London On The Ground
Monument to the slave trade: Gilt of Cain in Fen Court
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
A poem and sculpture hidden away in the City of London commemorates the abolition of the slave trade.
Sculpted by Michael Visocchi with poetry by Lemn Sissay, the monument was unveiled by Archbishop Desmond Tutu on 4 September 2008. The work was initiated by Black British Heritage and the Parish of St Mary Woolnoth and commissioned by the City of London to commemorate the 2007 bicentenary of abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807.
The work comprises 17 granite columns arranged in front of a podium, symbolising both a pulpit and an auctioneer's platform. The columns have the form of the stems of sugarcane, but also suggest a group of people. They could be seen as representing a congregation, a group of buyers at an auction, or even the enslaved people offered for sale at the auction.
A poem by Lemn Sissay is visible on a plaque on a wall next to the sculpture. Extracts from the poem are also engraved on the podium and the columns. The typography used in these extracts is similar to that used in early abolitionist literature, which was printed nearby in the late 18th century.
The poem is full of word play linking the slave trade, and the closely related trade in sugar, with the language of today's City of London financial markets and Old Testament references.
The title of the poem, Gilt of Cain, is a multiple pun. Gilt is a reference to gold, but could also be spelt as Guilt. Cain is a reference to the biblical character, and son of Adam and Eve, who killed his brother Abel. It could also be spelt as Cane, from which sugar is made.
The space, Fen Court, is a small pedestrianised passage between Fenchurch Street and Fenchurch Avenue. It was once the burial ground of a church called St Gabriel Fenchurch. The church itself used to stand in the middle of Fenchurch Street, but was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and never rebuilt. Today, this part of the City of London is known for insurance companies.
Fen Court is now part of the Parish of St Edmund the King and St Mary Woolnoth, two nearby City churches. St Mary Woolnoth's rector from 1780 to 1807 was John Newton, a former slave trader who became a strong advocate for abolition and inspired anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. Newton is also widely known for writing the words to the hymn Amazing Grace.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in 1807, but it was not until 1834 that slavery was abolished in the British Empire.
Lemn Sissay's poem is visible in a photograph below, but is reproduced here for easier reading (with his punctuation and spelling as it appears on the plaque).
Gilt of Cain, by Lemn Sissay
Here is the ask price on the closed position,
History is no inherent acquisition
For here the technical correction upon the act,
A merger of truth and in actual fact
On the spot, on the money - the spread.
The dealer lied when the dealer said
The bull was charging the bear was dead,
The market must calculate per capita, not head.
And great traders acting in concert, arms rise
As the actuals frought on the sea of franchise
Thrown overboard into the exchange to drown
In distressed brokers disconsolate frown.
In accounting liquidity is a mounting morbidity
But raising the arms with such rigid rapidity,
Oh the reaping the raping rapacious fluidity.
The violence the vicious and vexed volatility.
The roaring trade floor rises above crashing waves:
The traders buy ships, beneath the slaves.
Sway machete back, sway machete again
Cut back the sugar rush, Cain.
The whipsaw it's all and the whip saw it all
The rising market and the cargo fall
Who'll enter "Jerusalem" make the margin call for Abel?
Who will kick over the stall and turn the table?
Cain gathers cane as gilt-gift to his land
But whose sword of truth shall not sleep in hand?
Who shall unlock the stocks and share?
Break the bond the bind unbound - lay bare
The truth. Cash flow runs deep but spirit deeper
You ask am I my brothers keeper?
I answer by nature by spirit by rightful laws
My name, my brother, Wilberforce.
Fen Court is tucked away in a corner of the City that few people visit. It contains an important and impressive work of art, which deserves greater awareness and recognition.
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