As a nation, we have a somewhat chequered past. We’ve done good things. But we’ve also done more than our fair share of bad things. Some argue that we should erase all traces of our unsavoury endeavours. I say we should own our history. The good bits and the bad. And that we should strive to be better in the future.
On 7th June 2020 in the city of Bristol (just down the road from where I live), a group of protestors participating in a demonstration against racism in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd toppled a statue of 17th century merchant Edward Colston and dumped it unceremoniously into the harbour.
Edward Colston’s name is well-known across the city. In addition to being a merchant, he was a member of parliament and a significant philanthropist. His name has adorned such Bristolian landmarks as a music venue, an office tower, several streets, a surprisingly large number of pubs, various schools, a window in the cathedral and even a weir.
What was less widely celebrated, though, was the subject of Colston’s trading ventures. Because he traded in people. He traded in slaves.
Bristol formed one corner of what was known as the ‘triangle’ of the Atlantic slave trade. Bristol’s merchants used their ships to transport textiles and other manufactured goods to West Africa, where they traded them for enslaved people. These people were shipped to English colonies in the Americas, where they were put to work on sugar and tobacco plantations. And the ships returned to Bristol with sugar, rum, tobacco and other goods produced by the plantations.
It’s estimated that more than 2,000 ventures participating in this triangular trade departed Bristol between 1698 and 1807. And that they were responsible for the forced enslavement and transportation of more than half a million African men, women and children.
(And that’s just vessels leaving from Bristol, by the way, which was only one of the British ports involved in this trade.)
However, because Bristol was at the corner of the slave triangle that didn’t actually participate in the physical transfer of slaves, it was easy to turn a blind eye to the subject of the trade and to focus instead on the riches that it yielded. And so Colston and his fellow merchant venturers became feted citizens, lauded for their generosity towards the city.
Until 7th June 2020. When a rising tide of anti-racist sentiment decided that it had had enough. When Colston became the focus of centuries of pent-up rage against injustice. And when his statue ended up at the bottom of the very harbour from which his slave ships had once set sail.
Since that day, Edward Colston has been persona non grata across the city. The Colston Hall music venue is now the Bristol Beacon. Colston School is now Collegiate School. And various other city features that once bore his name have – officially or less-officially – been renamed. To all intents and purposes, Edward Colston is no more.
Which presents me with a bit of a dilemma. Because while I abhor the slave trade in all of its forms, I have grave concerns about erasing aspects of our past simply because they have become problematic. Surely, we need to learn from the failures of our past. To use them as a source of reconciliation. And we can only do that if we engage with them.
And I don’t mean by pulling them down and chucking them in a harbour, however symbolically-rich (and utterly Bristolian) that act may have been.
Far better, in my view, to retain our history, to use it as a source of reflection and to provide the vital context that will allow us to learn from it and to grow. As individuals, as a city and as a nation. We do not need to celebrate individuals such as Edward Colston, but we can’t ignore them, either.
I recognise, of course, that this is my perspective. And that I may feel differently if I were a black man (or woman) of West African origin. Or if I’d lost whole branches of my family tree to slavery. That’s why we need to talk about these things. To use them as a way of bringing us together, rather than of driving a wedge between us.
So let’s keep our buildings and our names and our monuments. But let’s also be clear – for our own generation and for future generations – about what they mean and why it is so important that we use them as stepping stones to a better future, rather than as shackles to a problematic past.
It’s our history. Some of it is distasteful. But if we don’t learn from history, to paraphrase philosopher George Santayana, we’re surely destined to repeat it.
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