This year is finally drawing to an end and I think I speak for most of us when I say what an unprecedented twelve months we’ve just lived through. Certainly not a year anyone will ever forget. Who would have thought this time last year, when I was writing my ‘farewell to 2019’ blog, that 2020 would be dominated by a global pandemic in which so many people became ill and far too many died, our lives becoming narrow and confined in order to minimise the spread of this awful virus. We’ve all suffered loss of some sort or another but I take heart from the fact that people are enormously resilient and, as I type, over half a million people have already been vaccinated in the UK, the vaccination programme being massively intensified here and globally in the new year. There is finally light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
2020 has been a challenging and difficult year for so many other reasons too. I try to avoid being overtly political in my mudlarking blog which is, after all, my escape from the horrors happening both here and around the world, but it’s impossible to close one’s eyes to other important events occurring around us and nor should we.
In this spirit, I feel it’s important to mention how much this year has seen a necessary and long overdue revisiting of Britain’s Imperial and Colonial past, the impact this has had on British history and the legacy it has left which is still with us today. This is not about eradicating or erasing history but rather about re-contextualising it and accepting that even though facts don’t change, attitudes and values do, especially among younger generations and communities whose voices aren’t always heard. Re-examining the past is always challenging but important to do if we wish to shape and redefine the kind of country we want to be going forward.
On 7th June 2020, the statue of Edward Colston, a wealthy merchant and slave trader, was pulled down from its plinth by a crowd gathering in Bristol at a Black Lives Matter protest and was rolled into the harbour by protesters. Colston had made his vast fortune through human suffering. Between 1672 and 1689, ships are believed to have transported about 80,000 men, women and children from Africa to the Americas. However, in spite of this, in Bristol, the city he called home, his memory has been honoured for centuries and on his death in 1721, he bequeathed his enormous wealth to a number of charities while his name and legacy can still be seen on Bristol’s streets, buildings, schools and memorials.
His statue, which stood in Colston Avenue in Bristol city centre, made no mention of his slave trading past. While many both in the local community and around the world cheered the loss of this statue, others had mixed responses showing that the conversations around these issues can be complex and multi-layered. From the black community who feel that their history and struggle has not been treated with the seriousness and respect it deserves, all too frequently erased from the national conversation, to others who felt that the toppling of statues was a dangerous moment. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described this as a ‘criminal act of vandalism’ and an attempt to erase history. While recognising the strength of feeling he added that if the community felt it wanted its removal then there were other, more democratic ways in which this could have been done.
However, Labour leader Keir Starmer spoke for many when he said at the time that the way the statue was pulled down was ‘completely wrong’ but it should have been removed ‘a long, long time ago. You can’t, in 21st Century Britain, have a slaver on a statue. That statue should have been brought down properly, with consent, and put in a museum.’
The statue of Colston has now been removed from the harbour and has indeed been taken to the city museum. Whether it will be displayed or not publicly remains to be seen.
It was when thinking of the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston that I decided the perfect way to end my mudlarking blog for this year was with a spectacular trade bead found on the Thames Foreshore, illustrating perfectly how mudlarking finds can tell us so much about our history and challenge the way we think about the past and our sense of ourselves.
The history of trade beads date back to the 15th Century when Portuguese trading ships arrived on the coast of West Africa to exploit its many resources, including gold, palm oil, ivory and human beings. These beautiful decorated glass beads were a major part of the currency exchanged for slaves and other products. They contain an unquantifiable magnitude of misery within their beautiful shapes and forms.
This particular bead (see photo below) was found by my friend and fellow mudlark, Fran Sibthorpe. It’s a large, Chevron bead, thought to have been made approximately in the 18th to 19th century, although Chevron beads have a very long history and were first made in Venice in 1500. The skills of Venetian glass makers, who were based on the small island of Murano, were highly prized and they faced the death penalty if they escaped and revealed their secrets. Inevitably some of their number did manage to get away from their tightly controlled and regulated industry to Amsterdam, taking their skills with them and enabling the founding of the Amsterdam glass bead manufacturing business.
For almost five hundred years Chevron beads have been produced in their many millions and in several hundred different varieties. I am indebted to Lois Sherr Dubin and her book ‘The History Of Beads’ for the examples she has shown below showing specific types of Chevron, spanning different centuries, collected in West Africa – the greatest repository of antique European Trade beads – from 1968 to 1985. Fran’s Chevron bead find is very similar to number 3, visible on the top line of the examples illustrated below, but with alternating red and blue stripes on white instead of just blue.
Chevrons are a specialized cane or drawn-glass bead. They are formed by blowing a single or multiple-layered gather of glass into a tapered mold with corrugated sides, which produce points on its outer surface. This pleated gather is then encased with additional glass layers of various colours, which may again be molded to produce additional outer layers with points. Finally, stripes can be applied to the surface. This ‘gather’ of glass is then drawn quickly into a cane of at least six feet, cooled, and finally sectioned into beads. These sections are often reheated to produce a more finished product or more rounded shape, such as in Fran’s bead, which has a distinctly more rounded shape.
The red chevron seen in figure 21 (above) was not found in West Africa although it is thought to be Venetian, probably manufactured in the early 1900s, one of several matched chevrons from a graduated string recently discovered in the United States. This shows that these beads can be difficult to date as the fundamental design is no different from the first beads of this type produced in 16th century Venice.
I thought it would be appropriate to end this final mudlarking blog of 2020 by letting Fran tell the story of her bead find in her own words:
‘I was just about to leave the Thames Foreshore, having found nothing, when I found this large Chevron-patterned 18th -19th century Venetian glass bead partially submerged in Thames ‘gloop’ just waiting for me.
For a moment I just looked at it wide-eyed, so poignant, and I was immediately transported back to my ancestors – it evoked my heritage. When I picked up the bead and placed it in my left hand, it immediately triggered my senses and emotions.
I knew that this particular trade bead could have been used not only to purchase commodities but, sadly, also for the slave trade.
The red, white and blue colours of the bead depict a reference to colonialism, which takes this find to another dimension. I wondered who had handled this trade bead, from manufacture to its arrival on the foreshore.
A ‘memorial’ find, never to be forgotten.’
I’m so glad it was Fran who found this bead, such an important find and with deeply personal connections to her own heritage and ancestry, a memorable and rare object with a fascinating yet dark history. Who knows the stories this bead could tell?
And on that contemplative note, wishing you all a peaceful and healthy new year. Please celebrate at home tonight, Covid loves a crowd! Let’s hope that 2021 is MUCH better for all of us.
NB You can see more of Fran’s mudlarking finds on Instagram @franjoy7