and you’re treating me like some childish idiot.
Honestly, I have no opinion on Brecon’s history of slaves
or sailors. Yes, I walk past that plaque every day. I’ve read it,
once, maybe. Like I explained, I retired from my council duties, with tears,
long before any of the other… Look, I am growing quite blue
with rage. I thought not having a solicitor would… Okay, I see.
I’ll explain myself again. I live with my wife. Nobody else.
Thanks to God’s grace, we don’t have to self-isolate but our bodies
are a bit on the plump side. As such, we do a lot of walking. We’re like kids
enjoying the freedom of working from home. All I could see,
when I woke that night, was my wife – her eyes were as wide as a whipped slave’s
and… Sorry. That was… Anyway, she was holding my blue
tool bag. ‘You’ll need this,’ she said. ‘I better get ready,’
I replied. But it was like… It was like it wasn’t me talking. I chucked on my torn
overalls, kissed my wife, my rosary beads and tore
down the road in my Range Rover. When I got to Captain’s Walk, everybody
you’ve mentioned was there and the bench beneath the plaque was already
being got at with a chainsaw. Three men were dancing like wild, sweaty kids
to UB40 and a madness took hold of me. From my bag, I pulled out my blue
portable jackhammer: the cheers were like a rising sea.
Officer, I didn’t post the video on Twitter. What do I know about slaves?
- The Royal African Company (RAC) was an English mercantile (trading) company set up in 1660 by the royal Stuart family and City of London merchants to trade along the west coast of Africa. It was led by the Duke of York, who was the brother of Charles II and later took the throne as James II. Also see Mark Steeds and Roger Ball From Wulfstan to Colston: Severing the sinews of slavery in Bristol. p.49. Bristol Radical History Group. 2020. [Back...]
- Marvin Thompson. Roadtrip. Peepal Tree Press. March 2020. [Back...]