There’s one powerful argument in favour of the forcible toppling of the 17th century merchant Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol yesterday: which is that he was a vile slave-trader who did not merit being memorialised in this way. I must admit that I personally felt some satisfaction on seeing (on TV) his effigy being tipped into Bristol harbour, whence many of his slave-ships had sailed, literally crammed with Africans for sale in the New World, many of whom died and were unceremoniously dumped in the Atlantic before they got there; to the lasting shame of those responsible at the time, and arguably of their descendants too. (One direct descendant has written on Facebook to say that he was not at all unhappy to see his ancestor treated in this way. Good for him.)
But there are also two equally powerful arguments against. The first is historical. If we remove the visual and public evidence of men like this, we also delete them, and their sins, and the nation’s sins, from history. So people walking around the streets of Bristol (or Oxford, where of course the Rhodes statue outside Oriel College was recently the target of a similar movement to remove it) will no longer be reminded of the dark underside of British history, which must be undesirable. Only memorialising ‘good and great’ people can encourage a rose-tinted and falsely patriotic sense of history, which – as we can see today in the case of Boris Johnson, and all his Brexit nonsense – is illusory and can be highly damaging.
What was wrong about the Colston statue was the inscription on its base, which made no mention of the ‘commodity’ he dealt in as a shipowner, but only of his generosity to the city. Apparently that has been controversial for some time, with efforts being made to change the inscription getting nowhere. But that would have been preferable to moving him out of sight and out of mind. Either that, or stick him in a museum. But publicly memorialising him as a villain would be better.
The second argument against pulling down his statue is the ammunition that gives to the Right. I watched the long Commons debate on the incident this afternoon: one Tory MP after another attacking the ‘mob rule’ of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, with only a few token – and probably insincere – mentions of the racism it was protesting against. The ‘law and order’ Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was obviously relishing it. And so the antics of a few hotheads effectively obscured the more important issue; as they so often do.
Today another statue of a slave-trader was lowered from its plinth. In this instance, it was sanctioned by local authorities. The statue had been erected over a century and a half ago to honour the memory of Robert Milligan. Some 526 enslaved people were worked tirelessly on his sugar plantations in the West Indies. As a student of history, I agree with your first argument. The sanitised cities, which the future may hold, will not accurately reflect the history of this nation, a history that is, in many ways, deeply troubling. The statue could have had modifications to mute its celebratory tone, but I believe it should have remained in situ. By moving the monument, the audience is narrowed, and the city is morally cleansed. It was an icon of an ugly episode in our history, which needs to be faced, reminding us of the wealth that flowed from coerced black labour, and the power and influence that slave-traders wielded in Britain.
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The Colston statue should never have been allowed to remain, and its amazing that the Bristol authorities tolerated it for so long, Labour controlled authority for some time now with a black mayor. But using violent illegal means is counter productive, however understandable the anger and not only plays into the hands of the ‘law and order brigade’ but provides a distraction for the right wing media from issues of inequality and injustice of all kinds revealed by the pandemic, which is true for the USA also.
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