In the middle of Bristol, until yesterday, there was a statue of a man who bought Africans and sold them as slaves in America. You might think, having read that sentence, that the very bad people of Bristol were so enamoured of slavery that they decided to honour a slave trader with a statue, as if they all had a meeting one day and said “we’ll show these Africans what we think of them”.
That would be wrong, of course. The statue to Edward Colston was erected mainly because his money built much of modern Bristol. Three of that city’s schools, and its hospital, were funded by the old crook. Generations of Bristolians have been educated and treated in buildings paid for by the sweat and blood of slaves. Colston, maybe out of guilt, or maybe out of patriotism, or maybe out of a simple not recognising that the morals of the people would ultimately change, poured his fortune into the town. The people honoured his contribution with a statue.
Yesterday, a mob tore the statue down and threw it in the sea. They were wrong to do so.
They were wrong for many reasons. The most obvious is that the UK, like Ireland, is a country of laws. There is a parliament, and there are courts, and there is a process for taking decisions. If you want a statue removed or replaced, there’s a democratic and legitimate way to do it.
When groups of people take the law into their own hands, they’re spitting in the face of the rest of us, and telling us that we do not have a right to make decisions in the democratic process that we’re all supposed to respect.
In this specific case, the defence of their actions rests solely on the notion that Edward Colston was a very bad man, who deserves to be at the bottom of the sea. But history is full of very bad men, and very bad women. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. Winston Churchill had exceedingly colonialist and imperialist attitudes. Bill Clinton is a credibly accused rapist. Search long, and hard enough, in the record of almost anybody memorialised in a statue, and you will find somebody with an argument for their inherent badness.
We memorialise people because their lives were important, and made a lasting contribution to what we have become. Bristol would not be Bristol without Edward Colston, like it, or loathe it.
There is a separate and legitimate debate to be had about whether the placement of a statue or monument glorifies the memory of a person who does not deserve to be glorified. Should Colston have adorned the centre of Bristol, or should he have been in a museum somewhere, an important part of the city’s history, explained in the right context?
That’s a discussion we can have. It’s a reasonable one, about what we emphasise from our history, and what we can learn from it.
But our history does not belong at the bottom of the sea. And these decisions should not be taken by self-righteous mobs fueled by their own sense of “being a part of history”.
History is not a morality play. There are no “goodies” and no “baddies”. All that is there is a litany of millions and millions of dead people, all of whom did things for their own reasons, and were supported or opposed by others for their own reasons. We should be trying to understand the reasons, not conferring a modern morality onto their actions. When you go to a public toilet in Italy, for example, you’ll find that the signs call it “vespasiani” – after the Roman Emperor Vespasian who introduced a fee on public toilets to pay for the long war against the Jews of Judea. He also built the colloseum, and fed slaves to Lions. We have stopped feeding slaves to lions, but we have not stopped charging people to pee.
Is there a case for re-naming public toilets in Italy and tearing down Vespasian’s last few remaining busts, all of which live in Museums? Or do we, perhaps, recognise that those who use a public toilet are not, in fact, endorsing lion-based-execution as a form of public entertainment?
When Edward Colston was alive, he profited from a business we now recognise as abhorrent, years later. In the future, what will young people think of us? What will they say about horse racing, if their views on animal rights shift? What will they say, if there is a climate catastrophe, about those who operated airlines? What might they say, you might wonder, about abortion? Or Euthanasia?
Those politicians and activists who throw Colston in the sea today might find, decades or centuries hence, that their own effigies meet a watery grave.
And how would that help us to understand their motivations, or anything about them?
We cannot right the wrongs of the past by trying to erase the past. If Edward Colston is a monument to slavery, then so is the entire city that he built, and so is everyone who has benefitted from his legacy. An angry mob can throw a statue in the sea, but it cannot change the past, and, whatever its members may think, it cannot do anything to change how the historians of the future might see them, and their actions.