'Communities most affected should have the loudest voice': Debating Wales' slave trade links

  • Written by ITV Wales Journalist Zaynub Akbar

A debate is raging in communities across Wales about the local landmarks that have links to the slave trade.

A Welsh Government audit revealed more than 200 public commemorations across the country are to people who are connected to slavery, including prominent figures from our history who supported the slave trade or who were accused of crimes against black people in the colonies of the British Empire.

Those commemorations include statues, monuments, buildings and street names.

One controversial figure from the audit is Sir Thomas Picton from Haverfordwest who has a total of 39 different forms of commemoration across Wales.

He was a highly decorated soldier who died in the Battle of Waterloo, but also owned slaves on the island of Trinidad and made a great deal of profit from the Atlantic slave trade.

Wales This Week explores Wales’ links to the slavery and the controversial figures from our past who still loom large in our communities.

Wales This Week: An Uncomfortable Truth is on at 8:30pm Thursday 17 March on ITV Cymru Wales.

A recent Welsh Government audit found Wales has more than 200 links to the slave trade. Credit: PA

"The communities who are most affected should have the loudest voice."

Billy Mazoya is a campaigner who believes that the many controversial commemorations "highlight just how ingrained systemic racism and institutional racism is within our society".

He added: "It only takes someone to notice a statue, street sign or pub name - and researching that name - to acknowledge just how much slavery infiltrated Wales and how littered slave owners' names are across our cities."

Billy acknowledged the work the Welsh Government has done regarding the introduction of black history into the school curriculum, but explained: "Wales' history has been bleak when it comes to the slave trade. There are areas in which we need to do better. It is down to the current generation to rewrite that history.

"All black, Asian and ethnic minority communities want is for our history to be fair and to be told accurately and to acknowledge our own contributions. We're tired of our history being 'white-washed', we're tired of one way narratives."

On the other side of the debate, David Jones believes "destroying" or "hiding" statues is not the answer.

Previously protesting outside the Senedd on the issue, he explained: "It’s the people’s statues, you know. Where does this stop? How far back do we want to go?

"We can go back to the amphitheatre in Caerleon where the Welsh slaves had to fight for their lives in Roman times. That’s still standing, are they going to box that up?

"It’s history, you can’t alter history. Just put a plaque up and say ‘this has happened’ you know? It’s no good hiding it away, because once it’s gone, it’s gone."

Gaynor Legall chaired the Audit of Commemoration in Wales which was compiled by an independent group of experts.

Prior to working on the project, Gaynor says she did not realise that Wales had ties to the slave trade.

She said: "Before this, I would have argued that the slave trade was predominantly carried out in England. In Wales, we were not involved in the trade.

"But what I learnt was the way in which the slave trade was an integral part of so much of Wales and its economy, trades and its tradesmen."

She goes on to explain how cotton, nails for boats and chattels made for slaves all linked Wales to the Atlantic slave trade between the 17th and 19th Centuries.

"It was a revelation and in many sense it was a shock and a disappointment to me. What was clear was that people either didn't know - or knew, and didn't care - because it was about the economy and them making money", Gaynor added.

Providing the fuller picture was a crucial part of the audit, and Gaynor felt it was important to re-examine the reputations of some of our famous figures from history: "We’re not saying they weren’t heroes and they didn’t have major victories in wars - but they also traded in human flesh. That was a story that needed to be told."

As part of an ITV Wales Instagram poll, we asked people across Wales how much they knew about our nation's links to slavery and received more than 80 responses.

A total of 40% of people were unaware that Wales played a part in the slave trade and 52% were surprised to hear about the findings of the Welsh Government audit.

When asked 'Where do you stand on the issue?' there was a varied response.

One person explained: "As tragic as it is, every civilisation was built on slavery and the world wouldn't be the same".

Whilst another said: "We should learn from the past, not bury it."

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Atlantic slave trade saw millions of men, women and children forced into slavery.

Other views included the removal of these monuments altogether, moving them to a museum or putting up information plaques to give the full story.

The majority of people who took part in the poll also said that the decision should be down to the people, as opposed to the Welsh Government or local authorities, on the fate of these monuments, buildings and street names.

One person expressed: "The people - we have more diverse and relatable voices than those in power."

The Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, Dawn Bowden, says the Welsh Government is currently working on a set of guidelines which will be released later this year.

They are aimed at helping public bodies and local authorities "who want to reinterpret or interpret the life of an individual" that has links to slavery.

The minister explained: "Once we’ve got a set of draft guidelines, we will then have a full public consultation.

"We’ve also got a new curriculum coming into Wales. For the first time black history is going to be part of that curriculum, so that we do start to acknowledge and tell the story of all the diverse communities of Wales and what they have contributed to this nation."

Wales This Week: An Uncomfortable Truth is on at 8:30pm on Thursday 17 March on ITV Cymru Wales.