Tear Down the TyrantsReappraise the Past
As the Black Lives Matter movement removes a symbol of slavery and Empire from the heart of Bristol, Otto English explains why misplaced reverence for these relics of a shameful past has had its time
Prior to Edward Colston’s statue getting tossed into Bristol harbour, I knew very little about the life of this ‘founding father’ of one of Britain’s most famous cities.
I’ve read about how he rose to become Deputy Governor of the RAC. I’ve read about the 80,000 plus human lives that were destroyed in order to make him rich and to build his homes and burnish the charitable legacy in his name.
I’ve read about the men, women and children torn from Africa and carried in chains across the Atlantic to a miserable fate of slavery, brutality and debasement on the American continent. I’ve read about how almost a quarter of them never made it. How they died, shackled in the depths of ships – or tossed at the whims of captains into the sea when drinking water or food ran low.
Of course, the good Christian Colston never muddied his own hands with any of that. He remained at his home at Mortlake in Surrey – praying, preening his wig and counting his money while the sources of his wealth were driven to their terrible fate or tossed to the bottom of the sea.
Having read all of this, I’ve been left with just one question about Colston’s statue: why did nobody tear it down sooner?
The perpetrators of the British slave trade still have their apologists – those who argue that ‘people have to be judged on the basis of the era in which they lived’. But that same logic could be applied to Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot.
Colston was a villain. Even as he sat in his private pew, exuding Christian charity and moral righteousness, people were being enslaved to make him rich. He represents the very worst of Britain’s still not properly acknowledged slave trade and empire-building past.
He would have been no more than a footnote to the evil trade he helped to engineer had he not decided to seek immortality as a benefactor. He gifted endowments to schools and venerable societies in his will and streets, pubs, squares and halls still bear his name as a result.
Two hundred years after his death, as Bristol boomed in the late Victorian era, local burghers were seeking to reshape the city’s history and chose Colston to be one of its’ ‘founding fathers’. ‘Colston Day’ was a popular local holiday and this high Anglican, moralising merchant seemed to fit the ‘founding father’ bill.
Unfortunately local people failed to get on board.
Efforts to raise cash for a statue, which began in 1894 thanks to a self-promoting local businessman, James Arrowsmith, fell horribly flat. After a year of intensive exertion, just half the money had been raised and eventually an ‘anonymous citizen’ – most likely Arrowsmith himself – stepped in and paid the rest.
The result was a cheap bronze effigy, emblazoned with the legends: “Moral Saint”, “Merchant Prince” and “Father of the City” which sat in a prominent position in the heart of the city – until Black Lives Matter demonstrators dragged it ignobly to the ground and tossed it in the river at the weekend.
That act of expunging has led to an outbreak of hand-wringing. Commentators across the political spectrum have popped up asking: ‘who are we to edit the past and who decides what stays up and what comes down?’, along with: ‘once we start erasing history where does it all end?’
That conceit assumes that statues are put up with good intent, to teach people about history. They aren’t.
Most statues are exercises in vanity, erected to serve the agendas of those who raise them.
We might think we are better than those crazy North Koreans, but many of Britain’s most famous monuments are little more than tacky exercises in propaganda. They reinforce ‘great man’ myths (yes, they are usually of men) and forge self-serving national narratives of greatness.
Once in place, it seems they somehow become immutable and unquestionable – simply by dint of being there. And the longer they remain in place, the more unchallengeable they become.
Britain hasn’t witnessed a major revolution since the 17th Century. There has been no moment which has forced us to stare into our soul and examine who we are. Our statues, like our national heroes, are somehow deemed infallible. We don’t look on them as we do those that once stood to Stalin or Lenin in eastern and central Europe because ‘we’ believe that ‘we’ are better than that.
Most British people still buy wholesale into the narrative of our exceptionalism. They don’t grasp that our swashbuckling Elizabethan ‘heroes’ – including the likes of Francis Drake – were actually pirates who plundered and murdered and enslaved others to make themselves rich. The same goes for our bizarre appraisal of recent events such as World War Two. There is much to be proud of but the inconvenient bits – the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir or the bombing of Dresden for example – are almost always edited out.
We are living through extraordinary times and ones in which the old order of things is being challenged head-on. It is appropriate to reappraise and revisit our history. Nothing should have the right to last forever, simply because it was put there by someone a long time ago. We need to question, to challenge and where apposite to redress and revise.
As for Colston’s statue, it is fitting that a man who sent so many to a watery grave should now have his effigy tossed unceremoniously to the bottom of Bristol harbour – let it remain there and let Colston’s name live on in nothing more than infamy.