Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Symbols of the past

As with many of the best quotes, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the original authorship of the saying that “history is written by the winners”. One of its more recent outings was from the mouth of the US Attorney General, Bill Barr, in defending Trump, and in the process justifying whatever means are used. Whilst it isn’t always entirely true, it’s a maxim which holds in the general run of things, and it underlines the fact that the history that we understand isn’t just a series of facts and events, but an interpretation of those facts and events, and any interpretation is inevitably written from a particular standpoint which chooses what weight to give to which event. And history isn’t unchangeable – different generations in different times look at the same events and draw entirely different conclusions from them.
There is no doubt that Edward Colston was a generous philanthropist, but neither is there any doubt that much of the fortune which financed his philanthropy had its origins in the callous trading of fellow humans as slaves, who were forcibly torn from one continent and shipped across the ocean to another. At the time his statue was erected in Bristol, the slave trade had already been abolished for almost 90 years, but the historical interpretation of those who erected it had more to do with his philanthropy than with the source of the money. And, for context, the British Empire was still thriving – slavery might not have been legal any more but exploitation of people and resources was still the general rule, and the native inhabitants were hardly better regarded than when they had been slaves. Although there are still those who hark back to the ‘glory days’ of the British Empire (it was only a few years ago that a certain Boris Johnson said of Africa: “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”), it is hard to conceive of circumstances when a statue would be erected today celebrating the life of someone like Colston, and I can well understand why the statue looks to be, at the least, a glossing over of the past.
Some – including the new Labour leader – have attempted to argue that the statue should have been removed, but only by following ‘proper processes’. That would be the ‘proper processes’ which have seen debate continue for decades without any action being taken. Would they apply the same simplistic labels of ‘criminal damage’ and ‘unlawfulness’ to similar acts elsewhere? How about the toppling of statues to Lenin and Stalin after the fall of the Soviet Union? Or those of Saddam Hussein after the war in Iraq? Or how about the mob who attacked the Berlin Wall and tore it down? That was also a ‘criminal act’ of vandalism, was it not? In truth, our response towards the removal of symbols, by fair means or foul, is usually based more on our attitude to the symbols and what they represent than on the criminality or otherwise of the act of removal.
And that brings us to the real problem with statues to so-called ‘great men’. People are rarely perfect, and many of those to whom statues have been erected attract strong feelings, both for and against. It’s easy enough – in the twenty-first century at least – for most of us to agree that celebrating the life of a slave trader is wholly inappropriate, but there are other controversial figures in history as well. Statues are erected in one historical context, but continue to stand when the context, and the interpretation of past events, have changed beyond recognition. (One of the more obvious examples is Churchill. Whilst he was/is a war hero to most of my parents’ generation, there is little doubt that he was also a racist who believed in and pursued the idea that some races are superior to others. His callousness and willingness to use indiscriminate violence to pursue the maintenance of the British Empire are well-documented. At the moment, the popular interpretation of history is still on his side overall (indeed, in an echo of the idea that history is written by the winners, he once wrote that he expected history to be kind to him “…especially as I propose to write that history”). A century from now, I doubt that the same will be true – distance in time invariably changes perspectives.)
History is always changing; those who want to cling on to statues and symbols of the past are often using those symbols as mere proxies. What they are really trying to cling on to is their own version of history. The British Empire has been dead for decades in the real world, but it lives on in the memories and attitudes of too many people. Removing the artifacts which symbolise and commemorate that view of the past challenges their world view. But it’s long overdue.


Anonymous said...

But surely we cannot leave it up to our relatively recent minority immigrant population to decide which statues should be discarded and which should remain.

The rule of law needs to come down on the perpetrators of such wanton destruction like a ton of bricks!

Spirit of BME said...

Until he took a bath in the Bristol dock, I had not heard of Little Eddy Colston but your (rather good) post and other readings has enlightened me.
My attitude to statues of people are framed by my upbringing in the Welsh Wesleyan Church and its Taliban wing, in that statues lend themselves to idolatry and that is a ticket to Hell. However, other people see value in them.
Eddy`s statue does past one of my tests in that if they should be erected then only from voluntary funds at a minimum of thirty years after the death of the subject, maintenance should also be paid from the same source and if the money is not there ,neither is the statue as the market has spoken.
Those sick people who benefited from Ed`s generosity or children who got an education, I doubt gave a thought to the source of the investment, but we should not be too hard on them as HMG in Wales rants about Bankers, the City, Oil Companies etc, but when the blood bag of money arrives from HM Treasury, they fall short of conducting a ethical audit of the source of this dirty money and request a reduction in their income , in fact they would be very happy to get even more.

John Dixon said...

What has any of this post got to do with immigration, whether recent or not? Answer: nothing.

The problem with the imperial past doesn't arise purely because some of the descendants of the victims of empire now live in the UK and can see the way that past is glorified and celebrated, it arises because of the acts committed during that period. That problem would still exist even if no-one from the far reaches of the empire had ever set foot in the UK - blaming immigrants is the typical response of an English nationalist.

CapM said...

To Anonymous
Most of the removal crew rolling Colston down and into the harbour appeared to be white.
Maybe they were Poles.

Anonymous said...

CapM ... from Anonymous

Quite so, the black population voiced their dislike, the 'woke' white population took decisive supporting action.

Yesterday Sarah Vine in the Daily Mail wrote a very good piece about the dangers of it all.

John Dixon said...


Are you really saying that all white people are so blind and ignorant of the past that they can only start to challenge received truth when black people point it out to them? Do you realise quite how silly that sounds? Probably not, if you think that an article by Sarah Vine in the Daily Mail counts as some sort of authoritative source. She is no more an impartial observer of events than am I; she writes from a specific viewpoint which I don't share. The fact that you, apparently, do is entirely your right, of course. But please don't confuse opinion with fact.