By Andrew Hunter, author of the forthcoming It Was Dark There All the Time: Sophia Burthen and the Legacy of Slavery in Canada
Mom and I, we both wear old rings; hers graces her right ring finger, mine grips my left index finger. Both of our hands are aged, marked by years of labour and making. My mom’s thin, eighty-eight-year-old skin reveals thick blue veins still pumping beneath, thanks to her pacemaker. My scarred hands reveal annotations in blue/black ink: a wounded coyote, a trap, black walnut “skull,” a wasp, a raven with a branch of Jacob’s Ladder, and a snake articulated by a raven. Mom’s ring has a diamond set in ornately decorated white gold (it was her grandmother’s wedding ring). Mine has a purple amethyst ovoid set in pink gold. Mom calls my ring a “man’s ring,” only ever worn by its maker; she gave it to me years ago, but I’ve only recently started wearing it (it was in bad need of repair). The purple stone now covers the snake’s head.
Both of these rings were crafted in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham, United Kingdom, in the late nineteenth century by George Charles Allen, who was father of Herbert Allen, grandfather to my mom Anne-Marie Hunter (née Allen) and great-grandfather to me. George came from a long line of “Brummie” jewellers and goldsmiths, stretching back through the Industrial Revolution to at least the early seventeenth century (as far as I can trace). During the period of the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham’s population greatly expanded — quadrupling in size over the course of the eighteenth century as workers flocked to a city manufacturing a diverse array of products.
Birmingham sits east of the vast coal deposits of the Black Country (Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Walsall). The city was at the heart of the development and production of steam engine technology (the Boulton and Watts steam engine was developed there), led the empire in weapons production, and became a major railroad hub as the nation industrialized. At its peak, over seventy percent of all jewellery manufactured in the British Empire came from workshops in Birmingham, but the city also produced vast quantities of another metal fabricated to restrain and punish the body: the iron shackles and implements of punishment and torture used in the transatlantic slave trade. While all cities in the United Kingdom (and its colonies) can be linked to chattel slavery (it was, after all, the foundation of the British economy and global dominance), Birmingham — like Bristol, Liverpool, London, and Glasgow — played a major role in the expansion of the slave trade. Birmingham profited greatly, and the wealth it accumulated lingers on, still circulating in the economy.
In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, it was common practice for wealthy plantation owners returning from their “holdings” in the West Indies to their country estates and city mansions in Britain to bring home a favourite enslaved person to serve them. These individuals (considered property not persons) were a highly visible sign of status, and they would often be put on display at public gatherings and during regular outings. They would be dressed in the latest fashions while wearing a conspicuous piece of neck-ware custom crafted by the nation’s jewellers, like this one:
Made of silver, it is inscribed with the name of the “master” and their place of residence. In this case, John Crawfurd of Miltoun (contemporary spelling, John Crawford of Milton, which is just north of Glasgow where this item was made by one Robert Luke). While this item identified the wearer as a valuable “accessory” to the person they were forced to accompany, it also served as a prominent marker of identity and status should the wearer attempt to run away.
My mother’s ring is a symbol of kinship that connects her through her mother (Florence Allen, née Hurn) to her grandmother (Mary Anne Allen, maiden name unknown), who the ring was originally made for. My mom will choose the person who’ll carry it forward. Sophia Burthen (born enslaved in Fishkill, New York before the American Revolution and brought to Upper Canada in 1785) carried no such powerful amulet of kinship. She was denied all connection to her family when she was stolen with her sister from her parents at age seven, and when her sister either died or was sold to some other master. My ring is a link to my ancestors too, but it is a ring no one has worn since my great-grandfather George, its maker. It bridges me over and past my mom and grandfather, back to the legacy of jewellery and metal work in Birmingham, to chattel slavery, and the colonized landscape Sophia was held, and continues to be present, in.
All of the tattoos on my arms, hands, and legs are directly related to my writing and creative work, and I consider many to be annotations of my whiteness. Most are designed by me in collaboration with the tattoo artists I work with. The images on my ringed hand are all related to a fiction that I’ve been writing called Eli’s Dreaming, something I started while working on It Was Dark There All the Time: Sophia Burthen and the Legacy of Slavery in Canada. The raven is a representation of the central character Eli in one of their manifestations over time; the branch of Jacob’s Ladder that emerges from their beak might refer to a bridge between heaven and earth. The snake is knowledge and truth; that its head is now concealed beneath the protective power of the amethyst is significant to me as I understand this to mean that the knowledge and truth about the history I carry is protected from erasure. I may be seeking a “heaven” of peace and calm (qualities the amethyst is said to enhance), but I know that Jacob’s Ladder is also the name for a rope ladder hung off the side of a ship, and I know the type of ship it leads me to board: the primary vessel of empire, the slave ship that still generates a strong wake (in the sense of the word as Christina Sharpe employs it in In the Wake: On Being and Blackness).
I recently had the amethyst ring repaired at Hamilton Jewellers on James Street North, the same shop where my father bought my mom’s wedding ring in 1956. I asked the jeweller to leave all the marks and scratches — the stone’s history — in the amethyst. I don’t know if Sophia Burthen wore any jewellery, but I do know that she carried many marks and scratches, as well as prominent scars that her interviewer Benjamin Drew described as “many worse looking cicatrices of wounds.” I believe her decision to tell her own story was an act of self-healing. Passing it forward in time was a gift to us who remain accountable and who are obligated to trouble these wounds that have not healed.