Two tombstones marking the grave of 18-year-old “Scipio Africanus” – an African servant of the 7th Earl of Suffolk – were smashed and a threatening message left in an apparent revenge attack at Henbury churchyard on Tuesday night (June 16).
A message left in chalk on the flagstones near the grave said: “Now look at what you made me do.
“Stop protesting. Leave Elliott’s grave alone.
“Put Colston’s statue back or things will really heat up.”
It is thought that the words “leave Elliott’s grave alone” refers to the gravestone of music hall star GH Elliott who used to perform in blackface.
The Daily Mail reported last week that the Archdeacon of Brighton and Lewes wants to remove the “deeply offensive” stage persona from his headstone, which has been covered up while officials from the East Sussex churchyard try to trace any next of kin.
Bristol mayor Marvin Rees and the leader of the Conservative opposition councillor group, Mark Weston, have both expressed their sadness over the desecration of Scipio’s grave, with the mayor describing it an “iconic” part of Bristol’s history.
Mr Rees has called for calm. Meanwhile, Cllr Weston, who represents Henbury on Bristol City Council, is appealing for anyone who witnessed the “latest vandalism” to contact the police.
The unusual painted footstone and headstone at Scipio’s grave were a focal point for visitors interested in Bristol’s slave history and were paid for by Charles William Howard, the seventh Earl of Suffolk, who lived in the Great House at Henbury where Scipio worked during his short life.
But the rare, Grade II listed gravestones in St Mary’s churchyard are now taped up and covered in black plastic to protect them from any further damage after the attack.
Little is known about “Scipio”, but historians believe he may have been born into the household of Charles Howard and was the son of an enslaved West African woman.
He was named by his “owners” after the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, who was famous for defeating the Carthaginian military leader Hannibal in the third century.
Mayor calls for public unity and restraint
Bristol mayor Marvin Rees called for the public to refrain from “tit for tat” racially motivated attacks during his fortnightly Facebook Q&A session yesterday.
“[Scipio’s grave] is an iconic piece of Bristol’s history and that has been smashed in two with a message left scrawled on the floor around that,” he said.
“We just don’t want to go down the route. We don’t want to go down this tit-for-tat invisible attacks on each other.
“The opportunity is to really showcase to the country and to the world that we are a city that has the ability to live with difference.
“I just hope and pray that that’s the route we take,” he said.
He said symbolic actions, while important, too often dealt with the emotions of the “oppressor group” rather than the very real problems facing the oppressed.
Mr Rees noted that the council’s newly announced ‘history commission’ will set about telling the full story of Bristol’s history so that residents can have a better shared understanding of “who we are”.
Sharing a photo of the desecrated spot on Facebook, Cllr Weston said: “Sadly late last night the listed grave of ‘Scipio Africanus’ in St Mary’s Churchyard, Henbury was badly damaged.
“This looks like a retaliation attack for the recent events involving the Colston statue.
“I am deeply saddened by what is happening.
“We have seen war memorials defaced and statues vandalised and I have to wonder where this will end.”