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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Colston sparks questions about History

Who could have imagined a few weeks ago that we would become engaged in a national debate over the purpose of history.


Historians, journalists, inevitably, politicians have been brought into the debate, and the variety of views and opinions offered have varied widely.


So many of you, who read this blog, have shown an interest in my piece on the removal of the Colston statue in Bristol that I thought I might enter this debate with some views of my own, on which you can sharpen your teeth.


When I was a sixth former, one of the questions we were invited to discuss was built around EH Carr's book, 'What is History?' As a teenager I found the book crashingly boring. Where, I wondered, was the fun of learning about history.


Understanding more of the past seems to me to be a natural result of being human. Whether it is that we want to know more about our own family, our town, our county, our country, or our world, it seems a common human desire.


Since my teenage years a great deal more history is there for us to enjoy. Books, both academic and popular, history societies in even small villages across the land, glossy history magazines, historic sites to visit, re-enactments, and popular television programmes. All this points up my basic belief in human desire to know more about the past.


Today, my answer to that question I was asked as a schoolboy, 'What is History?', is more than its just fun (although I still find it fun); I believe we can only understand the present by understanding the past, and we can only plan for the future by understanding both.


So, to the present debate. The past is the past. But whose past? We need to explain the past from more than one angle, and at the same time not explain it away or, conversely, airbrush parts away.


The most difficult question from the past for us living in Britain is the story of The British Empire. We can no longer hold on to the partial explanations of our youth but must embrace the experience of those who have arrived here over the last 70 years, whose families were citizens, and second-rate ones, of that Empire. We need to study it warts and all. When those of educated in the Fifties were taught the subject, we were taught of the victories of the British Army against inferior armed tribesman, such as in The Ashanti Wars in Ghana which lasted, unbelievably, from 1824 to 1900. We were taught to admire figures like Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes, whose moral failings are now well understood. We question the role of missionaries like David Livingstone who for Christians was a hero of The Sunday Schools. Today we know what damage militant Christianity did to the cultures of indigenous peoples.


To return to the Colston statue. The tragedy here is that many Bristolians, white as well as black, had sought to have it removed for decades. Failure by Bristol Corporation to act was a direct cause for the action taken last week. The Senior Police Officer present at the demonstration has been quoted by The Times as saying, 'Bristol should be proud of the way it acted'. This seems to me to be the authentic voice of British tolerance and of community policing.


Since Bristol, however, the BLM movement in Britain has been infiltrated by people espousing other causes, as well as by those intent on violence, and has generated a reaction from Far Right Groups.


We should take care to unravel the issues here. In my earlier blog I suggested that the case of Colston and Bristol was sui generis. In Bristol terms the actions of the demonstrators, of the Police, and subsequent action of The Lord Mayor have all pointed up how such issues can be peacefully and amicably resolved.


Now the issue has moved on to statues in general. Most statues of famous people, part of whose personal history we disapprove of today, do not present live issues as was the case in Bristol. Are we really going to demand that the marble bust of the Emperor Hadrian in The British Museum should be removed from public gaze because the Emperor was a paedophile? Should statues of Francis Drake be removed because he was a pirate and part time slaver? There are already calls for the removal of Gandhi's statue in Leicester because of his racism when a lawyer in South Africa. Personally, I don't think any of this makes sense. Proper signage can deal with the issues involved perfectly adequately. The issues are not live as they are in Bristol. The question of the Rhodes statue on the external wall of Oriel College, Oxford is different. There is no question in my mind that the statue should be placed somewhere less public and again with appropriate signage, in the way that The Cecil Rhodes Museum in Saffron Walden (his birthplace) have dealt with artefacts they have on display. The signage deals with the issues around Rhodes. Rhodes in Oxford is a live issue to many students and dons, both white and black and should quickly be resolved by Oriel.


No human being has ever been perfect, we all have feet of clay. We must deal with statue issues, as we deal with other public interest issues, by dialogue, compromise, and acceptable solutions.


How much simpler it was in Ancient Rome where they melted down the statues of departed Emperors in order to make statues of new ones. Daisy Dunn writes in her book 'In the Shadow of Vesuvius', quoting Pliny the Younger who took part in the smashing of statues of the hated Emperor Domitian:-

' It was a pleasure to dash those proud, proud faces to the ground, to strike them with swords, to savage them with axes, as if blood and pain would follow from each and every blow. No one was so measured in his joy and late-found happiness as not to appear to see the lacerated limbs and truncated bodies as a kind of revenge.' I think Pliny would have rather have approved of the actions in Bristol.'


I am finishing by giving details of three books about British Black History, which may be of interest:


Black British History (from Roman Britain to today) by Hakim Adi

Black and British by David Olusoga ( you may have been watching his BBC series on a house through time in Bristol)

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann


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3 Comments


georgedonath55
Jun 13, 2020

For once I agree with William Tyler - people do want to know about their past. But they deserve not to be fed events out of context. The British did not invent slavery, it has been practiced for at least 4000 years before Mr Colston was born. At the time it was a legitimate trade like many others at various times of which we today do not approve. In point of fact the particular slaves currently being considered were sold into slavery by their own rulers and sold on to British shipowners by Arab intermediaries. Should we now punish their descendants living amongst us?


Bristol has an elected council which clearly decided that Mr Colston was in his right place.…


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davearnoldfca1947
Jun 13, 2020

Very much enjoyed reading your post . This I think raises question of objectivity in history . Yehuda Bauer discusses this in chapter 1 of “ rethinking the holocaust “ . He writes .. “ it is important to start by denying the possibility of an “ objective “ stance . He goes on :-


“ We realise that another age will reinterpret the same events in its own distinct way ; hopefully , our own findings will become part of any future analysis, if we state , to ourselves as well as to our public what our biases may be . Let me state my biases. I think that the planned total murder of a people was an unprecedented…


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p.n.ryley
Jun 12, 2020

Yes, a fine post. I also share your reservations about the current outbreak of misjudged zealotry. I think it detracts from the particular history that Colston and, in Belgium, Leopold II have forced us to see.


This is good too:


https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/10/rewriting-history-historians-statue-past


Two good quotes


":Historians are not too worried at the threat posed by “rewriting history”. This is because rewriting history is our occupation, our professional endeavour. We are constantly engaged in a process of re-evaluating the past and reinterpreting stories that we thought we knew."


"The outcry about the removal of the statue shows that some people in Britain are uncomfortable with any critique of Britain’s past. But they want it both ways: to be free of guilt for…


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