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By Jason Michael
PURE SCENES ON THE STREETS of Bristol at the weekend as Black Lives Matter protesters, after daubing it with graffiti and paint, tore down the bronze statue of Edward Colston at the Guildhall, before unceremoniously dumping it into the River Avon. By early evening on Sunday a counter-protest had gathered at the base of the ‘vandalised’ monument airing its annoyance at those it felt were mindlessly attacking the history and heritage of the city. Edward Colston (1636-1721) was a Tory Member of Parliament, a wealthy merchant, and a philanthropist who gave generously to numerous charitable causes which supported people who shared his political and religious views. Leading men like Edward Colston built Bristol. As a prominent member of the Royal African Company, Colston’s investments transformed Bristol into a hub of international trade; a development which led ultimately to the city becoming an important port in the global network of trade and commerce which brought untold wealth to England during the time of the British Empire.
So, why all the fuss? Why would this ‘thuggery,’ as the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson described it, target and destroy the statue of this paragon of Britain’s imperial and mercantile spirit, this man who was one of Bristol’s most treasured sons? Well granted, readers may have noticed the somewhat over pallid description of these events and of the man Edward Colston in the opening paragraph. Angry demonstrators tend not to attack benign public symbols and monuments. The lovely bronze effigy of Paddington Bear in London, for example, only makes toddlers cry when they are pulled away from it by their impatient parents, and the big bosomed statue of Molly Malone – ‘the Tart with the Cart’ – in Dublin attracts nothing but love and affection; much as she did in life, allegedly. But there is little plush and sexy about Edward Colston MP or indeed his one hundred and seventy-four-year-old statue at the Bristol Guildhall. Colston, you see, is one of English history’s many bad guys.
George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a white police officer because he was black, because law enforcement in the United States is built on a deeply racist social and political structure, and because the very idea of policing in the States was conceived of by wealthy white plantation owners to capture and return their runaway property – black slaves. And all of this; America’s ugly history of slavery, the use of the police as a weapon of terror against black people, and the routine murder of young black men today by white police officers, was made possible by English slave traders like Edward Colston MP. Bad as it was, even then, the Royal African Company (founded in 1660 in London) did not only profit from trade in ivory and other resources stolen from West Africa, but from trading human beings as slaves from their home in Africa to the United States.
Until 1807 the United Kingdom made a fortune from the transatlantic slave trade. London, Liverpool, and Bristol were built on the huge profits made from the cruel and inhuman transport of enslaved men, women, and children from West and Central Africa to European colonies in the Americas. This living merchandise was robbed of its humanity, packed onto ships like animals, and transported over the Atlantic in the most deplorable conditions imaginable. Slave ships in peril, as other cargo ships would do, simply dumped their excess weight into the brine; lines of living people, chained one to another, were simply thrown overboard to drown. And the fate that awaited those who made the crossing was infinitely worse. Slaves were the property of their white European owners, to be worked and punished, beaten and killed, bred and raped as their masters saw fit.
Edward Colston was a truly despicable example of a human being, the most disgusting example of the kind of man who made Britain ‘great.’ In 1999 Liverpool City Council passed a motion formally apologising for the part Liverpool played in this barbaric trade. As Mayor of London in 2007, Ken Livingston broke down in tears as he made a public apology on behalf of London and Londoners for the city’s role in the slave trade. Tories, interestingly enough, tend not to feel the need to apologise for these awful crimes of Britain’s past. Mr Johnson described the protesters as thugs, and not Edward Colston and his ilk. Conservative MP Simon Clarke took to Twitter after the Bristol protest to preach:
Re-writing parts of [our] history, or seeking to erase them because they are painful, or trying to impose today’s morality on people from a different era, does not bring enlightenment.
But, of course, Clarke and others of this obnoxious opinion masquerading as measured reflection are talking rubbish. During the reign of Edward VI, when it was decreed, ‘that all idle vagabonds should be made slaves (Vagabonds Act, 1547)’ it was repealed two years later because the English jurists found it both contrary to natural law and repugnant to reason. Commenting on this case in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1753), William Blackstone – ‘the greatest English jurist’ – wrote these words:
I have formerly observed that pure and proper slavery does not, nay, cannot, subsist in England: such, I mean, whereby an absolute and unlimited power is given to the master over the life and fortune of the slave. And indeed it is repugnant to reason, and the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist anywhere.
Repugnant to reason and contrary to the principles of natural law; the same grounds on which the crimes of the Nazis were punished at the Nuremberg Trials after the events of the Holocaust, means that this ‘morality’ is self-evident – both in itself and in itself and to others (á la St. Thomas Aquinas) – to all people, at all times, and everywhere. Thus, when Blackstone reiterated this universal understanding of morality and law he was right to say it cannot exist ‘anywhere;’ in England, in America, or in Africa. Edward Colston’s crimes – crimes against humanity – were as wrong, wicked, and evil then to him as they are now to us.
We should be interested to note too that the statue of him which was torn down was not erected until 1846 – some 174 years after his death, during the reign of Victoria – ‘the famine queen.’ Statues are rarely set up to celebrate people. Even though it is a person on the pedestal, if it were the case that great people were memorialised in this way simply because of their greatness or their contribution to their community, city, or nation, we would not be able to move for statues. There just is not enough bronze in the world. Such statues are erected to glorify ideas and ideals, the highest ideas and ideals of the society that built them. The person standing on the platform, cast forever in bronze, stands there not because of who he or she was, but because they or the memory of them embody these high ideas and ideals. Conquest, dominion, enrichment, slavery, and hunger were the cardinal virtues of Victorian England and of the British Empire, and in Victorian Bristol no man embodied these imperial virtues more than the Tory MP Edward Colston.
Britain was not celebrating the greatness of Colston in 1846. Rather, it was impressing upon the people of Bristol the might of Great Britain and its empire, which, at that moment, was conducting a ruthless invasion of the Sikh territories of northern India – albeit in the guise of the East India Company – and pitilessly exporting grain from Ireland at the height of the Irish Famine.
British Conservatives, English nationalists, and other groups on the right in British society – people like Simon Clarke – are rallying to the statues and other symbols of Britain’s criminal past, eager to remind us that tearing down statues is not the road to enlightenment. On every news broadcast their representatives are shouting at us that this so-called act of vandalism was ‘an attack on our heritage and culture’ – the exact same language used by those in the United States today who resist efforts to remove the memorials and symbols of white supremacy. They are using the same language because they are both defending the same ideas and ideals – the right of one race to dominate others.
It is entirely wrong to think that by removing these offensive symbols of hate we are erasing history. The bad guys of history will never be forgotten. The political right knows this as well as we do. What they are fighting for is not our history and heritage, but for the privilege of presenting that history and heritage through an obscuring lens, one which will uphold the ideas and ideals they embody in a kindlier light than any honest telling of history will allow. They are fighting to protect the mask that right now covers the grave sins of Britain and its empire, a mask that allows them to continue to think and behave as though these things are good and allows them to continue to believe they are superior to other people. And this is why Colston’s folly came tumbling down, and it is why all such monuments to a monstrous past must come down.
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4 thoughts on “Damnation of Memory”
it’s going to be a marvellous and welcome spectacle when the British Empire does indeed crumble; can’t be long now.
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Great piece Jason. It carefully deconstructs the arguments for keeping statues likes this and along with Richard Murphy’s blog today explains why Colston’s statue should have been pulled down, not simply taken down.
Reblogged this on Ramblings of a 50+ Female and commented:
Well said, Jason, but I can’t believe you left out the loyal statue of Greyfriars Bobby. 😉
Thanks for this article, it is so well put, and actually made me cry. I doubt those people on the slave ships would ever have expected that hundreds of years later there are millions of us who would have saved them if we could. It’s not re-writing history or erasing what happened but no decent person can possibly want statues of anyone, no matter how generously they behaved with their ill-gotten gains, on display as if they were real heroes. Museums with proper descriptions of all their ‘acts’ are the place for all these statues.