Church's 300-year-old memorial to slave trader could be removed

Church’s 300-year-old memorial to 17th Century slave trader who married an African princess, established a family dynasty in Sierra Leone and died at age 30 could be removed

  • A monument is dedicated to Thomas Corker (1670-1700) in Falmouth, Cornwall 
  • Corker’s plaque is in King Charles the Martyr church, where he was baptised
  • Aged 14, he went to work for the Royal African Company first as an apprentice
  • He went on to marry an African princess and founded a dynasty in Sierra Leone
  • Campaigners say ‘we should condemn, not memorialise’ England’s slave traders

Campaigners are calling for the removal of a baroque memorial to a slave trader inside a Cornish church.

The marble dedication to Thomas Corker (1670-1700) has been mounted on the wall of King Charles the Martyr church in Falmouth, Cornwall, since the early 1700s.

Born the second son of a mercantile family, Corker joined the Royal African Company as an apprentice aged 14 on the Guinea coast and rose through the ranks to become an agent at York Island, now Sherbro Island, in Sierra Leone. 

He married an African chieftain’s daughter known as ‘Seniora Doll’, of the Ya Kumba ruling house of the Yawri Bay area. The couple had two sons, whose descendants remained in Sierra Leone. 

Corker died in Falmouth on a business visit in 1700 at the age of just 30 and his memorial was erected by his elder brother Robert, who also paid towards church improvements in 1708.

A campaign has now been launched on Facebook calling for the removal of the monument alongside an online petition which was set up on Sunday.

Petition organiser Kate Thomas said: ‘If the Corker family and the Reverend had been proud of how Thomas Corker made his wealth as a slave trader, it would have been included in the eulogy. It was omitted. Instead, he was glorified.’

The church itself is now consulting over whether the memorial to Corker, who was born into a prominent Falmouth family and was himself baptised in the church, should remain.

Revd Canon Bill Stuart-White with the Thomas Corker memorial at King Charles the Martyr Church in Falmouth, Cornwall

The dedication to Thomas Corker (1670-1700) has been mounted on the wall of King Charles the Martyr church since the early 1700s, when it was commissioned by his brother Robert


The memorial to Corker is over 300 years old and contains macabre depictions of a skull, as well as a rope around its borders

The memorial to slave trader Thomas Corker (1670-1700) is housed in the church of Kind Charles the Martyr, Falmouth, Cornwall, where he was christened

WHO WAS FALMOUTH SLAVE TRADER THOMAS CORKER?

Thomas Corker (1670-1700) was born in Falmouth, Cornwall, the second son of a merchant family, and baptised at King Charles the Martyr church on February 4, 1700.

At the age of 14, Corker was sent to the Guinea coast of western Africa as an apprentice to the Royal African Company. The group had a monopoly on British trade with West Africa, including gold, silver and slaves.

The Royal African Company promoted Corker to agent at the Company fort of York Island in the estuary of the river Sherbro in Sierra Leone. 

He married an African princess known as ‘Seniora Doll’ and had two sons. Their sons inherited a claim to the west African chiefdom from their mother, and through their father, they were part of the mercantile class and educated in England.

In 1700, Thomas Corker made a business trip to Falmouth, bringing with him enslaved Africans, where he died on September 10, aged 30 years. His elder brother Robert (1668-1731) who remained in Falmouth as a merchant, commissioned a ‘baroque marble and freestone monument’ at the church he was baptised at in his memory. Robert also donated money for church improvements in 1708.

Thomas Corker’s Euro-African sons established a family dynasty in Sierra Leone. The spelling of the family surname became Caulker. A family history titled ‘The Caulkers of Sierra Leone: The Story of a Ruling Family and Their Times’, written by Imodale Caulker-Burnett was published in 2010.

Source: Whistler History

Ms Thomas added: ‘The omission [of Corker’s career] has created a collective amnesia about Falmouth’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade down the generations of the people of Falmouth and instead Thomas Corker’s memorial and the man himself have been admired by visitors to the church for over 300 years.’

Bishop Hugh Nelson said: ‘We condemn the slave trade, which was abhorrent. We are deeply troubled by the existence of a memorial to Corker, who was a slaver, in a church which points us to the God of freedom and justice.

‘Because the church is a public building, we want to continue this conversation with the wider community, and we welcome the opportunity to hear everyone’s perspectives and views.

‘It may be that removing the memorial is the best option, but there might also be better and more creative ways to remember those who suffered from the horrors of slavery in the past and to encourage more people to commit to a just and good world today.

‘We want to explore those options as well – and then to come to a clear decision.’

In 2020, the Church of England began to roll out a consultation to churches with the aim of getting them to review memorials as part of a process on Contested Heritage.

King Charles the Martyr Church began their own process late last year to decide on action regarding the memorial’s future.

In the months that have followed, there have been conversations with local councillors, members of the black community, local historians and a direct descendant on Thomas Corker who is of mixed heritage himself.

As a result of that first meeting, a decision was made to add a temporary notice while work continued which states: ‘There is contested heritage around this memorial.

‘The church is working with members of the black community and interested parties to move forward and to investigate whether this can be used as an educational tool to address the past wrongs.’

Meetings so far have been fruitful, however there has been slow progress over the last 12 months.

A church spokesperson said: ‘There is however a clear commitment by everyone involved, including the church community, to find a way to use this as an opportunity for education and awareness about issues of race, slavery and discrimination both in the past and today.’

‘The Slave Trade’ by George Morland, 1867. Captured Africans are shown being rounded up on the shoreline by slave traders. A young apprentice (centre) helps tow a boat

Captives being brought on board a slave ship on the west coast of Africa

The memorial sits close to one for Joseph Emidy, a prominent black musician and freed slave who married a local woman and settled in Falmouth.

The church said that the proximity of these memorials, with hugely contrasting stories relating to the transatlantic slave trade, would present an opportunity to educate about Falmouth’s part in the slave trade and the 21st century response to it.

Revd Canon Bill Stuart-White, vicar at King Charles the Martyr Church, said: ‘The Corker Memorial is in a prominent position in the church and the message it currently conveys about the despicable transatlantic slave-trade clashes starkly and profoundly with the message of the Christian Gospel.

‘None of the present generation of worshippers would wish to be associated with the sentiments of the memorial or to glorify in any way the acts of the man it recalls.

‘This is an issue the Church takes very seriously and we are committed to finding the best and wisest way to make good the complex failings of the past.’

To see the campaign petition, visit here. Those wishing to share their views on the memorial can email Revd Stuart-White at [email protected]

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