I’ve been a long time supporter of the idea that you shouldn’t rewrite history, errors and omissions excepted, and I’ve got a bit of history myself: born in South Africa, 2 years living an expat life in Indonesia and then three years in Hong Kong. So you could say that I’ve experienced first hand the consequences of the colonial era and, to be honest, enjoyed it too.
But that shouldn’t deny me the right to have an opinion in regard to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) debate and, in particular, to the demands that some statues should come down and some streets and buildings be renamed.
I can remember name changes. Salisbury became Harare when I was a teenager and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City when I lived in Asia. The former was clearly colonial but what about the latter? It seems that Saigon was simply the poor western pronunciation of a local name and is still in use for a specific part of the larger metropolitan area. Peking similarly became Beijing which seems logical. Why not use the name that local people use?
However I don’t recall many statues coming down. There’s the famous one of Sadam Hussain of course after the fall of Baghdad towards the end of the Iraq war, statues of Stalin have come down in many former communist states and one of Cecil Rhodes was dismantled in Cape Town. There have also been examples in the US in recent years of statues of confederate heroes being toppled. And it seems that one of the first ones to come down was a gilded statue of King George III in 1776 just 5 days after the US Declaration of Independence was ratified.
It seems that when a statue comes down two signals are being sent. One comes from the act itself. It’s saying something like ‘we don’t liked this person, let’s get rid of the statue’. The other, possibly more measured one, comes from the thinking that it’s no longer acceptable to celebrate this person but he or she is a part of our history and that needs to be remembered.
I’m inclined to think that without the latter signal the former is transient and risks not addressing the issue of the people celebrated by the statue being fundamentally bad and contributing to ongoing prejudice. It’s signal number two which allows us to come to terms with history, understand it and move on the better for it.
That’s why it’s right that the statue of Edward Colston has been retrieved from Bristol docks and can now be a part of the story of the city and why it’s right that those of Cecil Rhodes and others be moved to an environment which allows these people to be remembered as a part of history but not celebrated for acts which we now recognise were of the time but nonetheless fundamentally wrong.
But there is nuance and the need for balance and common sense. Colston’s success was all about slavery so that’s clear cut but there are others who had bigger lives and other, more significant achievements. I’ve always felt that the best heroes have flaws, can this not apply to great people as well?
Michael Portillo’s recent TV series has been remarkable. Episodes have looked at India, Southern Africa and the Caribbean and the ‘success’ of Britain as a colonial power. What’s revealing is how bad we were. I learnt what we did at school, I didn’t learn about how we did it.
So statues are relatively straight forward, at least from my point of view, but what about street names, buildings and the like? Given the lack of rigour which goes into choosing the former and the frequency at which the latter are changed then I’d say it was no big deal. Unless there’s a serious embedded link with local history or other circumstance change them but for the better. At least put some thought to it. And if the link is that the evil man of history provided the money for a building then leave it as it is but make sure that it’s put into context and tell the full story. Use the building as a part of the educational narrative.
If anything history should be about the truth. After all someone (George Santayana) once said ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. If the past you’re remembering is not true then your learning from it is going to be false. So: regardless of whether it’s good or bad remember it. You just don’t need to celebrate it.