Unplinthing: the UK and the USA

A few days ago I received an email from the New York Times – yes, the NYT!! – asking me to contribute an ‘op-ed’ about this statue-toppling business, based on one of my recent posts on this blog. I’d be flattered if I thought the Times followed my blog, but they probably just got it by Googling ‘History Wars’. ‘Of course!’ I wrote back; and composed the following for them.

Sadly they rejected it. They gave me a reason, which I don’t quite understand; but clearly the article was not what they were looking for. Fair enough. Listening to the report from Trumpland this morning on the radio, I wondered whether my plea to keep some statues standing might be thought to be too close to the Donald’s recent objection on the US’s Confederate-statue-toppling movement as an attack on ‘our history’; although I took pains to emphasise how different our two situations are, and how my argument for keeping the old rogues in public view is the precise opposite of his. Anyhow, I’m not boverred by the rejection; but so as not to entirely waste my Thursday morning’s work, I’m reproducing the original ‘op-ed’ . Much of it repeats what I’ve written in previous posts. Here goes.


I must say I felt a visceral thrill when the statue of the 17th-century slave-trader Edward Colston was unplinthed and unceremoniously tipped into a dock in Bristol (UK) the other day.  And I won’t shed a tear if the effigy of that dreadful old capitalist-imperialist Cecil Rhodes is eventually removed from the front of Oriel College, Oxford, as the Master and Fellows have now apparently, if tardily, agreed. But these ‘history wars’ leave me uneasy nonetheless. That’s for a number of reasons, none of which should imply any sympathy, let alone admiration, for the men (it’s always men) who were originally honoured in this way.

Of course the situation is different in Britain from what it is in the USA. We don’t have your tradition of slavery on our soil, and its only-too-visible inheritance of racism, quite properly highlighted by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. The ‘blacks’ who migrated to Britain from the 1950s onwards did so voluntarily, insofar as one can regard flight from starvation or political oppression as ‘voluntary’. The ordinary Britons’ involvement in slavery was at arm’s length, through the African slave trade, and the profits they made from that and from the cheap imported consumer goods that slave conditions in the colonies and post-colonial America produced. Still, the historical scars for present-day African-Americans are clearly deeper and fresher than they are for Britain’s non-‘white’ community, and exacerbated by the way statues of Confederate leaders are used as focuses for white racists today. It’s this that must explain – and, to my mind, justify – the stronger feelings that motivate those who want to pull them down in the USA.

I have three reasons for objecting to the same course of action in Britain. The first is that it can be a distraction. The Colston de-plinthing is an example: a debate in Parliament the next day which was supposed to be about ‘Black Lives Matter’ was turned instead into one on ‘hooliganism’, which of course suited our right-wing government’s ‘law and order’ agenda far better. Backwoods Tories, whose instincts were probably racist but couldn’t admit it, were rubbing their hands in glee.

Second, the protest quickly moved on from slavery and the more oppressive kinds of imperialism to target anyone who had ever expressed racist or ‘imperialist’ opinions, or had – for example – held stocks in an imperial enterprise, perhaps unbeknownst to them. This is what is behind the movement in Britain to dethrone Churchill; who, yes, did have some pretty awful views of ‘natives’, flirted with eugenics, and could be said to bear some of the responsibility for the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 – but of course had other achievements too. That’s why he is commemorated in bronze in Parliament Square. Indeed, scratch the surface of almost any of these effigies and you’ll find something dodgy about most of them. Even Gandhi, whose statue lies very close to Churchill’s (who was very rude about him) held racist opinions about black South Africans early in his career. Many of the first suffragettes were not too sound on race. In Sweden there’s a movement to topple the statue of the great botanical scientist Linnaeus, on the grounds that he had invested in the Swedish East India Company. Where will it end? Soon there’ll be no public statuary left.

In Britain we have a particular problem with ‘imperialists’, who are often bundled into the same category as slavers, racists, Fascists and even Nazis, though the word should by rights cover a much wider range of opinions and deeds. One interesting case is that of the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who was certainly an imperialist, and a pretty fierce one, but one of whose leading motives was to eradicate the cruel Moslem Arab slave trade from central Africa: the one that captured many of the Africans who were then sold on to the European slave-traders on the west coast. His statue in St Asaph is under threat too. Should it be?

As an ‘imperial historian’, what I object to most is the over-simplification of our (British) history that this encourages. History is complex, and if it’s to be at all enlightening, let alone useful, it needs to be studied more subtly than in terms of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ alone. We can disagree about Churchill, or Stanley, or Gandhi; but let them be there and visible for us to argue over. If the ‘worst’ racist and imperialist statues were removed from Britain’s streets – and, to tell the truth, there aren’t all that many of them – the impression given to passers-by would be of a country noted only for its philosophers, artists, novelists, doctors, nurses and suffragettes. Oliver Cromwell (another target) famously instructed his portraitist to paint him ‘warts and all’. The streets of our cities should do the same.

This is my third objection to the statue-toppling movement: that, however much it may be raising awareness temporarily, it would leave behind it a sanitised view of Britain’s national history that would fool everyone, and enlighten no-one. Better, surely, to leave the old villains standing, but more honestly labelled, with accounts of their crimes as well as of their achievements; and supplemented by statues of more admirable figures. Some of those could be anti-imperialists – who represent as important a tradition in British history as does imperialism. We already have an amazing one of Boudicca near Westminster Bridge; several of Richard Cobden, who was regarded as an anti-imperialist in his time; and one in Hull of the great anti-slaver – but still a Christian imperialist – William Wilberforce. We could add JA Hobson, who more or less invented modern anti-imperialism; ED Morel; R Palme Dutt; Emily Hobhouse; Wilfred Scawen Blunt; Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia), and several Labourites; ending up with Jeremy Corbyn. We might add to them some collective sculptures of the victims of imperialism: a gang of black slaves in chains, for example; Indian rebels being shot from guns; starving Bengalis. Leaving the empire aside for the moment, but concentrating still on giving a representative picture of British history through its public statuary: how about some poor oppressed domestic miners, peasants and factory workers, who could be regarded as just as much victims of the time as – at any rate – ‘free’ colonials? All that would place the racist and imperialist statues in a proper context. I’d prefer this to hiding them away in museums. Whoever goes there?

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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3 Responses to Unplinthing: the UK and the USA

  1. I am less sure than I once was that tearing down the statues in a more wholesale manner is so bad. I can still justify keeping statues of US presidents in the US, even Jackson or Fillmore. I am still okay with Churchill and Gandhi statues in Great Britain and India, and even in nations for whom the two were and are admired in a general sense. I think, however, there should be a wholesale change in WHO at least US governments, federal, state, and local, decide to put their likeness in a statue. I am loath to speak for people in Great Britain, and therefore start with the US. I think there should be more statues of people who fought for rights and fought for making the comfortable uncomfortable–but with a consistency for our best political ideals. But even there, if we went for example with Eugene Debs and Ralph Ingersoll, I don’t think we are ready as a nation for those two. I am
    beginning to demur from the assumption that a statue teaches us anything important, but I am more sensitive that a person from an oppressed group in the US to have a right to not keep walking by a statue of someone who enslaved or oppressed their ancestors. I think we have failed as a society if we think museums have no use for most people, and if we have been schooled in a way we did not learn about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, while many Americans learned of it only because of HBO’s The Watchmen series recently ended. It is what is causing me to instead work toward saying, while trying to get the tongue out of my cheek, Let’s just put up Marvel and DC Comics statues, as we can see the warts in Batman and not be so upset about it.

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  2. Tony says:

    Although Britain may not have had a ‘ tradition of slavery on its own soil’ and ‘involvement only at arms length’ the profits from it were so insidious that all kinds of people and institutions benefited and the imperialism that gave rise to it. The textile mill owners and thousands of workers in them depended on cheap cotton imports made possible by US slavery, and the magnificent towns hall they financed in Manchester Rochdale, and the Manchester Guardian. And all kinds of British institutions benefited from riches deriving from slavery or the slave trade, including the Cof E, Oxbridge colleges, other universities, and institutions of all kinds,the National Trust/English Heritage stately homes (Gladstone’s Hawarden) etc These ‘arms length’ beneits from slavery do not diminish moral responsibility which can be accepted by future generations through reparations, starting with the Caribbean islands whose populations exist because of the British slave trade and plantation owners, and properly compensating the surviving Windrush generation who may have come to the UK ‘voluntarily’ but only because the British left the Caribbean island economies in such an impoverished state and encouraged workers to come to the UK in the 1950s to work in the NHS and transport services.


  3. “The ordinary Britons’ involvement in slavery was at arm’s length, through the African slave trade, and the profits they made from that and from the cheap imported consumer goods that slave conditions in the colonies and post-colonial America produced.”
    Is a person’s involvement in slavery at “arm’s length” if they own slaves? It is difficult to justify an affirmative answer to that question. Similarly, the wealth that accrued to Britons through slave ownership and the slave trade for centuries was direct and substantial.
    The Guardian informs its readers that, “the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 formally freed 800,000 Africans who were then the legal property of Britain’s slave owners…. the same act contained a provision for the financial compensation of the owners of those slaves, by the British taxpayer, for the loss of their “property”. ….That sum represented 40% of the total government expenditure for 1834. It is the modern equivalent of between £16bn and £17bn. The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009.” This transaction represents a colossal transfer of wealth to Britain’s slave owners at the expense of the taxpayer: a very direct dividend of the slave trade.

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