Thursday, 29 December 2016

Cornwall: Dark Coastline, Dark History.

"Dark and brooding", is how somebody once described the Cornish coast (was it Guy de Maupassant? - he took a generally miserable approach to most things).

Mariners apparently prefer the expression "bloody lethal." There are reasons why the Cornish coastline is littered with shipwrecks, many going back centuries. It is a country of pirates and smugglers, of sailors and soldiers. 

Having spent numerous snowy Christmases in Brussels (one of which infamously lasted until March, resulting in a surge in the already high suicide rate) George and I decamped to soggy Oggie land for the festive break and a long overdue catch up with family, to enjoy the beautiful landscape, and to marvel each night at the totally unfettered view of the Milky Way, which never ceases to captivate us city-dwellers. And, of course, to consume too many Oggies (Cornish Pasties).

Despite a welcome on arrival from Storm Barbara (very mild by Cornish standards) the weather has been terrific, which is not what one normally expects from Cornwall, even in the height of summer.
This particular part of Cornwall, which I have enjoyed since I first saw it in, I think, 1973, was once the scene of a tragic event in English history. The spot at which I took this photo is about 200 yards to the east of Looe harbour.

In 1625 something dreadful happened here that has been largely forgotten. Forgotten, I wonder, or airbrushed out history for reasons of political correctness?

On a July Sunday morning, as the townfolk were at prayer, a ship appeared in the small fishing port. It had sailed from the Barbary coast, and the arrival of African sailors would have been something of a cultural shock to the folk of Looe, most of whom would never before have seen a black person.
It was to be even more of a shock - these were slave traders.

Around 80 men, women and children of Looe were taken away into captivity, most never to return, their ultimate fates never to be known. Only 2 were to find their way home. All in all, more than 200 were taken from the South-West coastal towns and villages in this one raid, with 27 ships being destroyed or taken away by the African pirates.

One English captive who did escape would later describe the corsairs as "ugly onhumayne cretures" who struck the fear of God into all who saw them. "With their heads shaved and their armes almost naked, [they] did teryfie me exceedingly." They were merciless in their treatment of their victims and captives. According to one eyewitness, 60 men, women and children were dragged from the church alone and carried back to the corsairs' ships.

At the same time, a second fleet of Barbary corsairs were sighted in the waters off the north Cornish coast. These Africans captured Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and raised the flag of Islam. It temporarily became their  base, from which they attacked the unprotected villages of northern Cornwall. They had "seized diverse people about Padstow" and were threatening the town of Ilfracombe, on the North Devon coast.

By the end of the summer of 1625, the mayor of Plymouth reckoned that 1,000 villagers had been carried off to be sold into slavery in the markets of Morocco.

Even in Looe itself, with its many memorials to the fishermen of the historic town who have been lost at sea, and the grand war memorial which carries the names of the disproportionate numbers of men killed in two world wars, most who served in the Royal Navy, there is nothing to mark this atrocity.

I wonder why? I suspect I know the answer..... The slave trade, over which we British are expected to self-flagellate, was largely driven by Africans and Arabs themselves, and we were also victims. Perhaps we are not supposed to mention that.

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