Creative writing pays tribute to people whose lives are lost to the historical record
Author: Dr Corinne Fowler
In his multi-award winning book Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga observes that we owe much of what we know to local black history groups. One Birmingham-based group called SCAWDI, led by Barbara Willis-Brown, is a great example of this. SCAWDI visited Charlecote Park, where the Lucy family had black slaves. The portrait shown to the right, depicts a boy holding the reins of a horse. He is unidentified. In the pamphlet In the Beginning, Barbara Willis asks how a black boy of 10 or 11 came to appear in late 17th century Warwickshire. The National Trust tried to discover the answer, but to no avail, and the mystery continues. All we have is a trace of him at the edge of a family portrait.
The group’s enquiries led them to the graveside of a black woman called Myrtilla. She is buried near Charlecote. Her “owner” was Thomas Beauchamp, whose family had plantations on Nevis Island. That’s all we know.
As a tribute to her – and in response to these frustrating gaps in the historical record – I have written a poem about Myrtilla for my book, Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to the British Countryside’s Colonial Connections (Peepal Tree, forthcoming).
St Lawrence Church Oxhill, 1705
Six men shoulder your pall,
servants of your complexion.
The coffin scrapes a buttress:
your knuckle raps the casket base.
Mr. Beauchamp’s arm shoots up.
The procession halts.
Beauchamp’s called a gentleman,
you, his cargo (Myrtilla, evergreen
with showers of gold) shipped
from Nevis Island to Queen’s Square.
You saw everything. Said nothing.
Gave away the tenderness you craved,
raised the Masters Beauchamp,
cradled and nursed waifs of a life unlived.
Your tomb cold-shoulders the family plot
Lichens grow. Earth breathes. Grasses weave.
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