My Objections to the Removal of the African Statue on Stroud’s Town Clock

More iconoclasm driven by current sensitivities over historic slavery and contemporary racism. The local news for the Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire area, Points West, reported that Stroud council was expected to vote for the removal of the statue of an African from the town clock. I’m not surprised, as there were demands last year from a local anti-racist group, Stroud Against Racism, demanding its removal, and I really thought it had been taken down already. Stroud’s a small town in Gloucestershire, whose historic economy I always thought was based on the Cotswold wool trade rather than something more sinister. Stroud Against Racism seems to be a group of mainly young Black people, led by a local artist, who’ve had terrible personal experiences of racism in the town. In an interview on BBC local news, it seemed that they particularly resented the figure as representation of the racist attitudes they’d experienced. They assumed it was a slave and demanded its removal, with one young Black woman complaining about the statue’s grotesque features which she obviously felt were an insulting caricature.

The African ‘Slave’ Figure on Stroud Town Clock

While I entirely sympathise with them for the abuse they suffered as victims of racism and appreciate why they would want the statue removed, I believe it is profoundly mistaken. Firstly, while the local news has been describing the statue as a slave, there’s no evidence that connects it directly to slavery and the slave trade. They know the name of the clockmaker, and that’s it. No evidence has been presented to suggest he had any connection with the slave trade or slavery at all. Further more, there are no marks on the statue to suggest slavery. There are no chains or manacles, as seen in this image of Black African slaves captured by a group of Arab slavers below.

Arab Slave Coffle

Nor does the figure look like the poor souls on sale in this 19th century picture of an American slave market.

American Slave Market

It looks far more like African chief and his people, shown making a treaty with British officers in this painting from 1815, following the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807.

British Officer Meeting African Chiefs to Make a treaty, 1815

As Europe expanded to colonise and establish trading links with the outside world from the 15th century onwards, so Blacks and other indigenous peoples began to enter European art. Sometimes they were depicted as servants and slaves, but at other times simply as symbols of the exotic. See this picture of the 17th century painting, Vanitas, by Jaques de Gheyn.

Jacques de Gheyn, Vanitas, 17th century

The statue also looks somewhat like the depictions of a Black Brazilian family by the `17th century Dutch artist, Albert Eckhout, between 1641-3. These are part of a series of 8 paintings commissioned by the Dutch governor of Nassau, intended to be anthropological studies of Brazil’s non-White peoples.

Blacks also appear as decorations on the musical instruments of the time. For example, negro heads often adorned the pegboxes of citterns, a 17th century ancestor of the guitar. It therefore seems to me that the statue of the Black African on Stroud’s clock is not that of a slave, but simply of the sculptor’s idea of an indigenous Black African. The modelling isn’t very good, but I suspect this is less due to any animosity on the part of the sculptor than simple lack of artistic training or skill. It’s more an example of folk art, rather than that of someone with a proper academic artistic education.

I therefore think that it’s wrong to assume that the Stroud figure is a slave. The assumption that it is seems to be a result of the general attack on anything vaguely connected to historic slavery and the slave trade following the mass protests in support of Black Lives Matter. It also seems to be directly influenced by the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, further to the south.

In fact, I believe that rather than suggesting Black degradation and slavery, the statue could be seen in a far more positive light as showing Stroud proudly embracing Blacks as trading partners as well as symbols of exoticism and prosperity.

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2 Responses to “My Objections to the Removal of the African Statue on Stroud’s Town Clock”

  1. Jim Round Says:

    I think the fact that the statue may be classed as a caricature, similar to how Golliwogs are seen in the black community.
    Like the article on the renaming of the park, it really does seem as this is all part of the “culture war”
    It really does seem to have been imported from America and, as I have commented previously, links to a certain street seem quite plausible.
    I hope that this sort of thing only attracts a small audience and the rest of us get on with our lives and it gradually fades away. I can only hope.

  2. Mark Pattie Says:

    I can see why some might want it removed- it does look particularly over-exaggerated (like the Golliwogs found on jam jars till the fifties or sixties). However, it could be a representation of a KhoiSan tribesman or an Australian Aborigine? Stroud does rather have an interesting vibe about it, so my outlandish theory could be plausible?

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