SAMBO – the tale of a young slave boy


On the edge of Sunderland Point about a mile from the village of Overton, near Lancaster, there is a very special grave.  It is the last earthly resting place of a slave boy known only as Sambo (originally Samboo).

He was a cabin boy to his master who captained a vessel involved in trade between Lancaster and probably Angola.  From there, the ship was used for the slave trade, transporting men, women and children, to work in the plantations in the West Indies.

We know a little more about this because of the resurgence of a fight for justice by the Black Lives Matter movement.  Many in England were involved, some quite local Essex people, but we can assume that Sambo’s Master was a Lancastrian from the Lancaster area.  After a voyage to the West Indies, via Angola, the ship sailed back to Sunderland Point, then the port for Lancaster on Morecambe Bay.  (It was later superseded by Glasson Dock which eventually was itself usurped by the great port of Liverpool.)

Morecambe Bay is notorious for its fast-flowing tides which turn Sunderland Point into a tidal island.  This itself was why a group of 21 illegal Chinese immigrants caught up in the modern day slave trade , died: picking cockles from the Bay in 2004,they were caught by an incoming tide and drowned.

When the ship carrying Sambo arrived back in Morecambe Bay in about 1736, the Captain had business in Lancaster itself so Sambo was placed in a local inn until the ship was to sail away again.  Not being able to speak the language and in a foreign place he felt abandoned. Some records say that he also fell sick of a disease his body could not fight.  In his anguish he refused food and, before his Master returned, he died.

Sambo's GraveThe local worthies of Sunderland Point and Overton could not agree that he should be buried in the churchyard because he was a heathen and unbaptized.  The sailors took his body, therefore, and dug a simple grave about a few yards beyond the village.

In refusing to bury him in the churchyard the inhabitants of the area ensured that he would remain more renowned than any of them!  60 years later, James Watson, a retired Headmaster from Lancaster, raised money from donations by holidaymakers and erected a memorial to Sambo which reads:

Here lies Poor Sambo, A Faithful  Negro who
(attending his master from the West Indies),
Died on his arrival
 at Sunderland.

He also wrote a short poem, Sambo’s epitaph.

Full sixty years the angry winter’s wave,
Has thundering dashed this bleak and barren shore,
Since Sambo’s head laid in this lonely grave,
Lies still and ne’er will hear their turmoil more.

Full many a sandbird chirps upon the sod,
And many a moonlight elfin round him trips
Full many a summer’s sunbeam warms the clod
And many a teeming cloud upon him drips.

But still he sleeps – till the awakening sounds,
Of the Archangel’s trump new life impart,
Then the Great Judge his approbation founds,
Not on man’s colour but his worth of heart.

On my first visit there over 25 years ago, I noticed the grave was festooned with wild flowers, in simple jars and crude but lovely wooden crosses.  I was told that the local children tried to make sure that the grave was decorated. It was their way of taking care of one of their own.  Today, a wall is being built around the grave.

In our time, when the death of George Floyd has sparked a renewal of the spirit which drove William Wilberforce to champion the movement to both abolish slavery and to bring equality and justice for Black People, Sambo’s story is an important contribution to that movement.

Ironically, as statues of slave traders have been torn down or moved, Sambo’s memorial remains as a beacon for those who in different ways have suffered because of the inhumanity of others.  In death and since, Sambo has been treated with reverence, kindness and hopefully, humility.

It is clear that his Master, though of an age where the Slave Trade flourished, of which he was certainly part, was also a kind man.  He ‘bought’ Sambo and treated him as his cabin boy for whom he cared. Back in Lancaster he took him to an inn thinking he would be safe there.  Sambo’s well being mattered to him and his sailors had a similar compassion.  They made sure that the boy was decently buried, something that was almost denied him by local Christians at the time!

Out of evil comes good and out of darkness, light. The subsequent story of Sambo is being told by all those children and visitors who go to Sunderland Point to pay their respects and to adorn his grave with simple tokens.  They are showing an act of kindness and they are re-membering the memory of Sambo, bringing into the light of the present, the importance of treating people equally, with kindness and with love.

The statement being made by those who are Sambo’s grave-keepers is that: Black Lives Matter and also that all lives matter, whatever colour, creed, gender, sexuality, or personal circumstance.  We should all matter to each other and human dignity is an important thing we should cherish.  To share in this work is to share in our Lord’s work of Loving us because we all matter to God who judges us on the worth of our hearts.

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