People of the United Kingdom: the time has come for you to kill your darlings. Too long has the history of Britain belonged to just one portion of its demographic. Now we must re-examine our past under a more scrutinising lens, and from this learned knowledge, choose who we want for our idols more wisely.
On Sunday June 7, thousands of protestors marched through the streets of Bristol demanding equality for Black people in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that has gained traction in the States once again following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. The demonstration in Bristol reached its climax when protestors toppled the statue of known slave trader, Edward Colston, and rolled its red-stained body into the nearby harbour — the very same waters from which his slave ships docked. Such an act has been accurately described by writer Jason Okundaye as a kind of “poetic justice”.
Unfortunately the monumental moment of the statue’s splashing in the sea did not come with the usual hush of crashing waves, but rather, awoke a familiar ripple of criticism: “But you are erasing our history!”.
The site of the statue following its historic removal. Source: Bristol City Council
We need to reconsider what roles monuments play in our society. On the one hand, it is true, your everyday flaneur may stroll through the city, stumble upon a statue, read its plaque and possibly learn a little titbit about the past to take with them as they continue on their day.
But imparting quick historical facts is not the only purpose monuments serve. Statues are not simply there for commemoration; they are predominantly there for celebration. They place their figures on pedestals high above our heads, displaying them proudly for all to revere. They are people for us to look up to — quite literally.
This invokes a familiar feeling of alienation within Black Britons who every day are forced to gaze into the stoic faces of those they know to have inflicted great harm upon their ancestors; figures who may have even murdered their kin. As journalist and broadcaster Afua Hirsch argued in a 2017 article for The Guardian, to walk past such historical monuments is to witness your own historical absence: “The black slaves whose brutalisation made Britain the global power it then was remain invisible, erased and unseen”. For Black people, these statues do not signify the amplification of history, but rather the silencing of history. In portraying these people as figures of admiration, Britain continues to deny the reality that the role we played on the global stage may have also been a negative one.
Furthermore, in the case of Edward Colston, the statue has been the focal point of debate for many years. Arguments in favour of retaining the statue’s placement and prominence centred around the fact that Colston was one of Bristol’s wealthiest benefactors. But this argument overlooked Colston’s membership to the Royal African Company, which transported roughly 80,000 African people to the United States.
The time for polite debate on this topic has long passed. In 2018, an anti-slavery art display placed 100 bodies at the foot of the Colston statue in ship formation. Also in 2018, during a televised event run by Intelligence Squared, historian David Olusoga delivered an eloquent and convincing argument against Colston’s display in Bristol:
“Statues aren’t about remembering history. They are about memorialisation. The statue says he’s a wise and virtuous son. He’s not wise, he’s not virtuous. He’s a killer. And his statue shouldn’t be on public display in the streets of Bristol, but it should be in a museum.”
‘Here and Now’ anti-slavery art installation. Source: Inspiring City
Yet rather than listen to the polite complaints of Black Britons, the UK government has consistently ignored their valid attempts at the democratic removal of such monuments. For example, yet another contentious figure is British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who is currently on display at Oriel College, Oxford. In 2016, Oxford students and academics ran a campaign called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ which protested against the statue’s presence, but they were unsuccessful. Likewise, there have been many other attempts to take down these kinds of memorials. Twitter user, Korrine Sky, has created a thread of tweets documenting several petitions over the years which have kindly asked for the removal of such figures from public spaces, most to no avail.
Given the continued refusal of the British government to acknowledge how the presence of these statues celebrates a whitewashed historical narrative, it is no wonder that Bristolians decided to take matters into their own hands. Unfortunately, this event has been described as “utterly disgraceful” by Priti Patel, and deemed a “criminal act” of “thuggery” by Boris Johnson.
The Prime Minister likewise insinuated that Colston’s removal was unlawful and against the “democracy” of Britain. However, what is truly undemocratic about this scenario is the fact that Britain refuses to recognise how its persistent observance of such figures is traumatic for its Black population. What is undemocratic, is the fact that Britain has continuously forced Black people to assert their obvious right to history in televised debates. What is undemocratic, is the fact that when Black people have protested against these statues, the campaigns and petitions have been tabled and judged by people whose white sensibility induces a short-sighted view of history, preventing them from considering the validity of the opposing argument. After all, how can we expect Boris Johnson to acknowledge Britain’s racist past when he can’t even acknowledge his own? On this matter, democracy has failed Black Britons.
In contrast, the forced removal of the statue has spurred on more action than ever before. Just last night, the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan outside the Museum of London Docklands was removed by the authorities. Sadiq Khan has also announced that other London statues and street names linked to slavery are pending review.
Now is the time for British people to look beyond their own doorstep when examining the effects of colonisation. Now is the time to acknowledge that our previous image of history was incomplete. Now is the time to realise it is entirely possible to remember our past without honouring racists and imperialists.