The Blackwall debates is a short series of three public discussions in east London clustering around the theme of "history in the present". In doing so they share something of a burgeoning popular and media interest in excavating the past for discovery, entertainment, or instruction (from family research to heritage tours and television documentaries). But in the extraordinarily atmospheric building that was once St Matthias Old Church - which we have designated the "Blackwall Agora" for the duration of the series - we are trying to do something different, something more.
The debates take place under the auspices of "East meets West", a project founded by a local housing association for Newham and Poplar, east London districts of great ethnic diversity and (especially by comparison with the far richer communities to their west) social deprivation. One of the core purposes of the initiative is precisely to bridge such divides and enable mixed communities to come together: to talk, to share experiences, and to get involved in local projects.
The unique location of the debates is an important part of their design: St Matthias was started during the English civil war of the 1640s and finished in 1651: the oldest building in the Docklands district, it is now a deconsecrated community centre.
The Blackwall Debates
The Blackwall Debates take place under the auspices of "East meets West", a project founded by a local housing association for Newham and Poplar in east London. To find out more, ring SPLASH (South Poplar & Limehouse Association for Public Housing) on +44 (0)20 8987 0257
As significant as this new kind of public space is the moment: a particular event that took place nearby, almost exactly 400 years ago.
On 19 December 1606, three ships - the Godspeed, the Discovery and the Susan Constant - sailed from the Blackwall Stairs (near the present Virginia Quays development) for north America. The ships carried 105 emigrants, twelve labourers, four carpenters and forty-eight "gentlemen". They had orders to sail to the Azores and the Canaries, and then deeper into the Atlantic Ocean - until such time as they "had fortune to land on the coast" of the new world beyond.
The convoy was led by Captain Christopher Newport, a vestryman from Limehouse, and Captain John Smith. Those who survived the arduous voyage landed on the coast of north America on 26 April 1607. They called the stretch of coast "Virginia" after England's Queen Elizabeth I, the long-reigning "Virgin Queen" who had died in 1603; and the settlement they built "Jamestown" (after her successor, and first king of "Great Britain", King James VI [of Scotland] and I [of England]).
Jamestown thus became the first British settlement in north America, and in what was later to become the United States of America. By 1616 hungry and abandoned children were being shipped to Virginia under the poor law of the period. Many destitute Irish emigrants were also sent there after being evicted from their lands in Ireland. In the United States itself, 2007 is being greeted as the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and of the nation.
The renewed interest in this story in the United States, and the fact that Blackwall is still a centre of both immigration and emigration, inspired a local group in Blackwall itself to mark the occasion by holding a series of events reflecting on some of the themes of that fateful journey.
The "Blackwall debates", within limits of space, are open to all: in the immediate locality and further afield. They are also open in the way they seek to address questions about the complex inheritance of immigration and colonisation, and the way history is used in the present. They will discuss the expectations and the disappointments in departure and arrival and the shifting identities acquired in the process.
The three individual discussions explore these themes in different historical contexts. The first (on 1 November 2006) is on the "roots of the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom"; it asks whether the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown should be commemorated at all, to assess the complex lessons of this past, and consider how to face them.
The second debate (on 22 November) will be on whether multiculturalism is working in Britain today; the third (on 6 December) asks whether the feminist movement is still relevant in Britain.
Bella Thomas is an adviser to the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation and Axess TV
Also by Bella Thomas in openDemocracy:
"Paradox regained: a conversation with an old comandante in Cuba" (20 August 2003)
"Living with Castro"
(14 August 2006)
As a whole, the initiative hopes to facilitate engagement between individuals from amongst the many different ethnicities and religions who inhabit Blackwall today. It also seeks to bridge the divide between the north and south Docklands. Many of the employees of the Canary Wharf business district return every evening to the more prosperous districts of London and southeast England, rarely venturing across the Aspen Way to Poplar or Blackwall.
For many too who live under the shadow of the giant Canary Wharf towers, amidst the jumble of low-rise concrete tubescences, the sparkling shafts of quartz across the walkway are another world which they rarely if ever enter. The Aspen Way, across the top of the Isle of Dogs, must preside over one of biggest contrasts in living conditions and income anywhere in Britain today.The former St Matthias Old Church has more even than age to commend it. This was at one time the private chapel to the East India Company, the driving force behind the British colonisation of India in the 18th century. To that extent the building has other sorts of imperial ghosts. In a society rediscovering - and contesting - the mixed legacies of its past, there is surely no better place than the "Blackwall Agora" to explore together how the past and present divides and connects us, and what kind of future we might make out of both.