Richard White

explorations in place and time


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Sweet Waters: Soundings

Sweet Waters: Soundings from the walks

Saturday 21 October from 13.00-16.00

Saltford Brass Mill
The Shallows
Saltford
BS31 3EY

an installation in sound and images

Responses and resonances sense-ing legacies of slave-ownership in Bath and along the River Avon….visit the Mill discover sounds and images gathered from the Sweet Waters walks and related research along side the existing information and orientation

Sweet Waters graphic final

Working with field recordings, background research and other materials this begins a reporting phase from the Sweet Waters project.  The Mill is a relic of an industry producing brass goods that were loaded on ships from Bristol and traded for enslaved people. The water wheel still turns and the installations will respond to the watery sonic environment, repatriating sounds of the manufacture of goods destined for the West Coast of Africa.

Sweet Waters is a wayfaring through interconnected cycles of Water and Trade exploring legacies and revealing resonances:

Water: from rain to river to sea to sky and back, power and transport, plantation irrigation and country park decoration. The river washed away the sweat of the brass workers, returning slave ships were scrubbed down into it, while the tears of those who lost loved ones to the slavers flowed to the sea in the rivers of West Africa. In the water: blood, vomit, excretia, the dissolved and digested flesh of those who resisted, sea-sick, home-sick, tears of grief, tears of despair, blood of punishment and cold sweat of survival. In the vast Atlantic Ocean there are generations of lives thrown overboard as damaged goods, food for fish and cowries. Heritage, memories, stories, languages.

Trade: the Triangular Trade: products made and transported on the River Avon shipped to West Africa and sold for enslaved people, those who survived the crossing were sold again to work in field and factory, the materials they produced and the wealth generated returned up the River Avon. Sugar. Tobacco. Timber. Wealth fuelling industrial development and embodied in country houses and the fine buildings Bristol and Bath.
So when it rains in Bath or Bristol or when the river swells with the tide and as the water turns the Saltford millwheel we remember and sense legacies of slave-ownership. We are mindful of our heritage. We are connected. Sweet Waters.

hurricane-irma-1200x900

 

Legacies I am reflecting on

Global warming begins at the hearth of the slave-owning nations, hurricanes today drawing up the warmed Atlantic waters.

Colonial assertions of white skinned dominance feeds deep and long-lasting racism and the trauma of enslavement continues to fills prisons and mental hospitals.

Weapons from England sold in West Africa escalate violence and dislocation.

Cultures of addiction, sugar, tobacco, tea, coffee chocolate on which slave-owners fortunes are made.

Slave-owner wealth embodied in grand houses, parklands and cityscapes.

Enslaved people who survived carried beliefs, skills, stories and sound memories into the cultures they fashioned.

Echoes of resistance and survival in the popular music of today.

 

Richard White 2017

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Sweet Waters Holburne Museum to Beckfords Tower

A first stab at writing up my notes:

I come back from a walk a different person

Walk 1 From the Holburne Museum to Beckfords Towerbriefing at Holburne
Bath’s Last Legal Slaveowners
2 proper tour guides on this first day walking team and I’m on stage edgey
One from the buses, the other from mad max.

and me.

Gathering in the sun outside the pillared temple of the museum at the top of Pulteney Street. Architectural icons from ancient slave economies fetished to represent learning and authority. The Roman Baths were discovered under the offices of Bath’s Poor Law Guardians. (archaeologicial irony)

Slaves ancient and modern, just like the poor of the City have no voice here.

Don’t mention the sugar.

Sugar that sweetened the tea and transformed chocolate to sweet treat.

Sweet ease of polite society hiding in glass cabineted silver bowls and tongs

No tongues for the sugar nips

Don’t mention the sugar, the Holburne doesnt

 

First thing in the high ceilinged morning cool gallery we talk in hushed tones. We drift toward Gainsborough’s portrait of slaveowners. One of the largest canvases he painted, it says. These were the people who came to the enchanted city to take the waters, to recover from the heat and disease, to network, to speculate, to gamble. The Byams, a family with its feet deep in the blood and flesh of the slave worked plantation economy. Gainsborough painted them. Pulteney financed accommodation for them, speculating with profits won from stolen land and stolen lives. The enchanted city flourished on their wealth and patronage

Gainsborough George Byam
Out to the pleasure gardens to alert senses and sensibility.

Listen. Touch. Feel. Think.

Get the Jane Austen lived there, walked here, bit. Over.

out into the park

And we walked too, stopping at the claimants addresses for:
A ritual reading of the ‘charge sheet’.
The address in Bath, where we stood;

The name of the slave-owner who lived there
Date of the court order;
Number of enslaved people;
Name of the plantation, parish, Caribbean island;
Number of pounds paid out in ‘compensation’ to the slave-owner
Those released received no compensation

I heard echoes of Linton Kwesi Johnson and the New Cross Fire

“13 dead and nothing said”

I try to break the silence of this enchanted city
A run of performative statements repetitive intentional becoming disturbing:

20 million paid out and nothing said

How many lives lost, how many lives never lived. How much life blighted.

 

Sweat in the water. Blood in the sea

Reading Dabydeen aloud and suggesting Turner’s hypocrisy

Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhon coming on. 1840

The water cycle brings it all back to us now.

 

A Turner painting survives as the only record of Beckford’s monumental plantation-wealth funded Abbey

Did Beckford introduce Turner to a speculative money spinner, spun on lives and sugar?

Was he feeling guilty by 1840, decades after the Zong massacre?
In Bath no memorials only silent monuments to slave generated wealth:

Pulteney bridge

Guinea Lane

Beckfords tower.

We walk a city inscribed, the origins of its wealth obscured

 

Braikenridge collected watercolours of the rural South West,

just bought more with his compensation.

It was for others to create the plantation picturesque.

On Queens Square where Braikenridge claimed his share of the £20million there is no letter box for me to deliver his souvenir plaque. (architectural irony)

jamaican_plantation_1050x700
A conversation at a hotel on Pulteney street.

George Orwell’s grandparents claimed compensation from here.

The re-writing of history. (literary irony)
Outside the Park Street residence of Nathaniel Wells

First black JP and Lord Lieutenant of Monmouthshire. (no plaque)

Slaveowner. (no irony)

A conversation regarding family and loyalty.

The training of the white landed elite.

Power. Ruthlessness.

Hold a mirror to our modern European sensibilities and assumptions.

Raised as white elite, why would Wells have felt any more responsibility to his kin than to his class?

 

A conversation regarding performance…overkill? Repetitive?
Does a performative walk on such a theme need to be fun…does it need a distance?

What to do with the upset and anger.

Are we afraid of what we might unleash in ourselves?

Or had we just walked too far in the same direction?
Mad max suggests a making link to the Romans and get a laugh from lazy ‘locals’ enslaved to work at the baths.

It connects Horrible History style but denies.

I want to connect emotionally empathically. Taste the sweetness and think of human flesh digested by cowries in the ocean. Feel the rain and wonder about the memory of water. Hear the beat and dance to it.

The senses connect differently

towards the tower
At last bursting out to country

The finest view in England, so Beckford said.

Green treed river snaking through the valley

Watered with Atlantic rain.

Down there driven by water wheels

brass mills battered and thudded

Neptunes and Guinea pots

Brass manillas by the hundredweight

The currency of the slave trade

To go on the river to Bristol

For the slave ships across the sea to West Africa

To trade in human lives

Turner Beckford

On the grass at Beckford’s grave, the gilded tower behind us

Reading Dabydeen’s  Turner and looking at Turner’s slave ship painting

A conversation on scuba diving in the Caribbean connects:

Heritage in the water.

Or as Derek Walcott put it far better than I

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

We conclude with the sweetness. Sugar cake.

Kendal Mint Cake for walkers, Wordsworth and sensory memory

Mindful of the cycle of water

Even if it the molecules don’t hold

We make memory at this place, at Beckfords grave.

 

We connect, bear witness, then climb the tower.

I came back from the walk a different person

 

(quoted The Sea Is History – Poem by Derek Walcott)


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notes from a days wayfaring down the river Avon from Bath to Bristol

Along the tow path from Bath to Bristol, setting out with a thought intention or purpose of sensing the legacies of slavery and slave ownership on the river.  At first confronted by my childhood and a tricky entrance.
Bath entrance Albion
My chosen path along the river was closed for the reconstruction of the Destructor bridge.  It carries a crossing between the Argos warehouse carpark and the council depot; home to the city dustbin trucks and recycling centre. Already a queue of cars engines running waiting for the gates to open and there to leave their magnolia cuttings in exchange for duty done Bath green smug satisfaction. The old bridge was a ramshackle rattling military seemingly temporary construction leading to gasworks and once derelict industrial heartlands of the city. New sleek swift money buildings rise context free from these sites. New anonymous des res needs new shiny bridge;  across the other side of the grey river I could see it shrink wrapped waiting to be slid into place. Will such a bridge earn its predecessor’s powerful name?

Between two myths of England I tried to find the entrance, and found an enchantment.  St George was Turkish if those stories are to be believed and Albion connects back to a notion of Englishness from before the Peasants Revolt. And the plaque we got planted in Swindon. In the days of Thatcher’s Poll Tax, a council intent on making its mark named a civic building Wat Tyler House. We chose the words of Tyler’s comrade, John Ball:
“Nothing will go well in Albion until all things are held in common”
A phrase once heard in a small US town: Albion, Michigan.

Chasing such obscured appropriations the entrance did not reveal itself. Disenchanted. A wall with discontinuities compounded by mythology.  I continued at a distance from the river along the Upper Bristol Road where a bouncy castle caught my eye. Contained behind railing spears and named Treasure Island. Awash with thoughts of pirates, galleons, maps I remembered the well loved story and its scary telling.The parrot, Robert Newton’s iconic ooaarjimlad performance. And the menace deep inside it, the Black Spot. I walked on, now on the tow path towards the waters weir roar and the story or more its context haunted me…was this a legacy of the Atlantic trade, the more I thought about it I couldn’t find a black face in the telling. Does Treasure Island warrant a re-telling for new times. Is the bouncy castle its metaphorical presence, what would Treasure Island disenchanted say.

Treasure Island

Riffing on islands walking along the river towpath. A newly discovered name for the island on the other side of the lock where great clattering wool mills once stood. Dutch Island. Now the bus depot. Hard flat tarmac behind old walls enchantment but no romance, sealed in stories of those who worked there and where the products of their labours were sold. No bouncy castle on Dutch Island. My thoughts moved on as I walked deeper, beyond sadness that the Dolphin our summer pub by the lock by the small humpback bridge the millworkers crossed, is permanently closed.
Haile Sellassie was here1
I followed the path once taken by Haile Sellassie in exile. In my modern eyes photos show him with pride, dignity and melancholy, like a lion of Longleat but with a human intelligence and self awareness. In his imagined steps I thought of the spirit of empire he appealed to and the metallic brutal modernity he was caught up in. The romance of the exile that connects to the Caribbean back and forth over the Atlantic, a network of intent and consequences with Britain at its core. The mesh.

It was a long days walk and for the most part I journeyed alone, slipping in and out of the enchantments offered. Strange portals opened and closed, embankment clearing on the old Great Western Railway appeared to show a gateway..but perhaps simply revealing the construction technique. Hard work forgotten. I looked for the memorial tree before Saltford, it had been felled. I found another.
plastic crap7
Almost keeping pace with the flow. The river now as leisure: rowing, walking, sailing, fishing. Where before it had been work, food, fuel and communication. I looked for the old fords and imagined the river shallow and wide. Freshford. Bathford. Saltford. Swineford. I saw plastic in the flood blasted trees, caught like flowers, closer shredded in the thorns, no natural disaster here just chuck away plastic normality accepts the mess and continues to reproduce it. How did we get to a place like this I thought as we looked across the river to the former chocolate factory emerging from its plastic wrappings as luxury housing. A hundred yards down river from a brass mill where the currency of slavery was made. Who picked the cacao, how did it get to Keynsham. What went down this river what came back up….
Cadbury's behind trees2
Two of us now walking and wondering if there had been an Avon Bore like the one on the Severn, a great wave moving powerfully up the river. Into the gorge and under the bridge. Passing the last weir where the river was first tamed we were on the edge of the city. Coal mines, smelters and furnace remains, once the stinky east end of Bristol, poisoned lands forgotten, reclaimed, landscaped. Heritaged. A great green tube embedded in the cliffs carrying effluence from today’s city, lycra cyclists whizz past and the bins overflow with responsibly bagged dog shit. The gateways of Bristol opened and closed: so much to think about so much to carry so much to care. To take into care.
Bristol Avon harbour feeder3
and the river kept on going …. in its man made shredded plastic lined and muddy cut scar, flowing out to the sea.