Avril Nanton describes some of her favourite London memorials. See below for details of central London tours and talks.
Walking around the streets of London you see countless statues representing the people who have affected our lives over the centuries (many of whom have slipped from popular memory). However, have you ever spotted any memorials that represent African or African-Caribbean communities? No? Well, they are present, and in greater numbers than you might expect. Here’s a short list, including some that you may not be aware of.
Gilt of Cain, Fen Court, City of London. This structure is hidden in a small alleyway just off Fenchurch Street. It commemorates the abolition of slavery in a unique way. The basis of the statue is that there is an ecclesiastical pulpit or, if you look at it another way, a slave auctioneer’s podium. The person in that pulpit is speaking to a crowd of people. The columns evoke stems of sugar cane and are positioned to suggest an anonymous crowd or congregation gathered to listen to a speaker. The poem on the structure was written by Lemn Sissay and uses the coded language of the City’s stock exchange intermingled with references used throughout the slave trade. This location was chosen because it was where John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who later turned abolitionist and wrote Amazing Grace, served as reverend in a now-vanished church. Sculptor: Michael Vissochi; unveiled in 2007.
Death of Nelson relief panel, Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square. If you take a really good look at this particular panel you will see that stuck in the corner is a black curly-haired male carrying a gun in an attempt to protect Nelson. This is thought to be George Ryan, a 23 year old who worked on many ships throughout his life. He was part of Nelson’s crew on the HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar. At the time the ship would have been crewed by men from many different countries including Africa and the West Indies. He served in the Royal Navy until 1813 when he was invalided out aged 32. Sculptor: John Edward Carew; unveiled 1854.
Cleopatra's Needle, Embankment. One of the most famous African monuments in London, but often ignored by passers-by. Originally given to the British in 1819 by the then-ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, it remained in Alexandria for another 58 years before it was finally brought on its tortuous journey to London in 1877 at a cost of around £10,000 (approximately £12m in today’s money). It was erected in 1878 after numerous men died getting it here. Their journey is celebrated on one of the relief panels at the base. The bomb-damaged sphinxes guarding the base are a Victorian addition. They mistakenly face towards the needle, so offer no protection to it whatsoever. Sculptor: unknown; unveiled in UK 1878.
The Bronze Woman, Stockwell Terrace. Guyanese poet Cécile Nobrega wrote a poem called Bronze Woman. It celebrates the struggles of African-Caribbean women, as well as their contribution to society in the UK and the role of women as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and professionals in all of their different and vital roles. Nobrega came to London from Guyana in 1969. She was 89 years old when the statue was unveiled in 2008. She died in 2013. It took 10 years of planning, fundraising and sheer determination by Cécile and other groups to get this statue up. Sculptor: Ian Walters/Aleix Barbat; unveiled 2008.
Nelson Mandela, Parliament Square. The most famous black statue in London. Nelson Mandela visited London numerous times and was present at the unveiling of his own statue in 2007. Gordon Brown and Mandela’s third wife Graça Machel were also present. His outstretched arms welcome the world and symbolise an embracing and united South Africa. Sculptor: Ian Walters, unveiled 2007.
The above represent only a small portion of London statues and memorials that honour African-Caribbean people. Avril Nanton conducts regular tours of black statues and memorials around London.
See here for details of how to book. Article and photos by Avril Nanton.
Last Updated 23 August 2017