The outlandish slurs were not so much damning as they were predictable. The protesters who brought down the statue of obscure Bristol slave trader, Edward Colston last week, were immediately compared to “ISIS” and the “Taliban” then denounced as “thugs” and “vandals” who were “purging” and even, according to Boris Johnson, “desecrating” monuments to Britain’s great and the good. “Good”, because even if some of them had trafficked and murdered tens of thousands of slaves, they had also been great philanthropists. According to one tabloid, such men “also gave fortunes away and helped build Britain and the modern world.” This tabloid certainly got one thing right: the extracted-for-free labour of captured black people literally made the modern world. It provided the foundational money for capitalism, funded much of the industrial revolution and shaped modernity as we know it.
Those tearing down statues enable us to witness history in action.
Amidst all the screeching condemnations of the protesters for “erasing” history by bringing the statue down, often coming from handwringing liberals, for whom history is apparently reducible to a large piece of bronze placed at a reverential height, something very important has been overlooked. The young people whose eager raised hands—brown, Black, white—tugged collectively at the ropes that brought Edward Colston down, as well as their counterparts, like those who beheaded a statue of Columbus in the USA, are, in fact, makers of history. They enabled us to witness history in action. They both offered the nation—and the world—a history lesson about Britain’s slave past and showed us how change takes place in the present. It is time to stop fetishising large pieces of rock and metal as “history” when it is also, in fact, being made in front of our eyes.
As historical agents, in the space of a week, these protesters have instigated a wide-ranging review of statues, building names and plaques in many cities including London, reignited parliamentary discussions about systemic racism, put race and class back on the media agenda frontally, forced senior police officers to comment on institutional racism, and galvanized discussions in the education sector about how the curriculum might address the history of empire and slavery more fully and honestly. Statues are manifestly only a start. As the Black Lives Matter movement grows and is sustained, we will see changes enacted across society as people from all communities begin to think and act differently, and as Britain starts to reconsider who it puts on pedestals, what values they represent and whether those values are relevant to the present.
What these young protesters are demanding of all of us today is the courage to see history in all its fullness and, frequently, ugliness.
In one sense, however, the protesters who brought Colston down and who now have the long-controversial Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford’s Oriel College in their sights are destroyers—but of mythology rather than history. Those who, for instance, defaced a statue of Winston Churchill by spraying “was a racist” on it were demanding that our understanding of historical figures and icons not be selective. They were pointing out that it was perfectly possible for someone who has been treated as a war hero to also have been very deeply racist, even by the standards of his time when he was described by contemporaries as “antediluvian”. They were reminding us that as late as 1942, when the world was signing up to the Atlantic Charter and its enshrining of “self-determination” as a global principle, Churchill insisted that it did not apply to the darker nations of Asia and Africa. What these young protesters are demanding of all of us today is the courage to see history in all its fullness and, frequently, ugliness. There is nothing brave about living inside comforting mythologies of being a force for nothing but good. That the British Empire was certainly not.
When great uprisings take place, civil disobedience is a vital tool and one that cannot be undertaken by filling out government forms.
There are those who say that statues should remain because public space is a “classroom” and allows for history to be taught and reinterpreted. This is what has happened with the statue of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, where a plaque will explain his role in delaying the abolition of slavery. However, using such monuments as teaching tools or public memory can also incorporate any defacing, graffiti or relocation, teaching us not just about how they came to be elevated but also how and why they were removed from their pedestals. Reinterpretation of the statues in public memory should acknowledge that a historical moment came when they were rejected. I could imagine, for instance, the now-retrieved statue of Colson lying on its side by the Bristol Harbour with a plaque explaining how and why that came about. Any such relocation or museum-izing must, of course, be done in full consultation with the relevant communities.
The protesters have been admonished, by the Leader of the Opposition, among others, for having done things the “wrong” way. In the cases of both Colston and Rhodes, “the right channels” had been tried, to little avail. Secondly, when great uprisings take place, civil disobedience is a vital tool and one that cannot be undertaken by filling out government forms. Certainly, Rosa Parks did not seek city council permission to refuse to sit at the back of the bus.
History isn’t just for the taking: it is also for the making.
Instead of condemnation, the young protesters who have kicked off a nationwide reconsideration of who we literally put on pedestals and why, deserve our gratitude as agents of historical change. They remind us that terrible things didn’t just happen in the past but remain unchallenged and continue to shape our present. They are asking profoundly important questions: Who is Britain? Whose history has come to represent British history? Why is it only wealthy, white men whose actions often inflicted great suffering? Who gets to write this history, and who speaks for the British past? If it is indeed respect for history that we espouse and if indeed we wish to see history truthfully articulated rather than erased, we could do no better than to join the passionate, demanding and difficult conversation that they have now got underway. For history isn’t just for the taking: it is also for the making.
Priyamvada Gopal teaches at the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge and her latest book is Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (Verso, 2019), now out in paperback.