Scipio’s Grave

The recent vandalism of a grave at Henbury, a northern suburb of Bristol reveals how little many people know about graveyards.

I was very angry when the local press claimed the GradeII listed monument showed that Scipio had been buried in the ground like an animal. This is stupid on so many levels. I explained to the author of the tweet that animals are not buried in consecrated ground. The tweet was removed.

The monument is extraordinary in so many levels in terms of design, colour, and its site on a path near the main entrance to the church. This suggests not only that the parishioners accepted him, but were proud to share their graveyard with him.

Scipio is often claimed to have died a slave but the monument makes his position clear:

“I who was born a pagan and a slave

Now sweetly sleep a Christian in my grave.”

Being a Christian in 1712 still meant something. He had studied and understood his faith and was accepted into the local community who hoped to be resurrected together, so this was a big deal.

Whilst it is possible that his wealthy master could have forced the parish to allow Scipio to be buried there, his continued presence suggests he was accepted by this rural parish. Scattered through British history there are many instances of slaves being baptised and/or married in the belief that this made them free.

This is an important point. Early Christians were harassed and martyred first their faith. Magna Carta was often cited as making slavery illegal in these islands. Many Nonconformist groups were harassed for their faith and became campaigners for abolition of slavery.

Resurrection was also important. There’s a lovely anecdote in I think Kilverts Diary when a local man asked him about his late wife’s grave. She was buried in the parish churchyard but changes had been made to provide a separate, unconsecrated part of it for Nonconformists. This meant the man could not be buried next to his wife when his time came. This upset him as he didn’t want his wife to wake up confused and unable to find him.

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