Colston’s fall marks the beginning of the future

The empty plinth where Edward Colston once stood
Photo: https://twitter.com/Chobbs7/status/1269682491465576448?s=20
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In the aftermath of the slave-trader Edward Colston’s impromptu swim in Bristol’s Floating Harbour on 7 June, the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, set the tone of what the city authorities intended to do next, when he said:

We’ll retrieve the statue and take it to one of our museums where it will be assessed for damage. A decision hasn’t been made [regarding] what we will do with it going forward. In terms of the space where it was, I think we need to facilitate a citywide conversation about that. The conversation needs to be almost without emotion.

I’d like to make sure that conversation is informed by good history. I’m asking for historians to form the nucleus of a team with other academics in Bristol to do a piece of work about our memorials, our statues, our street names and do some good history on it, some good understanding so we can be properly informed, not emotionally tilted but informed.

What we do in response to the conclusions they come to or the evidence they unearth, that’s another stage on. Too much of our argument is emotive rather than informed. This is away from politics, it’s away from opportunism. It’s about being intellectually coherent.” (The Guardian, 10 June 2020)

For Bristol, this is a valuable opportunity to both re-visit its history and think about the people and places it wishes to commemorate. As a city, it finds itself with an opportunity to consider the values to which it aspires, and how best to celebrate and strengthen them.

While there have been voices raised in objection to the supposed ‘destruction of heritage’ marked by the removal of statues – both that of Colston, and others elsewhere in the country – history has always been rewritten, to reflect the image we wish to have of ourselves. The pieces of history in which we are interested or which serve that image, change depending on the pre-occupations of the day: Colston’s statue was erected only in 1895 – a full 174 years after his death, at a time when the city was looking to celebrate a benefactor who had given substantial sums to charity; it was hoped that this recognition of his donations would inspire others to do the same.

But the way in which Colston’s wealth was amassed, was overlooked – or perhaps simply ignored – hence the inscription on the plinth whereon he was placed until last month:

Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city AD 1895

Imperial history has a convenient habit of overlooking some of its less savoury, more controversial and certainly less successful moments: how many of us learned about the English occupation of Tangier, or the seizure by Barbary pirates, of slaves from English coastal towns? These events took pace within the lifetime of Edward Colston – but tend not to figure in the story of the smooth, upward progression of the British Empire, despite being as much a part of Britain’s imperial history.

It will be interesting to see what values emerge from Mayor Marvin Rees’ historical research and conversations in Bristol, and who it is that we will come to choose to celebrate as the heroes of our times.

After 75 years of peace in Western Europe, the generation that fought and died in World War Two has now largely passed on: celebration of wartime figures would seem to be anachronistic. Despite that generation’s enormous sacrifices, we are today – in 2020 – not really the nation that fought two world wars. Times have moved on – whatever the Daily Mail may seek to suggest, and tell us about our ‘national story’.

Nor are we the imperial power we once were – the one on whose Empire the sun never set. We must accept that vast numbers of the UK population have extremely mixed feelings about ‘empire’ and all  that our predecessors saw as their due. And, since we have just voted to leave the European Union, it would be very poor timing for the UK to insist in reminding itself and others of our role in Europe, despite our substantial contribution to the European vision.

Looking west, our relationship – ‘special’ or not – with the United States, is fragile. In Bristol, we can remind ourselves that a Bristolian  – Henry Cruger – is the only person to have been both an MP and a member of the New York Senate; but with a fiercely nationalist President in the White House whose focus is on ‘America First’, the ‘special relationship’ has rarely been under such pressure.

So, on this rapidly shifting national and global landscape, who are the heroes we would wish to commemorate? What values do we aspire to, that will guide us towards such commemoration?

It does not seem an auspicious time to be asking those questions: the national debate in which the UK has been engaged for the past four years, has been divisive and confused, deliberately stirred up by many of those in the current Government. Much of it has been driven by racism and xenophobia – genies that many thought had been corked firmly in their bottles. We seem to want to dwell on what divides us: nationality, ethnicity, religion, or whatever else might become politically advantageous.

The English have done this with such success that there seems a very real possibility that Ireland will reunite and that Scotland will vote for independence. If you push the argument much further, you may even begin to question the coherence and integrity of England itself.

So how do we even begin to decide who we would like to commemorate in such a climate?

I would offer a suggestion. We need to develop a Culture of Remembrance. This involves letting go of our existing historical mythology, and rebuilding it in a new way – one which reflects the evolution of our own points of view. This must involve changing the old images of national self-heroism based on pride, glory and suffering, and must instead expand our view of ourselves to include elements of self-criticism.

In post-World War Two Germany there was a conscious policy of Erinnerungskultur – a Culture of Remembrance – as a means to “implicate citizens in, and engage them with, their terrible history,” as John Semley – author of Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability – wrote in The Guardian on 2 July.

Now, Marvin Rees is creating an opportunity for us to do just that: to learn the lessons of the past and to reinforce those lessons so that we do not repeat the same mistakes. We must take the opportunity to think positively about the society that we want for the future. And let us not get too precious about memorials whose time has passed.

Eric Gates is retired and has lived just outside Bristol for the past 25 years. He was also a student in Bristol 50 years ago.