Police are investigating after the grave of an enslaved African man was vandalised in a “retaliation attack”, following the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston.
Two headstones in memory of Scipio Africanus, who lived in Bristol in the 18th century, were smashed and a message scrawled in chalk on flagstones nearby. It called for the statue of Colston, which was pulled down and thrown into the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest on 7 June, to be put back or “things will really heat up”.
The Grade II-listed, brightly painted memorial to Scipio Africanus, who died aged 18 in 1720, is in St Mary’s churchyard in Henbury, Bristol.
A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset Police said:
We have received a report of criminal damage to a monument at Henbury Parish Church.
We believe the incident occurred between 12pm on Tuesday June 16 and 8am on Wednesday June 17.
Our investigation into what happened is at an early stage. Officers have been at the scene and have carried out house-to-house and CCTV inquiries.
The tomb is an early example of a memorial to a man born into slavery, who ended his life as a servant in an English aristocratic household, the website Historic England says.
Most of the available information about Scipio Africanus is “inscribed on his tomb”, it says. He was a servant to Charles Howard, the 7th Earl of Suffolk. The headstone, which features black cherubs, says he was born in about 1702 and died on 12 December 1720.
Scipio Africanus was given his name by the earl or by a previous “owner”, with names of Roman origin frequently chosen for enslaved people, Historic England says.
Marvin Rees, mayor of Bristol, described the memorial as an “iconic piece of Bristol’s history”. In a statement following the damage, Bristol Diocese said:
We were shocked and saddened to hear the news yesterday that Scipio Africanus’s headstone has been damaged in Henbury churchyard.
We’re in touch with the council and the police about the incident and praying for peace and reconciliation.
“A retaliation attack”
Conservative councillor Mark Weston, who represents Henbury and Brentry, said the grave had been “badly damaged”. He posted images on Facebook and wrote:
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.
On 7 June, protesters used ropes to pull the Colston statue, which was erected in 1895, from its plinth in Bristol city centre. It was then dragged to the harbourside, where it was thrown into the water near Pero’s Bridge – named in honour of enslaved man Pero Jones who lived and died in the city.
Bristol City Council retrieved the statue, which will be displayed in a museum along with placards from the Black Lives Matter protest.
Anyone with information about damage to the grave is asked to contact Avon and Somerset Police on 101, quoting reference number 5220132067.
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