Edward Colston comes crashing down, because black lives really do matter
History is not some dead parchment useful only as an intellectual pastime on the part of those with too much time on their hands. History is a living breathing entity which informs not just the past but also the present. How we record and analyse and celebrate our history in any given space and time tells us not just who we were but who we are. And thus we have the controversy surrounding the toppling of the statue Edward Colston by the Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol.
Just who and what was this man? In official biographies he is variously depicted as a merchant, philanthropist, and politician. The world now knows him as hitherto he was never known — that is, as a slave trader, a man who made a fortune from the trade in human flesh in the 17th and early-18th centuries.
It is estimated that Colston — in his capacities as investor, leading official and deputy governor of the Royal African Company — was personally responsible for the transportation of over 84,000 men, women, and children to the Americas as slaves in Britain’s colonies. Each slave was branded on their chest with the company’s logo and were packed into the holds of the company’s slave ships in conditions of such cruelty and barbarism that 20,000 perished in the course of being transported. Over 12,000 of those transported were children under the age of 10, out of whom 1 in 4 died before reaching their final destination.
Just read the aforementioned and ponder the efforts of Establishment voices from right to centre left who’ve been as one in decrying those protesters as ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’ who pulled Edward Colston’s statue down, before dumping it into Bristol Harbour. This is the society whose dominant cultural values have been forged in the barbaric crucible of empire, colonialism and imperialism. It is a history that has yet to be properly and honestly addressed, much less redressed, and it’s a history upon whose foundations the British ruling class rests with all its conceits and perfidious disregard for truth, whether historical or in the here and now.
In place of truth we are force-fed the flags and symbols and monuments celebrating this sordid, shameful history, designed to instil pride in Britain’s role in the world, both past and present. This is why when on rare occasions there is an act which punches through this fog of obfuscation to remind who we really were and really are, panic runs through the Establishment like water from a burst pipe.
The Black Lives Matter protests catalysed by the murder by cop of George Floyd in Minneapolis have been international in scope and a powerful pushback against the forces of racism, which have had things their way for far too long. Whether manifest in the election white supremacist-in-chief Donald Trump to the White House, whether manifest in Brexit, a political cause dripping in nativism, anti-migrant and anti-minority hostility, or whether manifest in racist policing in multiracial societies such as the UK and US, we have been living in a time of reaction that has poisoned our national discourse and rolled back years of anti-racist activism and solidarity.
More insidious and pernicious still are the forces of racism that dominate our historical narrative and always done, have also dominated our historical, whether consciously or unconsciously. The internalisation of colonial and imperialist tropes by leading opinion formers, mainstream politicians and historians has long been an impediment to progress in our society and world. Which is precisely why the protesters involved in pulling down the statue of Colston deserve to be celebrated rather than maligned. In Colston’s place on that plinth should be a statue a commemorating his victims, given that what we as a society choose to celebrate or commemorate in any period is tantamount to making a moral choice over what was right and what was wrong, between that which represents our values and that which does and should not.
Forcing black British citizens to walk past statues and monuments to slave traders and colonialists is about as heinous as forcing Jewish British citizens to walk past statues of Reinhard Heydrich and other Nazi leaders and war criminals.
The time has now arrived to revisit British history — not as an exercise in revising it but as a necessary exercise in correcting its narrative and how we record it. This will by necessity include changes to the school curriculum to ensure that the brutality of British colonialism and imperialism is properly discussed, debated and ultimately acknowledged. The only problem with this of course is that, by definition, the level of consciousness that would ensue as a result would threaten a status quo that is entirely dependent on propagating the lie of Britain’s past rather than the truth of it.
And this, ultimately, lies at the root of the Establishment cri de couer that has been got up over the toppling of this Colston statue. It is to its denizens a frightening glimpse of a possible future world when people in Britain are not just pulling down Establishment statues, but the entire Establishment itself.
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