The statue-destroyers are teaching us history

With the destruction of Edward Colston’s statue today, there are probably some people in Britain who have learnt more about the reality of the British Empire this afternoon than they ever learnt at school.

No doubt the protesters will be accused of trying to “erase history”. Far from erasing history, they are teaching people about it.

History is not simply about remembering the past in the way that those with the power to build statues would like us to. It is about interpreting the past for ourselves, exploring the meaning of the past with each other, learning from the past for the sake of the present and the future.

As I emphasise when I’m teaching history for the Workers’ Educational Association, history is not just something that we learn. History is an activity. We do history when we act on our understanding of the past in the present, and seek to affect the present and the future as a result.

Doing history, interpreting the past, involves deciding what we will celebrate and what we will mourn. A statue is not a neutral piece of information. Building a statue of someone implies that the person in question should be celebrated.

The protesters in Bristol this afternoon have literally been doing history. They have been acting on their beliefs about what should and should not be celebrated from the past and upholding an interpretation of the past that is very closely related to their understanding of the present and the future.

Black lives matter. We cannot, as a society, meaningfully act on this message if our understanding of history involves celebrating the destruction of black lives by racist slave-traders. Nor can we do so if we see a symbol that celebrates such a thing as some sort of neutral representation of “history”. To change, we must address the realities of the past and the present.

During the time that Edward Colston was involved in the Royal African Company, the company abducted over 80,000 men, women and children from Africa and transported them across the Atlantic. Roughly a quarter of them are estimated to have died on the journey; many more after their arrival. The rest were enslaved for life.

We cannot build a just society, we cannot defeat structural racism, we cannot say and mean “Black Lives Matter” if we expect these enslaved people’s descendants to walk passively past a statue of a man who played such a part in this atrocity.

I am sure that right-wing commentators are even now desperately trying to write comment pieces attacking the removal of the statue without appearing to condone or downplay slavery. The criticisms they are likely to come out with are, on the whole, rather predictable.

The only criticism that seems to me to be at all valid relates to the Covid-19 pandemic. While I am worried that the protests of recent days may have helped to spread the virus, I am not going to condemn them. I have seen expressions of concern, particularly from black disabled people, about the need to maintain social distancing while protesting. In many places in which protests have taken place, social distancing has taken place (as photos from Carlisle, Cardiff, Oxford and elsewhere demonstrate). At times, I’m sure that protesters have intended to maintain social distancing but this has been made virtually impossible by the number of people turning up.

If someone has a genuine criticism about the lack of social distancing, I can understand and respect that. I have no respect, however, for people who will bring up social distancing as a convenient way of attacking the Black Lives Matter movement while avoiding the very real issues of race and power that have given rise to it.

The removal of Colston’s statue by protesters would not have been necessary if the authorities in Bristol had responded to the campaigns that have been going on for decades and removed the statue. Critics of the protesters are in no position to criticise their methods unless they have been personally involved in lobbying for the statue’s removal by other means. I doubt that many of them have done so.

There will be some who describe the destruction of Colston’s statue as “vandalism” and “violence”. They are inaccurate. Vandalism involves random destruction, not the deliberate removal of a particular object. Violence involves harm to people, or at least to sentient beings. The destruction of an inanimate object, whether it is right or wrong, is not in itself violent. I speak as a pacifist when I welcome the removal of Colston’s statue. Pacifism is not passive. Destruction of symbols is not violence. And we can be pretty confident that most of those who describe this action as “violent” are very happy to support actual violence when it comes to debates over war.

The repercussions of today’s events in Bristol will probably be felt for years. As a Christian, I am particularly keen to see how churches in Bristol and elsewhere react to this development. Christian churches in Britain have their own legacy to deal with regarding slavery and racism. We need to acknowledge this as we address the past, the present and the future.

History is not just about the marriages of kings and queens, about lists of dates or diagrams of battles. It is about the lives and actions of billions of people across time. Let’s be inspired by people down the centuries who have challenged the rich and powerful and acted to change the world for the better. And let’s do history by celebrating them, and following their example, rather than the the people and systems who oppressed them.

3 responses to “The statue-destroyers are teaching us history

  1. A few questions, Simon:1. Was Colston a philanthropist?
    2. Why did they erect a statue to him? Was it just because he was very rich?
    3. There were other slave traders. Have they been similarly glorified?
    4. Do you feel like teaching a course on Britain’s part in the slave trade?
    We all need to know this

    • Thanks for your comment, Carole.

      I should make clear that I’m no expert on Colston or on Bristol, which is why I wrote on the more general issue of the meaning for “history”. However, I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can:

      1. Colston gave a lot of money to the city of Bristol. It’s possible to welcome his charity to people in Bristol while condemning his role in the enslavement and killing of thousands of people elsewhere. However, much of the money he donated was made through the slave trade, so I’m reluctant to welcome it. I think it’s worth remembering that the origin of the word ‘philanthropist’ is Greek, and that it literally means ‘lover of humanity’. I don’t think that description can be applied to a slave-trader!

      2. I think because of his ‘philanthropy’, but I admit I’m not sure.

      3. There are other people involved in the slave trade who have been celebrated. Perhaps the most obvious is Nelson, who was a sort of celebrity supporter of the pro-slavey campaigners who resisted the anti-slavery campaigns of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pulling down Nelson’s Column might be harder! I’m sure there are other statues of slave-traders. The long-standing campaign to remove Colston’s statue seems to have been particularly important for many people, not least for black people in Bristol (which is hardly surprising). Given that statues are by their nature intended to be symbolic, I think it’s understandable that the presence or removal of a particular statue becomes more symbolic than the presence or removal of others. I suspect there will be lots of discussion and information in the media in coming days about other slave-traders’ statutes. I’ll watch out for it!

      4. Possibly! Do you feel like attending such a course?!

      • Oh Yes. I really need to extend my knowledge of Britain’s murky past.
        I bet I’m not the only one who’d be interested.

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