Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

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Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by JQH » Mon Jun 08, 2020 11:16 am

Most if not all right thinking people gave a cheer when they learned Edward Colston's statue had been knocked off its plinth and chucked in Bristol Harbour, accepting that a human-traffficker should not be honoured in any way.

It is part of Britain coming to terms with a dark period in our past and it is good that those crimes are being acknowledged.

They are not the only crimes we need to acknowledge though.

The vandalism of Churchill's statue in London is being presented as "mindless thuggery" by Johnson and the right-wing press. As with may things, it is a bit more complicated than that. Yes, Churchill turned his face against appeasement and led the fight against the worst racist in history and as a result of that I have the freedom to type this. That cannot ever be taken away from his memory.

But ...

In that same war the Bengal famine was badly mis-handled on his watch, contributing to millions of deaths. Churchill was an enthusiastic supporter of the Imperial project and thus endorsed the political set up that contributed to the deaths. There has never been a famine in post-independence India. Crimes committed against the South Asian people need to be acknowledged too.
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Martin Y » Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:11 pm

It's always going to be a bit more complicated than that.

If you build a statue of anyone in celebration of something they achieved or seem to represent, you're going to have to pick an actual saint or recognise that they're not. If they remain famous enough that people in the future still care who they were, there's eventually going to be a time when the rest of the person's baggage seems like a bigger reason not to have a statue of them.

That Boudicca committed some absolutely appalling war crimes. Wholesale slaughter of civilians in conquered towns. Not war crimes by the standards of the time of course, but behaviour no civilised person could celebrate.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Fishnut » Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:21 pm

I've thought for a long time that we need some version of a Truth and Reconciliation commission to initiate a proper discussion of Britain's past. We don't teach history at school, we teach propaganda, something I know is true for many countries, but feels particularly egregious for us when we make such a big deal about our glorious past.

We talk about how we ended slavery but don't talk about how we paid the equivalent of £17 billion in compensation to the former slave owners for the loss of their 'property' while giving the former slaves nothing, or how Britain was the largest player on the European side of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, or how the profits and products from slavery helped create modern Britain.
Martin Y wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:11 pm
That Boudicca committed some absolutely appalling war crimes. Wholesale slaughter of civilians in conquered towns. Not war crimes by the standards of the time of course, but behaviour no civilised person could celebrate.
I think one key difference here is that no-one's going around feeling personally aggrieved at the sight of Boudicca, or feeling that a statue to her is an affront to the memories of their ancestors. While for people like Colston, and Churchill, there are many who are still living with the consequences of their actions.
Martin Y wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:11 pm
If you build a statue of anyone in celebration of something they achieved or seem to represent, you're going to have to pick an actual saint or recognise that they're not. If they remain famous enough that people in the future still care who they were, there's eventually going to be a time when the rest of the person's baggage seems like a bigger reason not to have a statue of them.
I agree with this and I think that it's actually a really good argument for seeing statues as temporary objects. Reassessment of historical figures can lead to people deciding they no longer want them memorialised and then removing the statue and replacing it with someone who people of the time feel should be memorialised instead.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by dyqik » Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:23 pm

Martin Y wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:11 pm
It's always going to be a bit more complicated than that.

If you build a statue of anyone in celebration of something they achieved or seem to represent, you're going to have to pick an actual saint or recognise that they're not. If they remain famous enough that people in the future still care who they were, there's eventually going to be a time when the rest of the person's baggage seems like a bigger reason not to have a statue of them.
I think one answer here is to not put people on a pedestal*, but to celebrate their achievements rather than the person. Statues should be of the person doing the thing, or representing the achievement.

*Metaphorical first. Then literal.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Martin Y » Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:39 pm

I hadn't really thought about statues as temporary, as their very nature is to exude permanence, but now you mention it...

There are genuinely ancient statues around of course but not many still standing in their original location after centuries. Eventually a statue of some Roman emperor or whoever becomes an historical curiosity and a rare survivor of artefacts from their time, not the intensely political objects they were when erected.

I had mused that statues might go through a crisis period where their subject gets reassessed by history and torn down if they fail the test, but thinking about it more, it seems like they generally don't survive long-term.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Martin Y » Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:43 pm

dyqik wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:23 pm
Martin Y wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 12:11 pm
It's always going to be a bit more complicated than that.

If you build a statue of anyone in celebration of something they achieved or seem to represent, you're going to have to pick an actual saint or recognise that they're not. If they remain famous enough that people in the future still care who they were, there's eventually going to be a time when the rest of the person's baggage seems like a bigger reason not to have a statue of them.
I think one answer here is to not put people on a pedestal*, but to celebrate their achievements rather than the person. Statues should be of the person doing the thing, or representing the achievement.

*Metaphorical first. Then literal.
Indeed. Plus of course the purpose of the statue is often not to celebrate the historical person at all but to advance whatever cause the statue builders take their subject to embody and represent. All the more reason for a statue eventually to fall from favour. This seems to be the case with Coulston.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by lpm » Mon Jun 08, 2020 1:17 pm

I'd also want the National Trust to get some scrutiny.

Some of these majestic homes and country estates were built directly from slave profits, many more from indirect financing, provision of goods, plantations, insurance or linked trade in other Atlantic goods like sugar. Some were built from British slavery, i.e. indentured coal miners.

There's a reason why the gentlemen of the Jane Austen world refuse to talk about business and trade, sneering at merchants. It's because the fabulous wealth of those gentlemen was often created by their slaving grandfather. The source of wealth was to be hidden, obscured by marriage to old aristocracy. In reality Mr Darcy's wealth most likely came from slavery, and Mr Bennet's, and Mr Bingley, and Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley, and the Dashwoods. In Emma, the rich Mrs Elton is described as coming from a Bristol merchant family several times in a pointed way.

For that matter, the British Museum was founded on slave money, and the National Gallery,
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Martin_B » Mon Jun 08, 2020 1:53 pm

lpm wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 1:17 pm
I'd also want the National Trust to get some scrutiny.

Some of these majestic homes and country estates were built directly from slave profits, many more from indirect financing, provision of goods, plantations, insurance or linked trade in other Atlantic goods like sugar. Some were built from British slavery, i.e. indentured coal miners.

There's a reason why the gentlemen of the Jane Austen world refuse to talk about business and trade, sneering at merchants. It's because the fabulous wealth of those gentlemen was often created by their slaving grandfather. The source of wealth was to be hidden, obscured by marriage to old aristocracy. In reality Mr Darcy's wealth most likely came from slavery, and Mr Bennet's, and Mr Bingley, and Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley, and the Dashwoods. In Emma, the rich Mrs Elton is described as coming from a Bristol merchant family several times in a pointed way.

For that matter, the British Museum was founded on slave money, and the National Gallery,
Sebastian Coe did Who Do You Think You Are and found that his ancestors included Jamaican sugar farmers (ie, slave owners). He seemed to be absolutely devastated by this, as many of his friends and former colleagues are black and would have ancestors who were slaves. He was also, at the time, vice president of the IAAF.
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by secret squirrel » Mon Jun 08, 2020 1:57 pm

Re Churchill, the Bengal famine should be remembered like we remember the Holodomor. If winning WW2 doesn't rehabilitate Stalin (which it shouldn't), then being the overseer of our little contribution shouldn't rehabilitate Churchill.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by gosling » Mon Jun 08, 2020 2:06 pm

Has anyone actually seen evidence that Churchill's statue was vandalised this weekend?

The only photos I've seen shared in social media were taken from this 2010 article:
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/articl ... chill.html

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Gfamily » Mon Jun 08, 2020 2:15 pm

gosling wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 2:06 pm
Has anyone actually seen evidence that Churchill's statue was vandalised this weekend?

The only photos I've seen shared in social media were taken from this 2010 article:
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/articl ... chill.html
Evening Standard photos shows a spraypainted slogan on the plinth and maybe some cardboard sellotaped to his torso.
Image
https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/ ... 62086.html
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by gosling » Mon Jun 08, 2020 2:45 pm

Thanks!

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by murmur » Mon Jun 08, 2020 4:57 pm

Where do we want to go with this?

The statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland at Beinn a' Bhragaidh has been controvesial since its erection because of his role in the Clearances?

I grew up with that statue of the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry dominating the Market Place in Durham, yet the role of the Vane-Tempests in the Durham coalfield, much of which is far from great, was ignored?

All those aristocrats who benefitted from the Acts of Enclosure and dispossessed so many people, but whose names and family piles live on?
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Opti » Mon Jun 08, 2020 5:07 pm

murmur wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 4:57 pm
Where do we want to go with this?

The statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland at Beinn a' Bhragaidh has been controvesial since its erection because of his role in the Clearances?

I grew up with that statue of the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry dominating the Market Place in Durham, yet the role of the Vane-Tempests in the Durham coalfield, much of which is far from great, was ignored?

All those aristocrats who benefitted from the Acts of Enclosure and dispossessed so many people, but whose names and family piles live on?
And for those whose names don't live on. My many black friends whose last name is some Scottish cliché.

They have a lot of trouble with ancestry.com
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Fishnut » Mon Jun 08, 2020 5:37 pm

This is a good piece, but I have some qualms about this part,
Where does one draw the line? I do not know, but that cannot be an argument for drawing no lines at all. It is true that if these concerns were taken to a logical conclusion, we would tear down half the statues in Britain. So let’s not take it to its logical conclusions.
This is one slippery slope I have no problem sliding to the bottom of. So what if we tear down half the statues? Most of them are to rich white men whose status came from wealth built on the backs of people long forgotten. I doubt many of them would be missed except in a 'didn't there used to be something there?' way. If statues are important then we should have a discussion who gets to have a statue in 21st century Britain. And if they aren't important then who cares? Why not take them all down and start again?

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Jun 08, 2020 6:35 pm

Yeah, f.ck statues.

Statues are symbols, and it matters what they symbolise. At the moment they are monuments to ignoring and tolerating racist oppression. If people think rectifying what those prominent public symbols say about society is important then good luck to them. Tear every last slaver and genocider down.
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by AMS » Mon Jun 08, 2020 6:42 pm

lpm wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 1:17 pm
I'd also want the National Trust to get some scrutiny.

Some of these majestic homes and country estates were built directly from slave profits, many more from indirect financing, provision of goods, plantations, insurance or linked trade in other Atlantic goods like sugar. Some were built from British slavery, i.e. indentured coal miners.

There's a reason why the gentlemen of the Jane Austen world refuse to talk about business and trade, sneering at merchants. It's because the fabulous wealth of those gentlemen was often created by their slaving grandfather. The source of wealth was to be hidden, obscured by marriage to old aristocracy. In reality Mr Darcy's wealth most likely came from slavery, and Mr Bennet's, and Mr Bingley, and Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley, and the Dashwoods. In Emma, the rich Mrs Elton is described as coming from a Bristol merchant family several times in a pointed way.

For that matter, the British Museum was founded on slave money, and the National Gallery,
A lot of the big estates ended up in the National Trust's hands in lieu of inheritance tax. Though it would be good for them to highlight more clearly where the wealth came from.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by murmur » Mon Jun 08, 2020 6:52 pm

AMS wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 6:42 pm
lpm wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 1:17 pm
I'd also want the National Trust to get some scrutiny.

Some of these majestic homes and country estates were built directly from slave profits, many more from indirect financing, provision of goods, plantations, insurance or linked trade in other Atlantic goods like sugar. Some were built from British slavery, i.e. indentured coal miners.

There's a reason why the gentlemen of the Jane Austen world refuse to talk about business and trade, sneering at merchants. It's because the fabulous wealth of those gentlemen was often created by their slaving grandfather. The source of wealth was to be hidden, obscured by marriage to old aristocracy. In reality Mr Darcy's wealth most likely came from slavery, and Mr Bennet's, and Mr Bingley, and Emma Woodhouse and Mr Knightley, and the Dashwoods. In Emma, the rich Mrs Elton is described as coming from a Bristol merchant family several times in a pointed way.

For that matter, the British Museum was founded on slave money, and the National Gallery,
A lot of the big estates ended up in the National Trust's hands in lieu of inheritance tax. Though it would be good for them to highlight more clearly where the wealth came from.
f.ck yeah!

I cannot recall in any Big House I've visited, whether in the hands of the NT, some other "historical" organisation, the family in question or some weird organisation in a tax haven who happen to let some aristocrats live there, any class of discussion, information, explainers, whatever, about how the money for the Big House was procured (I was tutted at in the shops at Dunvegan Castle and Castle of Mey for making pointed comments about the Clearances and loudly wondering why The Poor Had No Lawyers wasn't on the book shelves (mebbe I should try that at Dunrobin Castle, but using James Hunter's Cast Adrift...)).
It's so much more attractive inside the moral kiosk

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by AMS » Mon Jun 08, 2020 8:57 pm

Fishnut wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 5:37 pm
This is a good piece, but I have some qualms about this part,
Where does one draw the line? I do not know, but that cannot be an argument for drawing no lines at all. It is true that if these concerns were taken to a logical conclusion, we would tear down half the statues in Britain. So let’s not take it to its logical conclusions.
This is one slippery slope I have no problem sliding to the bottom of. So what if we tear down half the statues? Most of them are to rich white men whose status came from wealth built on the backs of people long forgotten. I doubt many of them would be missed except in a 'didn't there used to be something there?' way. If statues are important then we should have a discussion who gets to have a statue in 21st century Britain. And if they aren't important then who cares? Why not take them all down and start again?
Hitting a paywall on the FT article, but this one is interesting too, originally written after the Charlottesville marches, but relevant today.
https://mobile.twitter.com/lewis_goodal ... 4938554370

The key argument is, he says, to judge the status of statues by (a) whether the person's views/actions were already controversial during their lifetime, or fairly typical of the time, and (b) did they make a significant contribution that is a separate issue from the controversy. So people like Darwin or Jefferson or Churchill may merit memorials, even though some of their views would be abhorent now, whereas people like Colston were famous and wealthy specifically for the behaviour that is so abhorent.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Fishnut » Mon Jun 08, 2020 9:05 pm

AMS wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 8:57 pm
Hitting a paywall on the FT article
That's frustrating. It was freely available when I linked to it. I've managed to get a hold of the text (mods please remove if copy/paste isn't allowed)
The problem with statues is that they are built to last, while reputations are subject to reinterpretation. By the standards of his day, Edward Colston was a model English citizen, a businessman who bequeathed vast sums to his native city of Bristol, funding almshouses, schools and churches. But a significant chunk of his wealth came from the slave trade. And Colston was not an incidental beneficiary of slavery. He was, as deputy governor of the Royal African Company, up to his neck in it. During his years, it transported about 84,000 people to slavery.

Colston’s statue was erected long after his death by a group of wealthy Bristolians frustrated at the lack of statuary in the city. He was chosen as an exemplar of a public-spirited businessman. How he made his money was left to one side. Recent efforts to add a plaque noting his background led to protracted battles as his defenders tried to tone down the wording. Perhaps they wanted “had issues around human trafficking”.

On Sunday, a crowd tore down the statue and threw it in the river. That Colston went this way complicates the pleasure one feels at his departure. Who we honour cannot be settled by unelected mobs and this act gave those discomfited by the Black Lives Matter protests the chance to condemn them, not least after activists also defaced a statue of Winston Churchill in London.

Yet Colston’s survival until now validates the arguments made by BLM protesters. He should have been an easy call. He was no great figure of history. His reputation is based solely on philanthropy with tainted money. Of course he should not have been pulled down illegally. It is easy now to say — as many suddenly are — that he should have been moved to a museum years ago. The key point, however, is that he wasn’t.

Last week Virginia’s governor pledged to remove a statue of the Confederate war leader Robert E Lee from the state capital. Unlike Colston, Lee was a figure of true historic significance, but he is honoured as a secessionist and segregationist leader. How can any African-American feel an equal citizen in a city which continues to celebrate him? Similar questions might be asked here.

But few cases are as clear-cut as Colston. How does one judge who stays and who goes? This is a slippery slope. What about Churchill? He was an advocate of ethnic superiority and he ordered troops to shoot striking miners. Must he fall too? Many great historic figures carry serious baggage. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Where does the historic cleansing stop?

The difference surely is that their failings are not central to why they are honoured. They were far more than their flaws. But this is a reason for engaging in the debate, not hiding behind slogans like “we can’t erase history”. From slavery to empire, a mature democracy should not be afraid of acknowledging the shameful parts of its past. We do not preserve the good by defending the indefensible.

So we can take a stand for Churchill. But what about the heroes of the British empire? Cecil Rhodes stands on private property in an Oxford college, but a statue of Robert Clive stands outside the Foreign Office in Westminster. A pivotal figure in building the British Raj, he also looted India and his policies greatly exacerbated the Great Bengal Famine. It isn’t hard to argue that he would be better situated, say, in the Imperial War Museum and that British diplomacy might find a worthier figurehead.

Where does one draw the line? I do not know, but that cannot be an argument for drawing no lines at all. It is true that if these concerns were taken to a logical conclusion, we would tear down half the statues in Britain. So let’s not take it to its logical conclusions. Perhaps it is better just to tackle the clear cases.

You do not erase history by moving a statue to a museum any more than you erase a person by taking away a knighthood. But you do help rebalance the narrative. Unless you hold that no statue can ever be removed, then this is simply a conversation about terms. History is no longer written only by the winners. It evolves. It is not all set in stone. Not every case needs to be turned into a culture war by either side. Why would any city still want to honour the slave trade? Or, thinking of Viscount Melville, whose statue looms over Edinburgh, the politician whose manoeuvring delayed its abolition by at least a decade?

If the BLM marches are for anything they are surely for asking people to think a little more deeply, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and not to retreat behind easy certainties. So save Churchill, but surrender Colston.

Who we honour does not just say something about who we were. It says something about who we are as well.

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by AMS » Mon Jun 08, 2020 9:09 pm

Thanks!

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by Gfamily » Mon Jun 08, 2020 10:02 pm

AMS wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 8:57 pm
Fishnut wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 5:37 pm
This is a good piece, but I have some qualms about this part,
Hitting a paywall on the FT article...
If you google the words in the title i.e. <Colston’s statue shows society’s values are not set in stone> the link from the search result isn't paywalled.

I don't know why, but it's how it works for FT paywalled articles (for me at least)
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by JQH » Tue Jun 09, 2020 9:28 am

AMS wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 8:57 pm


The key argument is, he says, to judge the status of statues by (a) whether the person's views/actions were already controversial during their lifetime, or fairly typical of the time, and (b) did they make a significant contribution that is a separate issue from the controversy. So people like Darwin or Jefferson or Churchill may merit memorials, even though some of their views would be abhorent now, whereas people like Colston were famous and wealthy specifically for the behaviour that is so abhorent.
And in Colston's case, the slave trade and slavery itself had been illegal for a lifetime when the statue was erected. Might explain why the proposer couldn't raise the funds through subscription.
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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by kerrya1 » Tue Jun 09, 2020 9:36 am

Edinburgh professor renews call to reword history on a statue memorialising man who prolonged the slave trade

I found this article interesting. I doubt many people who come to, or live in, Edinburgh even look up at the statue on top of the column in St Andrew's Sq and I know very few who could tell you who was up there. Nevertheless this is still a very prominent statue to a man who not only profitted from but fought to maintain slavery against abolition.

A follow-up with a response from a Dundas decendent

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Re: Coming to Terms With Britain's Past

Post by tom p » Tue Jun 09, 2020 9:40 am

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Mon Jun 08, 2020 6:35 pm
Yeah, f.ck statues.
On a related note, there used to be blokes who would do just that (it's called pygmalionism). It used to be a big problem for museums. Then sex dolls became a thing and museum guards and cleaners no longer had to deal with the consequences of this.

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