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Tomb of Rasselas Belfield in St. Martin's Churchyard

A Grade II Listed Building in Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria

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Latitude: 54.3641 / 54°21'50"N

Longitude: -2.9206 / 2°55'14"W

OS Eastings: 340278

OS Northings: 496901

OS Grid: SD402969

Mapcode National: GBR 8K1Z.HC

Mapcode Global: WH82M.3KHR

Plus Code: 9C6V937H+JQ

Entry Name: Tomb of Rasselas Belfield in St. Martin's Churchyard

Listing Date: 22 August 2008

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1392853

English Heritage Legacy ID: 504662

Location: Windermere, South Lakeland, Cumbria, LA23

County: Cumbria

Civil Parish: Windermere

Built-Up Area: Bowness-on-Windermere

Traditional County: Westmorland

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Cumbria

Church of England Parish: Windermere St Martin

Church of England Diocese: Carlisle

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781/0/10011 LAKE ROAD
22-AUG-08 (Off)

This list entry has been added as part of the Bicentenary commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act.

The tomb of Rasselas Belfield stands near the edge of the churchyard of St Martin, Bowness on Windermere, approximately five metres from the east end of the church. Dated 1822. Rectangular headstone, with shouldered triangular top. Above the inscription is an incised scrolled design. The clear inscription reads: 'IN MEMORY / of / RASSELAS BELFIELD / a Native of / ABYSSINIA. / Who departed this Life on the / 16. Day of January 1822, / Aged 32 Years. // A Slave by birth I left my native Land / And found my Freedom on Britannia's Strand: / Blest Isle! Thou Glory of the Wise and Free, / Thy Touch alone unbinds the Chains of Slavery.'

HISTORY: According to W. Sayer's 'History of Westmorland', written in 1847, the young man commemorated by this headstone was brought to England by a Major Taylor, who had bought him as a child from his mother for the equivalent of about £5. Taylor is said to have been engaged, with his regiment, in the campaign of the East India Company Army against Tippu Saib, celebrated ruler of Mysore, South India, which culminated in Tippu's death in 1799. The headstone's inscription describes Rasselas as 'A Native of Abyssinia', suggesting that he was born there, and it may be that Taylor travelled back to England by way of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), and acquired Rasselas then. On the other hand, Abyssinian slaves and solders - 'Habshis' - had been brought to India from the C15 onwards, and consequently a large number of people in that country had Abyssinian roots. It is possible that Rasselas entered Taylor's service whilst the soldier was still in India; the boy, still very young, may have been employed by the army. One way or another, Taylor and his companion had arrived at Bowness-on-Windermere by 17 April 1803, when the baptism is recorded of 'Rasilais Bellefield, Captain Taylor's servant of Bellefield'. Rasselas would then have been aged about 13.

Belfield (q.v.), the house from which Rasselas's surname was taken, was built on the shore of Lake Windermere by Isabella Taylor in 1794. Isabella's husband, Peter Taylor, was a West India merchant based in Whitehaven; he was also an absentee plantation owner, growing rice in South Carolina. A branch of the Taylor family had been established in South Carolina in the early C18, and Peter Taylor had spent part of his youth there. From the early 1760s, though, Taylor was in England, leaving the management of his estates, and his slaves, to an overseer. Taylor's South Carolina holdings were devastated by the American Revolutionary War of 1775-83, but Taylor lobbied successfully for the return of his property. In 1785 he sold his land and his slaves; he died four years later. His widow moved with her five children to her family home, Rayrigg Hall at Bowness, before building Belfield. The family remained at the house until Isabella's death in 1826.

It is likely that Rasselas's master was Peter Taylor, youngest son of Peter and Isabella Taylor, who joined the army in 1794. When he returned from the East with the Abyssinian boy, he joined his mother and his unmarried sister, Isabella Agnes, at Belfield. The younger Isabella, then aged about 30, had literary tastes - it is possible that she had a hand in choosing the stranger's first name. 'The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia' was a popular novel by Samuel Johnson, published in 1759, about a young prince who, tired of the soft delights of the Happy Valley where he has been incarcerated, escapes to seek his 'choice of life' in the real world. Johnson probably named his hero after a Prince Rasselach mentioned in a 1681 account of Abyssinia, one of a number of works which cultivated the European fascination for that country as the embodiment of exoticism. That such a name was chosen for the young servant suggests the Taylors enjoyed his exotic heritage, and the lustre it reflected on the household. It would be interesting to know whether they thought of the Abyssinian as having anything in common with the slaves of South Carolina and the West Indies to whom their fortune was indebted. The triumphant inscription on Rasselas's headstone demonstrates that by 1822 at least, the Taylor family had been convinced of the iniquity of slavery. In 1807 The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act had been passed on a wave of popular support, largely engendered by William Wilberforce. Wilberforce may personally have influenced the Taylors; between 1780 and 1788 he had rented Rayrigg Hall from Isabella's family.

It is evident from the quality of Rasselas Belfield's headstone, with its poetic inscription, that Rasselas was valued by the Taylor family. He is likely to have served Peter Taylor in a capacity similar to that of a valet. Rasselas's status in the Taylor household is indicated by his reputation in the local community; Sayer records that 'He was a very active young man and much respected by all who knew him'.

The epitaph is an interesting example of the complex rhetoric which characterised the discussion of slavery, and raises questions about attitudes to race in England in the early C19. We are not now equipped to unravel the question of whether Rasselas Belfield was a slave, and if so, at what stage in his life; we do not know enough about his history, and definitions regarding slavery would have been even more uncertain on the African and Indian subcontinents than in England. To a modern observer, the idea that Rasselas had won his freedom by being sold, and taken to another country to work as a servant, may seem contrary. But the inscription seems to suggest that slavery was almost the natural condition of an Abyssinian. An epitaph of this kind might be expected to equate freedom with Christianity (Rasselas was probably born a Muslim); interestingly, this does not, celebrating instead the enlightened government and people of Britain. The Abolition Act of 1807 is clearly invoked; reference is also made to Lord Mansfield's ruling in the Somerset case of 1772, which appeared to many to confirm the Elizabethan dictum that 'England was too pure an air for Slaves to breathe.' The verse on the headstone may possibly have been written by the local poet Isabella Lickbarrow, whose work condemned the slave trade, and to whose 1814 volume of poems Isabella Agnes Taylor subscribed. This verse echoes William Cowper's influential 1784 poem, 'The Task': 'Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs / Receive our air, that moment they are free, / They touch our country and their shackles fall.'

The church of St Martin contains several memorials to members of the Taylor and Fleming families, with which Rasselas Belfield was connected. At the opposite end of the churchyard stands the stone which formerly marked the vault of John Bolton (d.1837), a slave trader and plantation owner who lived at nearby Storrs Hall (q.v.).

W. Sayer, 'History of Westmorland', 2 vols (1847), I, 260
Edward Bellasis, Westmorland Church Notes (1889)
Documents at Cumbria Record Office, Kendal (parish records of St Martin, Bowness on Windermere, Kendal)
Document at Cumbria Record Office, Carlisle (D/LONS/L1/3/155)
http:www.sc.edu/library/socar/ accessed on 21 December 2007
Dictionary of National Biography
I. Chatterjee and R. Eaton eds, 'Slavery and South Asian History' (2007)
The Cumberland Pacquet (11 January 1814)
Isabella Lickbarrrow, Collected Poems (c2004)
T. W. Thompson, 'Wordsworth's Hawkshead', ed. R. Woof (1970)
A. E. Terrill, ed., 'Memorials of a Family in England and Virginia' AD 1771-1851 (1887)

The tomb of Rasselas Belfield is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* It is a handsome and legible headstone of 1822
* The tomb is of special historical interest, having been erected to 'A Native of Abyssinia', and given a particularly powerful inscription.
* It has group value with St Martin's Church; and with the stone which formerly marked the vault of John Bolton, a slave trader and plantation owner who lived at nearby Storrs Hall (q.v.)


Reasons for Listing

The tomb of Rasselas Belfield is desginated for listing at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* It is a handsome and legible headstone of 1822
* The tomb is of special historical interest, having been erected to 'A Native of Abyssinia', and given a particularly powerful inscription.
* The tomb has group value with St Martin's Church; and with the stone which formerly marked the vault of John Bolton, a slave trader

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