Not Before Time: the Colston Statue and the Politics of Heritage

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

On 7th June 2020, the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was pulled down, and thrown in the same river where the slave ships his company owned used to dock. If anything, I’m disappointed this didn’t happen earlier.

You might say I am endorsing the  destruction of the history, or wilfully erasing heritage. You might argue that this was an act of criminal damage, and by applauding it we show a dangerous disregard for the rule of law.

The first point, which I have seen being made by numerous politicians, seems to be completely unaware of the fact that a statue is not the only way of understanding history. We have an entire section of the curriculum purportedly dedicated to this process. It is a flawed curriculum, which could go further in studying this country’s imperial history, but it exists. We also have museums, for that matter, with much of the same purpose. In short, ‘things’ are not the only way to know that history happened. Indeed, the statue concerned would probably be turned down by most museums, considering how little it tells us that we didn’t know already. You would think that is a self-evident point, but it appears that every time the issue of statues comes up, we need to have the same debate about historical erasure, despite the fact that it is based on such an obviously flawed assumption.

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While we’re on the theme of history and heritage, it’s worth considering that the way we think about these things is also flawed. There is an attitude, that comes out at times like these, that history is something that must be preserved, in full, at all costs. I disagree. Contrary to popular belief, history is not something that happened at least a decade before the turn of the millennium. It’s still happening, and will continue to happen so long as humanity exists, although I’m open to suggestions on how long that will be. As such, it is not sacred.  The raising of Edward Colston’s statue demonstrated at least an indifference to, if not outright praise of, slavery, via placing a prominent slaver on a pedestal. It’s toppling, and subsequent jettisoning from the banks of the Avon, reflects a society in which this evil, and the racism that underpinned it, are utterly rejected. History, and the way we view and interpret it, has as much to do with our society today as it does the past.  As such, our interpretations of our history can change, and indeed it should. The maintenance of a fixed dogma, by which things that do not reflect our values must not be changed, is not the mindset of a healthy society.

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Moreover, as already stated, Colston was a slaver. His statue, quite literally, put him on a pedestal, and let his image live on. The original plaque on his statue called him “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of [Bristol]”. If we hold his actions as contemptible as I’m sure we do, then repudiating him and revoking whatever honours he was accorded seems a good way to show this. You may well argue that we could use the statue to educate. But that’s not why people build statues, and this statue in particular offered nothing in the way of education.

Having covered the historical aspects of this, we come to the methods by which the statue was removed. Was it legal to tear it down and throw it in the river? No. Was it the right thing to do? I would say yes.

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It bears repeating that not everything that is illegal is wrong, and while I acknowledge that the police have a duty to perform, I can’t condemn the people responsible. A campaign to have the statue taken down has been ongoing since the 1990s, and with the City Council and Society of Merchant Venturers proving obstructive and refusing to make a decision, they took matters into their own hands. Their cause was fundamentally justified. So, why would we object? I respect the principle that property should be protected, but this property glorified a hateful past and did so in a public space – as such, the people of Bristol deserved a say.  They have now had that say.

 

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Politics. Foreign Policy. Counterterrorism and associated issues. Anything else I might be drawn to writing about. Thats all really.

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