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Imperial Leamington: A Postcolonial Walking Tour

Map of Leamington Spa

Imperial Leamington: A Postcolonial Tour

By Dr Ben Richardson

When the statue of Edward Colston was dragged off its plinth in the centre of Bristol and dumped into the harbour, it provided a vivid reminder of how the history of British imperialism is written into the built environment. The statue was erected in 1895, nearly two centuries after Colston’s death, and was itself a work of history. In their speeches unveiling the statute, local dignitaries reiterated the memory of Colston as an enterprising merchant and generous philanthropist, ignoring his role with the Royal African Company transporting tens of thousands of slaves to the West Indies. Another century later, this civic memorialisation began to be politically challenged. On several occasions the statue was subverted through guerrilla art highlighting the role of Colston, and by extension the port of Bristol, in the transatlantic slave trade. Energised by the Black Lives Matter protests, the toppling of the statue has thus been figured as part of the city’s historical reckoning with empire.

This was part of a wider challenge to the public glorification of imperialism in Britain, evident in a number of mercantile cities including Liverpool, London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. On first impressions, Leamington Spa might seem a world away from the wealth generated through colonial extraction and the power wielded by Britain’s military and missionary forces. In part this is due to the conventional history of the town, which as depicted above, has narrated its rapid transformation in the early nineteenth century largely without reference to the imperial context of the time. It is also due to the seeming absence of empire in the built environment, which is characterised by the genteel gardens and promenades of a regal spa town. Unlike Bristol, there is no homage to slave-trading at the centre of civic life. But scratch beneath the surface and there is a hidden history to be revealed.

At the cultural heart of Leamington today are the Royal Pump Rooms. Now home to the town’s main library, art gallery and museum, it was formerly a grandiose bath house, designed for the elite of society to ‘take the waters’ and restore their health. It was built on land belonging to Bertie Greatheed, whose family had become rich thanks to proceeds from their sugar plantation in the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Bertie Greatheed inherited this property, and despite his misgivings about slavery and the waning profitability of the West India trade, never sold it. Instead, he diversified his portfolio, selling off land in Leamington and investing in the development of the ‘new town’ north of the river including the Pump Rooms. Despite his pivotal role in the growth of Leamington there is little reference to Greatheed, nor the source of his family’s wealth, in the town’s history.

As well as finding its way into property development, money from Britain’s slave economy also flowed into Leamington via its wealthy patrons. One example can be seen outside All Saints’ Church in the tombs belonging to Eliza Scarlett and James Virgo Dunn, both of whom owned sugar plantations in Jamaica. Each moved to London in their later years to live as ‘absentee owners’ and were likely visiting Leamington for health reasons upon their demise. Another erstwhile resident was John Gladstone, who owned upwards of 2,500 slaves in British Guiana and Jamaica. He stayed at the Regent Hotel and in town houses on the Parade on numerous occasions during the 1830s, in his case as his wife and daughter were receiving medical treatment. It was during this time that Gladstone received one of the biggest compensation payments from the British government when they abolished slavery, and also pioneered the transport of indentured labour from India to replace the emancipated slaves on the Caribbean plantations. Described as a ‘steady friend to Leamington’ at the time, his presence in the town is virtually unacknowledged today.

Leamington was valued as much for its sociability as its salubriousness, and someone who took advantage of both was the abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton. It was whilst he was recuperating in Leamington and visiting its reading rooms that he hatched a plan to ‘civilise’ the west coast of Africa in order that enslavement in the region would wither away. Fraternising with a former plantation manager and outspoken critic of abolition called James MacQueen, Buxton put together a pamphlet convincing the government to sign treaties with kings and chiefs in Africa to abolish slavery and cede land to the British for cultivation and commercial activities. This manifested itself in the Niger Expedition of 1841; an ill-fated mission, but one that would inspire others to venture to the continent with similar zeal. One such person was Francis Galton, who would go on to develop influential ideas of scientific racism. The ‘father of eugenics’ was himself a son of Leamington.

The closest that Leamington has to an explicit statement on British imperialism is the statue of Queen Victoria outside the town hall. Victoria is closely associated with the town: she was the monarch who gave it permission to become Royal Leamington Spa, and there is a street, terrace, bridge and park named in her honour too. The statue was erected in 1902, the year after her death, and in reference to the imperial rule of India has the inscription ‘Victoria Queen Empress 1837-1901 / She wrought her people lasting good’ (italics added). In his remarks on unveiling day, the Mayor of Leamington hoped that the statue would remind the town’s young ‘that they were the sons and daughters of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen, and of the great heritage which they possessed’.

What this shows is that the history of Leamington is also an imperial history. It is one that myself and colleagues in the Colonial Hangover project have sought to elaborate through a walking tour of the town (a guide to the people and places discussed above can be accessed below). We call it a postcolonial walking tour as is it based on the premise that the world we inhabit cannot be properly understood outside of its relationship to European imperialism and colonial rule. Exploring the buildings and public spaces where imperialism ‘took place’ offers one way to study that relationship, and an opportunity to recast some of the interpretations, and silences, that surround the British empire today.

For Further information: Please access the padlet file: https://padlet.com/UWLMRC/bhbvdq85jsec9zgd.

A full PDF of the tour can be found here: Imperial Leamington

Ben Richardson is Reader in International Political Economy in the Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS) at the University of Warwick. His research focuses on the political economy of trade and food.