Who was Sambo(o)?
In 1736, a slave ship moored at Sunderland Point, and the captain of the ship and ‘master’ of the slaves took a smaller boat up the Lune towards Lancaster. Samboo (or Sambo, both names are used on his grave), a young cabin slave boy, was left at a local inn until his master returned (maybe as a gift for the master’s wife, who didn’t want him?). But Samboo fell ill and died a few days later.
This event was written about in the Lonsdale Magazine and Kendal Repository in 1822. When the sailors heard about Samboo’s death, they buried his body in the land behind the inn, within 20 yards of the water. It was unconsecrated soil, as Samboo was ‘dark skinned’ and presumably not a Christian.
After 60 years, a retired schoolteacher and brother to a slave trader heard Samboo’s story and decided to give him a headstone. A plaque was made for the grave as well, with a poem on it written by the same retired headteacher. (The current plaque is a replica, as the original had to be replaced after it was stolen).
There used to be a large tree (cotton tree according to the stories) by the grave, but that was blown over in a storm in 1998.
Samboo’s grave can be visited to this day. It is tended to by people from Sunderland Point and Heysham, and school children leave coloured stones. Recently the area the grave is in has been surrounded by a wall of about a metre in height (with an opening to step in), in order to protect the grave from the tides. A commemorative plaque on a stand is included in the little area (see main picture).
And there are more (modern) tributes to Samboo. A person calling himself Teddybard wrote a poem about him. As did local poet Edward Calais in 2007, John Agard and Dorothea Smartt, this time giving him an African name.
Local people tend his grave and seem to care. But others feel angry or embarrassed by the grave and the name on it.
A petition to remove the name ‘Sambo’ from the grave
In 2020, a petition was handed in to parliament to remove the name ‘Sambo’ from the grave because of its racist overtones. It was rejected because parliament does not have a say over local affairs.
It raises an interesting question, however. In the case of this Sambo(o), it’s the name he has had for almost 300 years. We don’t know what his African name was, what his parents and friends called him. We can’t give him that identity back and he has an important place in our history with this identity: he is a (shameful) reminder of Britain’s colonial past. By removing the ‘racist’ Samboo from his grave, we remove or soften that reminder. But that does no favours to this boy.
Samboo’s slave name forces us to face the fact that this was his life: removed (probably bought) from his native Africa (maybe Angola?), made to work in the West Indies under cruel and humiliating masters, and brought to Britain perhaps by one of those masters or perhaps a new one.
It’s a history we should not be allowed to forget. Too bad if the name makes us feel uncomfortable; the least we can do is allow Samboo this chance to remind us of our shameful past.
If we really want to honour him, we have two choices. The first is to tend his grave and honour him here. Alternatively, we could try to trace his origins (which would mean excavating the grave and taking bone samples for DNA) and hope we find an area of origin and try to get him reburied there. My own preference is to let him lie in peace where he has lain for almost 300 years, tend to his grave, and tell the world his story so he is not forgotten.
Visiting the grave
On a day in June a few North West Bylines volunteers went to Sunderland Point to visit Samboo’s grave. We had picked the day and time so the tide would be low, because you cannot get to the grave if the water is high.
We drove as far as possible, parked the cars and went on our little walk to the grave. It is no more than ten minutes’ walk, a pleasant walk, though the paths are not wide and not even. It is not wheelchair accessible. The grave is well signposted.
We found the grave in a plot of grass, surrounded by marshes and the sea.
It was a poignant experience. Here was the grave of a boy, a teenager probably, who had been taken from his tribe and his home in Africa to serve a British master, and ultimately died alone, having been left in an inn while his master travelled on.
We laid some flowers on the grave and stood in silence for a while. We looked at the decorated stones and the toys left on the grave by local children. It was an experience I won’t forget, and a reminder that humanity and compassion are fragile character traits.
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