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Notts Rebels: George Africanus

20 May 20

In celebration of the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, our Notts Rebels series continues with the story of George Africanus, Nottingham's first black entrepreneur...

It’s hard to write a piece celebrating the legacy of one of Nottingham’s most inspiring residents without acknowledging the painful reality that we don’t even know George Africanus’ real name. Torn from his homeland in Sierra Leone at just three years old, he was brought to Britain as a slave, and given a name by the man who owned him. But from that unimaginably atrocious beginning, George Africanus ended his life as a wealthy, successful and respected entrepreneur in Nottingham.

George Orwell once made the analogy that Britain was a wealthy family which maintained a guilty silence about how it accrued its wealth. While we were all taught about slavery at school, and perhaps even shown the likes of Roots and Amistad, as a nation, we’re still guilty of shying away from the pivotal role we played in that dark chapter of human history. Between 1640 and 1807, it’s estimated that 3.1 million men, women and children were ripped from their homes in Western Africa, of which over 400,000 were to die before they even reached Britain. Stripped of their names, heritage, freedom, religion, culture and dignity, they were sold in markets up and down the country, helping thousands of wealthy families grow richer still off the back of their forced labour. Whereas America’s story of ending slavery was forged in the blood and carnage of their Civil War, our own ended in a much more British fashion, with the William Wilberforce-led movement finally abolishing the practice with patience and debate in Britain in 1807, and across the rest of the Empire in 1833.

Like a magician twirling a coin with his right hand to distract his watching audience from noticing a card being slipped up a sleeve with his left, Wilberforce remains the only figure from Britain’s involvement with slavery that retains widespread name recognition. Rather than examine our own integral role as being one of the biggest participants and benefactors from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, we pat ourselves on the back for abolishing the very thing we were guilty of starting. And unlike Wilberforce, the names and stories of almost all of those 3.1 million victims are lost to history.

Africanus was a typical cognomen during Roman times, given as a name to those either from, or associated with, North Africa. 3rd century Roman general Scipio Africanus was given the name as an honour following his victory over Carthage (modern day Tunisia), and his descendants continued to use it for generations. Patrick Quirke’s History of Molineux House recalls that a young slave from Sierra Leone was given to Benjamin Molineux – a wealthy ironmaster, merchant and banker from the West Midlands - as a gift from a plantation owner in early 1766. Black servants were seen as something as a fashion accessory for the wealthy elite, and the child, aged just three, was baptised George John Scipio Africanus in March the same year. A similar event at the same time is recorded in the Molineux Family Diary, but the child is referred to as ‘Pluto,’ leading some historians to believe that Pluto was used as a placeholder name ahead of George’s formal baptism.

Black servants were seen as something as a fashion accessory for the wealthy elite

Molineux educated George until his death in 1772, at which point his eldest son, George, inherited his estate and took responsibility for raising and teaching George, who was now nine. It was this same year that the landmark Somerset v Stewart case held that chattel slavery was unsupported by common law in England and Wales, and it became unlawful to forcibly remove a slave from Britain. The situation left many former slaves destitute and homeless, with some returning to Africa in an attempt to rebuild their former lives.

The Molineux diaries tell us that George worked as a servant in the household, before moving on to become an apprentice brass founder in one of the family’s numerous foundries across Wolverhampton. The city of Nottingham, then inhabited by around 18,000 people and full of beautiful, open-air gardens, was well known to the Molineux family. Before moving to Wolverhampton, they had originated in Mansfield, with Benjamin Molineux’s grandfather Darcy even serving as High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire a century earlier.

It was at the age of 21 that George moved to the area having completed his apprenticeship, taking up work at another of the family’s foundries in Nottingham. Over the next four years, George continued to work there, meeting local girl Esther Shaw and marrying her at St. Peter’s Church on 3 August 1788. It’s unclear how or when George gained his freedom from slavery, but by 1793 he and Esther have had two children and established the Africanus Register of Servants – an employment agency – at Chandlers Lane, in the city centre, which was also their residential home. It is one of several successful business ventures the couple embarked on, and remained in the family for over seventy years.

George was 44 when he finally saw Britain abolish slavery, and would have witnessed street parties across the city celebrating the Act of Parliament. It had been 41 years since he had seen the country of his birth, but he would never again set foot in his native Sierra Leone.

As well as his business interests, George was also involved in Watch and Ward, an informal police force responsible for preventing civil disturbances and in 1829 George became a freeholder, meaning that he owned his residential and business properties outright. Being of a certain property status, this now afforded George the right to vote, something incredibly rare for a black man in Nottingham at the time.

In a cruel twist of irony, the man that had been stolen from his homeland at the age of three, only to toil and strive to become Nottingham’s first black entrepreneur, now saw his tax money being spent compensating those who had continued to trade human lives until the bitter end

While George and Esther’s business ventures were successful, their personal lives were wrought with tragedy. Of the seven children they had, only one, Hannah, survived to adulthood. George’s relationship with his only surviving child soured when she decided to marry watchmaker Samuel Cropper in 1824, to the extent that his will specifically excludes the relationship, although he continued to financially support his disabled grandchild, Sarah Ann.

George lived long enough to see the Abolition of Slavery Act pass in 1833, making slavery illegal across the entirety of the British Empire, though he died less than a year later at the age of 71. While the act is both well-remembered and widely-celebrated, what is less well-known is the provision within the same act which provided financial compensation for the owners of the 800,000 men, women and children who were still enslaved at the time, paid for by tax payers like George Africanus. In a cruel twist of irony, the man that had been stolen from his homeland at the age of three, only to toil and strive to become Nottingham’s first black entrepreneur, now saw his tax money being spent compensating those who had continued to trade human lives until the bitter end. It remained the largest government bailout in Britain until the bank bailout of 2009. Not only did the freed slaves receive no compensation but, under another clause in the act, they were forced to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters for four years after their apparent liberation.

Interest in George’s life and legacy remained minimal until 1993, when Director of Afro-Carribbean Family and Friends Len Garrison ensured he was included in Nottingham Castle’s 1993 Black Presence exhibition. Together with Roy Gale, who had pieced much of George’s life together from his research in Wolverhampton, the pair were finally able to rediscover the graves of George, Esther and their children in St. Mary’s Church. An hour-long re-dedication service was held at the church in 2007, celebrating the life and achievements of George Africanus, where a plaque now stands in his memory. The small circle of green metal will tell you that he was ‘Nottingham’s first black entrepreneur’ but his story goes so far beyond that. He’s representative of the millions of people whose names aren’t remembered with plaques: those who died during transportation, those who died endlessly toiling for their masters, and those who earned their freedom only to die in this foreign land, never to see their ancestral homes again.

George Africanus was doubtlessly a rebel, carving out unimaginable success at a time when a black man starting a profitable business, family and being able to vote seemed almost impossible. Much of his story, including his true name, remains a mystery, ensuring that George’s legacy continues still. That green plaque stands as both a celebration of his life and a stark reminder of the stories not yet told, and of the injustices not yet made right.

‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday  

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