Our Guilty Heritage
Last week, protestors gathered in the centre of Bristol pulled down a statue of Edward Colston and pushed it into the Floating Harbour. In London, a statue of Sir Winston Churchill was defaced with slogans accusing him of racism. Since then, questions have been raised about another Prime Minister, William Gladstone’s family connections with slavery and calls have been renewed for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford College. A Carribean professor has even suggested Nelson’s Column should be removed from Trafalgar Square because he allegedly supported the Slave Trade. He argued that British people need to understand how offensive it is to the descendents of slaves to see their ancestors’ oppressors glorified by memorials. He implied we could not because we have not experienced it.
There I must partly disagree. You see, in 1989 I took a train from Newry to Dublin, so I entered that city through Connolly Station. For an Englishman that was disconcerting, as it was, later in that day, when I was taken round the Pearce Museum. Pearce was hanged for his part in the Easter Rising. These men were active members of the IRA, viewed by the UK as terrorists and murderers, traitors supplied with German weapons who undermined the British cause in the First World War, but in Ireland they are seen as National heroes, men who fought for and won the country’s independence.
That is the nature of history; it reflects the perceptions of those doing the remembering. For Britain, Nelson was a man who saved us from Napoleon, and Churchill saved the world from the Nazis. Cecil Rhodes was a great benefactor to Oriel College in Oxford and Colston to many charitable causes in Bristol. However, there is another side to them, in some cases a much darker side and, for those who suffered from the causes they embraced, that is far more significant.
Colston made his money from business. He ran the Royal African Company, which administered the infamous Triangular Trade. Most people in Britain at the time were used to the Triangular Trade and the company carried it out under a Royal Charter, so it had official approval. In todays terms it was a privatised company operating a government franchise. The trade was lucrative and profitable on each of its three passages, and money from it flowed into the City of London and other British ports. The fact that the Middle passage carried human traffic, branded with a hot iron on their chests, in often appalling conditions to a life of misery in the Carribean or North America against their will did not seem to trouble the consciences of those who profited from it, and many did, not just those who organised it. Nor did the merchants worry about the fact the produce which came back on the Third passage was produced by enslaved people working for no more than their keep and suffering awful working conditions. The country was enriched by this distant unseen misery and that was all that seemed to matter. When these wealthy men gave generously to good causes, no one seemed to worry about the source of their largesse. After all, it came from a business with the Crown’s approval. What could be more respectable than that?
As a Naval Officer, Nelson would dutifully have gone wherever the Navy sent him and served on ships doing the government’s bidding. That would have involved keeping the shipping routes for British trade open and safe for our ships, and if those ships were sailing the Triangular passages, well, Nelson would probably hardly have given it a thought. His job was just to defend those ships and ensure they could reach their destinations. What or whom they were carrying would not be his concern. Did it cross his mind he was ensuring human misery could continue? Who knows? Maybe, maybe not.
Winston Churchill and Robert Baden-Powell were military men at the height of the British Empire. As such, they served the Imperial project, for that was what the army did. After the abolition of the Slave Trade, Britain threw itself whole-heartedly into building the largest empire the world has ever seen. Almost everyone in the country, great or small, worked in one way or another towards that end. In was what Victorian Britain did, it shaped the world view of generations, and it was what made Victorian Britain rich.
Cecil Rhodes, similarly, enriched himself by running mines in Southern Africa, and then went into South African politics. He was so influential two British “colonies” were named after him.
Why did we think we were entitled to walk into other peoples’ lands, take them over, and then plunder their resources to enrich the City of London? Quite simply, because until then, that had been what nations had always done — Egypt, Babylonia, Rome, Portugal, Spain, China, the Aztecs and the Incas, and many others had done the same before us. It just seemed natural. It was the way international politics worked, and it was approved at the highest level.
All of which is very embarrassing to those who now realise the harm we did. It is easy to see why many of us would want to disown and deny the deeds of our ancestors. Yet we have to face up to them. Those things which were a source of pride to previous generations are a source of shame today. It’s no good trying to single out particular cogs in the wheel. These men simply played their part in a bigger story. Colston oversaw a dreadful trade, something which would now be a crime, but he had official backing from the very top for the policy he operated. Could he have understood how wrong the business model was when it was Government policy at the time? Singling him out for guilt seems problematical when he was just an official carrying out Government policy, and the same argument applies to most of the others whose commemoration for the good they did despite the wrong is now a source of controversy.
But then, that argument has been used, and rejected, before because it was the one used by those who contributed to the Nazi murder of those deemed to be enemies of Germany by that regime. They too claimed they were just carrying out official policy, approved from the top, that the guilt was not theirs, but belonged to the system they served. Nuremberg rejected this as a defence; they should have known they were doing a great evil even if the government instructed them. They should have resisted and refused to co-operate, even if that would put them on a train East as well.
Doubtless someone will object to the comparison. How can anyone seriously compare the practices of the UK in past centuries with that awful regime from which the UK helped deliver the world? Yet, I dare do so, not because I find such a comparison comfortable, but because it challenges my comfort. Instead of pointing a finger at others, maybe we, the British, have to face the awful reality that no nation has a monopoly of evil, nor again one of good, but that all nations, like all people, are an awkward mixture of the good and the bad. It is naïve to view history as a story of heroes and villains. It is just much messier than that. To face that, we need to take a mature, considered look at ourselves, to recognise our imperfections, to ignore the quick rush to judgement in an attempt to vindicate ourselves. We are all in this together, and somehow we all need to live with the mess. Many of us have done much good, but we have done evil too, and sometimes, perhaps, we have done things which are both at the same time. We need to consider our past and try to learn from it for the future if we are to build a future better than the past.
How do we acknowledge this in the public space? Taking the statues down would not work. That would simply hide our past and enable us to ignore it. Putting interpretative plaques on or near the statues would certainly draw attention to the contributions of individuals, but would be in danger of hiding the collective responsibility. In any case, the problem then arises as to whose interpretation should go on the plaque. Doing nothing leads to these monuments being misunderstood or taken too literally. This too, is messy.
Maybe we need to hear and see a plurality of views in public, and a real debate about what these things mean for us all.
Which raises another question. Who is included in that “all?” Are those who suffered also in this with us, or are they a separate, innocent category? Leaving aside the direct victims of atrocities, who is a victim now? For the Slave Trade, it could be argued the victims are all gone. Are their descendents victims or beneficiaries? After all, the displacement of their ancestors changed whom they met, and therefore the identity of their descendents. Without the horrors of the Trade, the current generation of descendents would never have been born. Are the victims, then, those generations of descendents who were never born because their potential ancestors were prevented from meeting? How do we compensate or apologise to people who are not here?
There are no easy answers, but we have to face the questions, and we have to recognise the harm we have done and the impact that has on people and countries today. The British Empire might have done some good, but it certainly did much harm, and many people live with the consequences today. In a world with a growing population and fixed resources, where the natural environment faces devastation from the sheer pressure of human demand, we really do have to consider what kind of future we want, and how to face that future fairly. Everyone’s survival might just depend on that.
If there are no pure heroes and villains in history, who is worthy of a statue? It’s really not the issue. Statues record the times in which they are erected. They record past values and serve as an educational tool in understanding how values develop. They are part of our history and they include all the pride and shame attached to that. The issue now is how we ensure the history we leave is better than the one we received.