Something huge is happening in the UK. Britain’s colonial past is storming into the present and will not quieten until we listen to what it has to say. The national journey ahead of us will be deeply healing if we do.
In the past three weeks, the words “I can’t breathe” have become a universal slogan. And no, they have nothing to do with the Corona virus. They were the dying words of George Floyd as he was slowly killed, in full view, by a Minneapolis police officer. Like a match to dry tinder, his appalling, videotaped death ignited fury. Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements leapt to life spreading protests like bush fires through streets around the world. In the UK, while many people peacefully chanted, knelt or lay down in solidarity with the murdered man and fellow victims of racism, others went further, rocking the symbols of white supremacy quite literally off their pedestals.
In Bristol, the main target was the widely-despised statue of Edward Colston. Since his death in 1721, the philanthropist’s name and generosity had been celebrated in famous landmarks – a street, a school, the city’s largest concert hall – while the uncomfortable truth of his lucrative role as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company (RAC), the most prolific slave-trading institution in British history, was hushed up. Estimates suggest he himself presided over the shipping of around 84,500 African men, women and children to the Americas to be sold as slaves. Horrendous 2-3 month sea journeys chained to the slave decks caused 19,000 to perish. Their RAC-branded bodies were unceremoniously tipped into the Atlantic Ocean as “wastage.”
Colston’s bronze presence has long been contentious in the city that used to be known as the ‘slave capital,’ but previous attempts to remove him had failed. On June 7th, however, Colston the philanthropist met his slave-trader Hyde when he was toppled off his perch and dumped head first into the harbour like one of the thousands of slaves under his watch. Whether you agree with such activism or not, it could hardly have been a more perfect gesture of karmic comeuppance. The aftershocks of his heavy landing are still reverberating, cracking the shiny veneer of Britain’s preferred version of history upon which it has built its largely benevolent national self-image.
I am not interested in judging the wisdom of this action – it was emotional and inevitable. I do not condone any of the subsequent violence and I deplore the eruption of the Far Right onto the streets with their eagerness to fight… anything. I am, however, glad that it was sufficiently contentious to prise open the Pandora’s Box of Britain’s imperialism making it impossible to slam the lid down on the restless ghosts of historic crimes.
Anyone who has attended my talks or read my blogs will know I have long been calling for Britain to look at, learn from and redress its own past wrongdoings. It has hitherto been far too easy to hide them in the shadows of the more recent Nazi genocide against which every atrocity naturally pales. For far too long, our history books and curriculums have primarily been testaments to our greatness: our victories and sacrifices, our worldwide achievements and position, the industrial revolution, the apparent huge benefits of British rule, the abolition of slavery… all worthy of celebration to those who still harvest and enjoy their fruits. But vast swathes of society are excluded from the feast and are still locked in lives of disadvantage, poverty and discrimination… or prison.
The fact that until 2015 tax payers were still paying off the £20 million debt borrowed by the government in 1833 to pay compensation, not to victims or descendants of slavery, but to wealthy slave owners who lost out when slavery was abolished, shows how the tentacles of slave ownership reach into our present. Surely such glaring insult and inappropriateness are more worthy of expressions of outrage than the temporary covering of Winston Churchill’s statue? Yet Boris Johnson’s string of passionate tweets defending the lump of bronze representing his all-time role model were not only the same typical deflections from the existential debate being demanded by living people… on our streets… now, which are employed by many conservative thinkers. They also display a widespread British contradiction that is out of date and out of sync with the world. We as a nation verge on the obsessive when it comes to remembering our past as saviours of Europe from fascism. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the dark underbelly of murder, pillage, torture, cruelty, oppression, racism – the list is long – that formed the foundations of wealth, privilege and inequality on which so much of British society is built.
The prime minister scored an own goal when he tweeted “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past… those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.” The editing and censoring the past is precisely what these protests have been about! Other than one in Liverpool, there are no dedicated museums to the slave trade. As for ‘teaching us about our past,’ one viral video of a slave trader being torn down has achieved far more in terms of educating people about Britain’s past atrocities than any existing statue has ever done. On an official visit to Jamaica in 2015, David Cameron employed much the same avoidance tactic by stating that it was time to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” How can you move on from something that is still happening? Until Britain finds a way as Germany has been trying to do – initially reluctantly and on the insistence of the British – to reckon with its imperial past and scarred present, we will not be able to “move on”.
Monuments are key to national identity. They demonstrate and instruct the values of a society by elevating heroes of the time onto plinths to be looked up to and respected for generations to come. They are not innately required to be permanent. Romans used to melt down their statues for coins. So what should happen when those same values become disgusting, offensive and humiliating, whichever angle you look at them from? When they become symbols of psychological and political oppression? Would British people not rightly feel offended or appalled having to constantly walk past statues of former oppressors – Hitler, Goebbels, Rommel – either here or in Germany? Yet this is what the black community have had to endure, seeing the slave-traders who murdered their ancestors, committed mass crimes, genocide and atrocity against them still celebrated in public. The toppling, removal or covering of monuments is not “to lie about history,” as Johnson claims. Nor should it become the prime debate, as it has in right wing papers, whose writers are incidentally putting up almost identical arguments and resistance to owning national atrocity as Germans once did. The statues have simply woken people from their willful amnesia. But there is a danger. If the agitators of colonial history simply vanish, so could the discourse and urgently needed education.
From all my studies and experience of Germany’s post-WW2 culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through the past) and the ensuing counter memorials and museums that dot the nation’s cities, parks and pavements, there is much the British state/we can, and must, do. As descendants of the original perpetrators, current generations are not to be blamed for the sins of their fathers, but we are responsible for making amends. So, rather than focusing purely on the clunky symbols and symptoms of discontent and planning ten-year prison sentences for those desecrating memorials, the government should be fully engaging with the debate and the root of the problem: institutional racism. The full truth of our past – warts and all – must be integrated into history lessons and school curriculums, museums and public monuments. Like in Germany, cities around the UK could hold their own competitions for imaginative counter monuments – Banksy has already submitted his proposal. Or information tableaus could be erected beside any monuments that remain in situ presenting the other side of the story along with an unmitigated condemnation of any repetition of those values. Also like in Germany, rather than building the highly contested Holocaust memorial by the Houses of Parliament, a memorial to Britain’s own victims could be created as a reminder of how fragile civilisation and democracy are. And for the victims’ descendants, opportunities for conversation, dedicated remembrance days, apology, restitution, compensation, reconciliation, investment… it’s all so late but there is so much to do.
Facing and talking about uncomfortable truths is the first step to healing them. Covid has exposed the inequalities in our society. We have a unique opportunity here for attitudinal and structural change. In the words of the soul singer, Erykah Badu, we need to ‘stay woke’. We simply cannot go back to sleep on this. Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet’s beautiful message is so very apposite for these times.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”
Further reading (I have included a couple of articles with which I wholeheartedly disagree!)
The dark side of British History you weren’t taught in school – video by George Monbiot
Robert Clive was a vicious asset-stripper. His statue has no place on Whitehall by William Dalrymple
Removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes would be cowardly and anti-intellectual by Daniel Hannan
When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? by Kris Manjapra
Buried for 50 years: Britain’s shameful role in the Biafran war by Frederick Forsyth
All lives matter: There is too much at risk for us to let the ‘culture warriors’ win. You cannot teach the lessons of history by trying to erase it by Liam Fox
Britain’s colonial crimes deserve a lasting memorial. Here’s why by Afua Hirsch
Until we reckon with our imperial history, Britain’s toxic culture war will burn by Daniel Trilling