Hosea Easton has a waterfront view of the whales migrating south towards Victoria after their long journey from warmer waters. Having one of the best seats in the house he can see the Pacific Ocean break as the whales lunge forward in family units.
It’s currently high season when I navigate my way to his stone tomb at the iconic Waverley Cemetery located high up on a stretch of unceded Bidjigal land.
Born to African-American parents 11 years prior to the start of the American Civil War, Hosea Easton now lies in an east-facing grave amongst a circle of personalities including the circus entertainer Charles Peart, famous for (fatally) diving from a 50 ft tower into about 3ft 6 in of water and Lawrence Hargrave who created a four kite construction which successfully lifted him sixteen ft in the air.
Whilst these 19th century gravity-defying individuals have made it to lists highlighting the graves of ‘significant people who contributed to modern day Australia’, Easton’s name does not appear on any. An omission that overlooks one of the rare material remains of an Afro-descendant trailblazer of this country.
Easton was, according to the Australian press, “without exception the best banjo player Australia has seen” enjoying a flourishing stage career here that spanned 22 years, before his death in 1899 in Sydney, 2 years prior to the implementation of the White Australia Policy.
But perhaps more pertinently, in omitting his grave from an exclusively white canon of famous Sydney memorials, we also neglect a deep history of civil rights and Black activism that stretched far beyond the borders of America, all the way to Easton’s waterfront resting place.
Whilst his pioneering career as a Banjo virtuoso and performer in this country was reported regularly in press reviews, much less has been documented about his arrival to Hobart in 1877, armed not only with his banjo ready to rag, but politically armed with a family legacy of activism passed from both his father, Sampson Easton and his grandfather, the abolitionist and author Reverend Hosea Easton, who penned one of America’s most powerful texts on civil rights, “A treatise on the intellectual character, and civil and political condition, of the colored people of the United States and the prejudice exercised towards them”.
Reverend Easton’s now-celebrated publications calling for inter-racial healing were perceived as ‘seditious’ by many and in 1836, white supremacists in Connecticut were so threatened by his calls for justice and racial equality they burnt the church he founded, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, to the ground.
A similarly hysterical white jury would later sentence to death by hanging the nation’s fervent abolitionist, John Brown, who, in 1859 lead an insurrection against slavery six years before the ratification of the 13th amendment abolishing slave laws.
In a powerful gesture of non-violent protest against the hanging, our banjo virtuoso’s father, Sampson Easton scaled onto the roof of the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut to drape a black cloth over a gilded statue of Justice, hours before Brown’s eventual punishment by death.
This prescient act of resistance which occurred over 160 years ago may well have inspired Black Lives Matter protesters in Paris in June this year to drape another statue with black cloth as an act of protest, this time the memorial of Gallieni, a French colonial military officer who ‘suppressed’ populations in Madagascar who resisted French rule by eliminating them.
Sampson Easton scaled onto the roof of the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut to drape a black cloth over a gilded statue of Justice
These parallelisms across time and place can only confirm the resistance movements we are now witnessing have been decades, if not centuries in the making, nourished by the collective ideas and intelligence circulated globally on both West-East and North-South axes.
Worimi man and historian John Maynard, in his ground-breaking research, has revealed the historical interconnections between Worimi activist Fred Maynard and Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican born founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which
would lead to the establishment of an Australian chapter of UNIA in Sydney in the 1920’s.
The ‘common wind’ that helped circulate these ideas and build movements between oppressed groups across the world, as explored by historian Julius. S Scott, has also been a unifying force for the current Black Lives Matter movement in Australia, especially as a platform for making visible the injustice of Aboriginal deaths in custody (now numbering over 400). It is crucial we acknowledge the depth and resonance of this movement’s history to comprehend the full scope of the racial divide.
Reverend Hosea Easton’s tenet of racial justice, mise-en-scene so powerfully by his son Sampson Easton’s statue draping, was living memory for the young Easton when he arrived in Australia.
Further research will no doubt reveal the scope of the conversation he lead about race in this country, on and off the stage, against the backdrop of a racially segregated Australia.
As I join the coastal walk pathway to head home I’m surprised by the proximity of the cemetery to the gawura gurwin (Dharawal word for ‘whale shark’) rock engraving which documents the spiritual and cultural practices of first peoples in the Bondi area.
Like Easton’s tomb, the gawura gurwin engraving is in excellent condition considering it’s exposed location.
Both stories represent in their own interconnected way the continuum of the lifecycle, revitalising the link between past and present.
-Greta Morton Elangué is a freelance curator, historian and film-maker who divides her time between Sydney and Paris.