Bath Abbey feels like graveyard folded up and over on itself into a church. Every stone you stand on is a memorial, dedicated to an honoured (read: military or wealthy) individual. When the floor was repaired and upgraded with better heating systems a few years ago, these stones were carefully removed, their exact position marked, and returned to their original resting place. Similar, if in better shape due to not being stood on, memorials line the walls of the Abbey up to just above my full height, meaning they tower over most visitors. These memorials are often personal, marble inscribed with the names and stories of those they remember, listing their virtues as persons. Often they didn’t live most of their life in the city of Bath but rather across the world, working in the united states (including a US senator), Africa, the Carribean, India…
It is easy to miss, as I did initially, that these memorials, dating from the seventeenth and eightheenth centuries, are often memorialising those directly involved in British colonialism, up to and including the capture, sale, purchase and torture of slaves. It is, for obvious reasons, rarely mentioned on the memorials. Except for when it is, with pride. One of the largest monuments is to William Baker, who was the director of the East India Company and later Governor of the Hudson Bay Company, two power private companies that helped establish the British Empire’s colonies in India and Canada, and who controlled vast amounts of the global trade network of the eigthteenth century. Above the plaque listing his life stands a carving showing a woman, representing London, obtaining resources from figures representing the various colonies.
Much like the Pitt Rivers museum, the Abbey is well aware of this history, and has been taking steps to address it. In the North transept stands the Monuments, Empire and Slavery exhibit. It was this exhibit that alerted me to the nature of the monuments in the church, and how, like so many institutions of the British Isles, the Church and the City of Bath profited massively from the colonialism of the British Empire and the slave trade it engaged in for many years, the Church of England outright owning plantations that used slave labour. The Abbey is, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, examining and making public this dark history of both the Abbey and those it memorialises. It is a good exhibition I think, particularly at the beginning, where it lays out very clearly the overarching history and issues it is confronting, and at the end, where it discusses what the Abbey is planning to do further and the organisations such as the Black in Bath Network and the Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association that they are partnering with. There is a prayer, which I do understand is important for a Christian church, and it is acknowledged in the prayer itself that action must be taken to address this, as well as a poem, Dark Shadows, written by the local black poet Mark De Lisser a reading of which by the poet is avaliable here.
The middle of the exhibit is for me the weakest part of it, or at least the weakest part of the content, where it focuses more on specific stories involving the Abbey’s links to slavery, but it felt rather more…not outright apologetic, but pulled itself back a bit from its criticisms of them, describing how, for instance, a man hired as an explorer by the Royal Africa Company wrote in his personal log how he didn’t personally agree with slavery but he brought slaves at a market under orders of the RAC anyway. The poster ends on a line about how he viewed it as his duty, which just felt incomplete. In some ways it feels like the opposite of the musical Hamilton, which was happy to criticise Hamilton and his contemporaries on a personal level but struggles to criticise them on a political level, which explains the issues the musical has in approaching issues like slavery. Here, the exhibition is perfectly willing to make criticism on a political level, clearly laying out the moral failings of institutions, but seems to struggle with extending that criticism onto the people who made up those institutions, the people who’s memorials decorate the Abbey’s walls and floor. This issue of who’s stories are told in the exhibition extends the other way as well. While there are still discussions about enslaved people at the Abbey, including some who got baptised while they and the ones who currently enslaved them were visiting Bath, as far as I could tell and as far as I remember there weren’t any direct names or stories of the enslaved people given in the exhibit. Even in an exhibit discussing slavery and how we memoralise those involved in it, there were no stories of the enslaved.
That choice, whether due to unconcious bias or practical issues in the records the Abbey has historically kept (i.e. the evidence of the slave owners is far better perserved than the enslaved), is kind of a microcosm of a major issue with history. History is not the past. The past is far larger and includes everything, all the information lost to time, malice and apathy, all the people who’s story has, for whatever reason, not been told, but history is the stories we tell about the past, informed by the information that survives and reaches us in the present day and by our own biases and views. Every new examation of history, every narrative constructed in someway attempts to rewrite history, for better or for worse, and part of that is often establishing what information you think should be examined and what you think is important to leave for future historians when we become history ourselves.
And it is this, the information that is left behind and how it is preserved, that is probably my biggest issue with the exhibit. The monuments in the Abbey are old, centuries old, and are impossible to miss whether on the walls or beneath your feet. The stories as framed by those rich enough to have them carved into marble are a permanent part of the abbey, carefully replaced in the exact places they originally lay when the floor beneath them was modernised. The exhibition, for all the geniune good in it, is a temporary fixture, running till the fourth of september 2021, literally the day this blog post goes live. The posters are placed in a quiet corner of the Abbey, not as immediately eye catching as the monuments, and are on temporary wooden boards, not stone designed to last long after we are gone. It is a good step to make, and I wish Bath Abbey and its partners the best in their attempts to bring to light to these dark shadows, but I simply could not escape the contrast between wood and stone, paper and carvings.
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