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Dorchester church granted faculty to remove memorial to slave owner

09 September 2022


The Gordon memorial in St Peter’s, Dorchester, uncovered

The Gordon memorial in St Peter’s, Dorchester, uncovered

THE consistory court of the diocese of Salisbury has granted a faculty permitting the removal of a fixed memorial to Dr John Gordon, who died in 1774, aged 46, from the wall of the Grade I listed St Peter’s, Dorchester, and its relocation to the Dorset County Museum next door.

The faculty includes permission for the repair of the north wall of the church after removal of the memorial, and the introduction of a replacement memorial to Gordon.

The case raised the question of “contested heritage”: a euphemistic expression for memorials associated with those whose conduct in past centuries was now regarded as abhorrent by contemporary values and standards of behaviour, and, in the context of faculty applications, to Christian theology.

From 1759, Gordon had been an overseer of plantations in Jamaica, and, by 1773, he owned estates there producing sugar, rum, coffee, and other products, and livestock. He owned 416 slaves. He had no previous connection with Dorchester, and died there, apparently, during a journey from London to Falmouth on his way back to Jamaica.

His memorial was large and prominent in St Peter’s, and was characteristic of the neo-classical wall monuments of the mid- to late 18th century. The central cause of concern was the wording of the memorial. It stated that Gordon was “signally instrumental In quelling a dangerous Rebellion” in Jamaica in 1760. It referred to “a large Body of NEGROES Whom his BRAVERY had repulsed”. It referred also to the rebels’ “Finally Yeilding [sic] to their Confidence in his HUMANITY”. Those three words in capitals were the only words of the memorial inscribed in that way.

Gordon was involved in an incident in the year-long Jamaican slave revolt of 1760 known as “Tacky’s Revolt”. For a week, from 7 to 14 April 1760, a slave known as Tacky, together with about 400 other slaves, organised an uprising against their white owners. Tacky was from the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana), and his name suggested that he was a royal official when captured.

The uprising was violent, and resulted in the death of more than 60 Europeans and many free people of colour, as well as 400 black slaves. The deaths of the black slaves involved great cruelty, including the burning alive of two ringleaders. Two others were hung in public in iron cages until they died of starvation. On 14 April, Tacky and other leaders of the rebellion were killed and the rebels were surrounded. The remaining slaves had little choice but to surrender.

They sent a delegation to Gordon, in whom they apparently placed some trust, and offered to surrender if they could leave Jamaica rather than be put to death. His negotiations with that delegation, and then with the authorities, resulted in some of the rebels’ being deported from Jamaica. That did not result in the grant of their freedom, but in the continuation of their status as slaves elsewhere.


ALTHOUGH the petition for the faculty was dated July 2021, consideration of the future of the memorial had been going on for far longer. Numerous comments referring concerns about the memorial had been found in the church visitors’ book. But, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, in 2020, the issue of the memorial took on greater priority.

Extra time was sought to enable further information and evidence to be obtained, and also to await the outcome of the decision of the consistory court of the diocese of Ely in the case of the memorial to Tobias Rustat, at Jesus College, Cambridge, which raised similar issues (News, 23 March).

The Chancellor of the diocese of Salisbury, the Worshipful Ruth Arlow, said that the memorial to Gordon was of particular, even exceptional, value as a record of historical events rarely recorded elsewhere. Many memorials commemorated people who were slave owners or otherwise engaged in the slave trade, but that fact was not explicit on the face of those monuments. The memorial to Rustat was one such example.

The Gordon memorial was unique as a record in stone of a planter’s response to a slave uprising, specifically Tacky’s Revolt. In Jamaica itself, references on monuments to slave revolts were very few, and none existed in relation to Tacky’s Revolt.

The Vicar and churchwardens of St Peter’s, who sought the faculty, said that the memorial caused offence, as had been clear from the visitors’ book for several years. During Chancellor Arlow’s inspection visit to the church in May, the contentious words that had been covered while their future was being determined were displayed for her that day, and remained open to the public.

She then noticed a woman, a member of the public, who entered the church from the high street, and, when she reached the memorial, stopped in front of it for a moment before reacting with some shock, and quietly but audibly declaring it (apparently to herself) to be “dreadful”.

Chancellor Arlow said that the Gordon memorial was quite different from Rustat’s memorial at Jesus College: it celebrated in language of acclamation the violent quelling of a rebellion by enslaved people against a status that was now universally acknowledged as morally repugnant and contrary to Christian doctrine. That status was imposed on them largely because of their race.

Its continued presence in the building implied the continued support, or at least toleration and acceptance, of discrimination and oppression. Such a position could be said to be uncomfortable in any public building, the Chancellor said, but presented a particularly striking discord with the purpose of St Peter’s as a house of God. It was entirely inconsistent with the message of the universality of God’s love which the community of St Peter’s sought to share.

The Chancellor said, however, that the offence caused had to be balanced against the concerns raised, and even offence caused, by the removal of the memorial. History should not be erased or hidden. There was “in some quarters a genuine and understandable fear that our national heritage will be harmed by the removal of the memorial from its original location”, she said.

When the question of justification was considered in the Rustat decision, Deputy Chancellor David Hodge QC had placed much emphasis on what he termed the “false narrative” about the life of Rustat and the source of the wealth with which he had endowed Jesus College. The argument for removal had been based on a “mistaken understanding of the true facts” about Rustat’s life and the extent of his involvement in the slave trade, he said, and refused permission.

Gordon’s involvement in the slave trade had been much more direct and substantial than that of Rustat. He had lived for much of his life in Jamaica, had been the overseer and later owner of several slave plantations, had owned more than 400 slaves, and had been directly involved in “quelling” a slave uprising, which resulted in executions and deaths.

Nevertheless, the petitioners for the faculty did not rely on moral judgements about Gordon to justify the removal of the memorial. They acknowledged the risks in passing judgement at a distance of 250 years. He may have repented of the part that he had played in Tacky’s Rebellion, and may have been a virtuous person in all other respects.

Slavery was legal in Jamaica in 1760, and helping to suppress a slave rebellion was then regarded as a positive virtue. The historical research strongly suggested that Gordon’s reputation for being uncommonly humane was recognised and trusted by the rebels. Was it fair to condemn him today for what was, by the social standards of his own day, regarded as admirable?

The petitioners had no objection to the continued commemoration of Gordon within the church, and had always proposed to replace the memorial with another plaque commemorating him (but excluding the offensive wording), and providing a notice directing visitors to the museum next door. Rather, the petitioners sought to justify the removal of the memorial on its impact on the function of the worshipping community that served God in this church today.

The Chancellor accepted that the retention of the memorial presented a significant barrier to the fulfilment of the church’s strong tradition of, and calling to, hospitality that welcomed and included everyone. She agreed that the presence of the memorial in the church was damaging to its purpose and mission, and rejected the option of covering the offensive part of the inscription as part of its retention within the building.

The core significance of the memorial was its reference to and description of Gordon’s part in the rebellion. It was, the Chancellor said, “an uncomfortable truth that the source of this memorial’s primary historical importance comes from that part of it which causes offence and hampers the mission of this church. To cover or erase that wording would deprive the memorial of much (if not all) of its unique significance.”

The words on the memorial were, she said, “entirely inconsistent with Christianity’s foundational understanding that we are all created in the image of God, emphasising the intrinsic value of each and every human being and demanding justice for the flourishing of God’s people”.

The Chancellor concluded that the retention of the memorial in situ, even with careful and sensitive contextualisation of its history, was not an option that would adequately address the petitioners’ needs to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation: the tone and content of this memorial was so explicitly and fundamentally contrary to the message of inclusion and welcome at the heart of this church’s mission.

The important public reference in this memorial to an event of protest and resistance in the history of the slave trade was of high evidential, historical, and educational importance. The value in contributing to the telling of that tragic history should be maintained; but that should be achieved not in St Peter’s, but in the Dorset County Museum next door.

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