I am writing this in the morning, so unless I add to it later it will hardly be an account of my day’s doings. The rain has returned, so MasterB and I, having breakfasted, have returned to bed for a lazy lie-in. The water heater is on, and in a while I shall get up, wash and dress.
The internet is again absent, so agin I am writing this on a word processing app, and shall copy paste when I get the opportunity. I can’t read the news online, see what is outraging people on Twitter, and I have never taken watching daytime television so I am nicely out of the immediate loop.
Yesterday there was a lot of talk about removing statues of people who have part of the continuing history of black oppression and exploitation. Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, called for all such statues to be removed, and street names commemorating such people to be changed. I don’t think I agree.
I found myself more in tune with a black academic, whose name I unfortunately did not catch, in Scotland who believes the statues should remain, but with additional information giving a more balanced account of that person’s life. He believes we are in danger of airbrushing inconvenient and unpalatable truths out of our history if we simply remove the evidence that these people were respected and admired. As a white person, educated to think of Admiral Nelson as a great hero, learning he was pro-slavery was a shock. It doesn’t make him a less able naval officer, but it does remind us that all human beings are flawed and have failings, some greater than others. Churchill too falls into the same category.
I am not so sure about people like Colston, whose statue in Bristol was pulled down and thrown into the water the other day. His only claim to a commemorative statue seems to be the role he had in the transatlantic slave trade. Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford is equally an affront. However, their presence means we have to ask why they are there, and to look at our past. Hopefully that will help us learn from it. It might be that the statues should go to museums where the context of why they’re were erected in the first place would be explained.
Street names change all the time. I have found four different names for the street I live on over a period of less than two centuries. Nearby is Beckford Place, named I believe for a Lord Mayor of the City of London who owned some three thousand slaves on plantations in Jamaica. There are streets and pubs named for Gladstone, that great Liberal prime minister of the nineteenth century, but even he came from a family whose wealth derived from the slave trade.
As ports, Bristol, London, Liverpool all benefitted financially from the slave trade. So did other cities. London has done the best job of stepping quietly out of the picture, but many of our institutions owe their existence to money made from that trade. There are sometimes clues in sculptures on public buildings. Part of my work is drawing people’s attention to such things. Also to remind them that ordinary people made money from the trade, either because they worked in an area that developed to support and supply the slave trade, or because they grouped together to invest in buying a slave, as they might have invested in stocks and shares. For I know my ancestors may have done this.
There are great country houses, libraries, all bought with the profits of slavery. Literature is full of references to a trade that was seen as entirely acceptable. Think of Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice and from where his family’s wealth derives; Jane Eyre and the first Mrs Rochester.
We have more commemorative memorials to the abolitionists that to the sufferers of the slave trade. Slaves are often represented as supine, helpless, rescued by white abolitionists. That’s a very patriarchal view of events. Even a cursory reading of slave rebellions will quickly put paid to that idea. The abolition movement was important, impressive, effective, but only one part of the story. To cast it as the sole opponent of slavery is again to place black slaves in a dependent position with no agency of their own.
I believe those country houses, those institutions should include, up front and openly, without prevarication and acknowledgement of the part slavery played in their history. We need to make reparation, and these houses, these institutions, can start by making their facilities available to the descendants of those who were captured and forced into slave labour, by offering grants to individuals and to their communities whether for better housing, education, libraries, or whatever the community needs. It will never make up for the cruelty and inhumanity suffered by those enslaved, but it would be a start.
Changing a street name, removing a statue may offer a temporary balm, but in many ways it is cosmetic. There are underlying sores which need more robust treatment to promote healing. We have a month dedicated to Black History. This is a step in the right direction, but too often the only times we do pay attention to black history, as though it is a niche subject. Our history books are dominated by histories of white men, as though only they have shaped the world. In Black History month we hear the same names over and over again, as though Martin Luther King, Mary Seacole, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and a handful of others are the only significant people of colour we should know about. Black history, and women’s history, needs to take its rightful place so we understand history belongs to all of us, and our ancestors, regardless of gender, ethnicity, social position or colour have all contributed to the world in which we live.
Stay safe, keep well.
Since just about everything in the West is built on the exploitation and slavery of Africans the commemoration of every man and every institution is subject to an end note explanation. I’m a bit on the fence on this, but I don’t think removing statues removes the history. The problem has always been that the history isn’t being taught. No a plaque on the side would be sufficient to cure the ignorance that let’s people like the one you encountered the other day remain so deeply disconnected from truth. The work that you and other guides do in a local and nonthreatening way go so far in making people aware of their own history.
Pulling down a few statues may feel good, but the issue is much deeper. The statues are a symptom not the disease. There was a Liverpool historian on Channel 4 news last night. His line was that most statues should remain, and be reinterpreted so that the wider story is known. However newer statues, plaques etc commemorating known racists should be removed.
Some ignorance is wilful, some is unthinking.
Years ago I read a biography of Dickens. It blamed the break up of his marriage on his wife Catherine, saying she was not a suitable mate for such a great man. It was aimed at teenagers. I hope it isn’t still in print.
What an admirable and thoughtful piece, beautifully expressed. Thank you for this!
Thanks Graham. I am trying to get my thoughts straight, so do pitch in with your own.
I thank you for writing down on your feelings, thoughts and knowledge about the latest trend derived (worldwide) from the assassination of George Floyd.
I strongly share your statements