Nile Valley temples, destroyed or abandoned, had impressive gardens that were originally built for public reflection. Now the gardens are free to take over the ruins of empires past – with the healing poetic justice that nature can provide for us. Kirkstall Abbey too, despite a violent and turbulent past, now provides a setting of peace and tranquility, inspiring personal and historical reflections.
This blog sketches out a historical reasoning why King Henry VIII carried out despicable acts of destruction against fellow humans and property. A Victorian visit to Kirkstall Abbey, by an American, additionally helps this blog to argue why nature will always win over tyranny.
Historic Background: A ‘New World’ fetch
In Baines’ history of Yorkshire, the publisher and newspaper owner was aware of the insulting shackles of degradation imposed on Britain by Rome. The Romans had persecuted Britain’s nature-loving Druids and battled against the defiant Brigantes, here in the north of England. The only surviving accounts of ancient Britons were written, unflatteringly, by the conquering Romans.
Rome had already destroyed Carthage in North Africa before visiting Britain, but so important to the empire were the goods produced by nations they couldn’t conquer, like Ethiopia and Nubia, they signed treaties with very powerful queens of those nations. Africa and nature-loving Africans were very much a part of Roman rule in Britain and Yorkshire.
A thousand years later, Henry VIII’s break away from the Catholic Church paved the way for England’s freedom to be truly financially independent. The Holy Roman Empire had previously sanctioned only Spain and Portugal to convert & loot heathens abroad. What would have happened to Britain if it stood still and inactive in response? The decision was made to destroy the powerhouses of Catholicism and its infrastructures – so Kirkstall Abbey had to go.
Elizabeth I put into service her own slave ship, ‘The Good Ship Jesus of Lubbock’, which would not have been possible under Catholic rule. Of course, the name of the ship and the religious ‘games of thrones’ was of no comfort to those shackled on board. Africa and Africans would become the fodder of European ambitions in competition with each other.
The reversal-of-wealth process was boosted when Elizabeth I chose to play a significant role in the 1591 Battle of Tondibi. Britain supported Morocco, with weapons and mercenaries, to defeat the great West African empire of Songhai. This was the last of three prosperous Islamic trading empires, larger than Europe and dating back many centuries. At its heart was the legendary Timbuktu, rich in gold and salt, but it was its transcription skills and trading of books that became its prime source of income.
Britain backed the winning side and gained access to Africa’s Gold Coast as a reward. A financial infrastructure was duly woven and a Bank of England and other institutions were born. Plantation goods of a flourishing empire soon flowed up and down the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
A steady exodus from the countryside to find employment transformed the British landscape. Dangerous working conditions and squalid home lives were perfumed by Victorian romanticism, glossing over the ‘natural’ evils of empire, at home and abroad. Conditions for British citizens slowly improved over the centuries and continues today.
Local Leeds activists campaign for social justice
Edward Baines and family were the proprietors of the Leeds Mercury, who in the 18th century announced the visit of African born abolitionist and writer – Olaudah Equiano, to Leeds, in 1791. The newspaper did the same for many African Americans, including the great orator Frederick Douglass, who visited Leeds in 1846 and 1859.
Baines complimented the Quaker businessman, Wilson Armistead, in providing a platform for Africans to have their own voice in a region that benefitted so much from African contributions. Armistead was the founder and president of the Leeds Anti-Slavery Society and worked diligently to promote the cause for the abolition of slavery in America.
When America’s first African American novelist, William Wells Brown, visited Leeds in 1851, he was documenting his solo-tour of Europe. His experiences of slavery would have taught him that an enslaved person could face death for learning to read and write. What better then, to challenge such a dehumanising system, than to self-document a solo tour of Europe?
The Leeds born mustard manufacturer, Armistead, was under no illusion as to the significance of Mr Wells Brown’s visit to Yorkshire. Wells Brown was keen to prove the intellectual equality of the African race. This was not an act of ego, but a tool toward emancipation in America, the prime objective. Wilson would ensure that Leeds was represented through its history and beauty – a setting was selected, enmeshed in nature’s timeless healing of past wounds.
At Kirkstall Abbey, William, a visiting descendent of stolen Africans, who had experienced and escaped enslavement would share his humanity and appreciation of the humanity of others – with the people of Leeds – and his readers in America:
…A pleasant drive over a smooth road, brought us abruptly in sight of the Abbey. The tranquil and pensive beauty of the desolate Monastery, as it reposes in the lap of pastoral luxuriance, is almost beyond description, we stood for some moments under the mighty arches that led into the great hall, gazing at its old grey walls frowning with age. We could fully enter into the feelings of the Poet when he says:
“Beautiful fabric! even in decay
And desolation, beauty still is thine;
As the rich sunset of an autumn day,
When gorgeous clouds in glorious hues combine
To render homage to its slow decline,
Is more majestic in its parting hour:
Even so thy mouldering, venerable shrine
Possesses now a more subduing power,
Than in thine earlier sway, with pomp and pride thy dower.”
I would be keen to know the name of the poet quoted, but Wells Brown shows his appreciation of British literature, nature’s landscape and with further reading also an interest in local history. William, subdued by the power of his surroundings, followed Victorian romantic idealism, allowing nature to take centre stage.
The Nile Valley people’s of ancient Kemet (Egypt) were also keen observers of nature, which abolitionists argued formed the foundations of our arts and sciences today. In Africa, they long ago observed that human existence is perpetually caught between extreme opposites. On visits to Kirkstall Abbey, I am seduced, like William, by the healing forces of nature’s beauty, despite transatlantic trauma and obvious evidence of painful destruction all around. The strong sense of balance, between these opposite feelings, is in what nature’s diversity inspires in us, as human beings, with intelligence and innate tools to reflect and progress.
By Joe Williams, Founder and Director of Heritage Corner and the Leeds Black History Walk