I love journalism. I am addicted to the news and honestly anything that isn’t about the appalling pandemic we are currently living through is usually welcome. But, and it’s a big but, there are some news stories which we know are designed to inflame, to spark a reaction, to act as click-bait and they may or may not always tell the full story. To the uninitiated, they can serve as an excuse to launch a new campaign – to protect our free speech, to launch a ‘culture war’, to drive divisions in our country, so it is incumbent on all of us to explore all sides of a story and try and unearth the truth before we get caught up in the latest clicktavist campaign…
That was definitely the case at the beginning of this week, when Lord Nelson entered the fray – apparently, his role in our national story was under threat, his hero status revoked – because of his links to colonialism and support for slavery. Defence of his reputation would now be the front line in the culture wars. However, it seems that the reality is, as ever, a little more complex.
No one, not even some of our greatest heroes and heroines, is perfect. Those that did extraordinary things for our country may also have held personal views that we would rightly find repugnant today. It serves no one for us to venerate our national heroes as saints; they weren’t, they were just people, extraordinary people. People who we should study in the round and understand their full contribution both good and bad to our national story. And many of them knew that in their own lifetimes:
“Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint your picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughness, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me.”
When Oliver Cromwell commissioned his portrait from Sir Peter Lely, he was clear that it should bare a true likeness to him and show him for who he was – good and bad.
Many heroes, heroines and villains of history have complex and subjective legacies. A saviour for one will be the oppressor for another and debating and exploring the rights and wrongs of those who are lionised or vilified is key to understanding both our own history and the current composition of our society.
Unfortunately for some this isn’t the case. We seemingly now live in a world where the phrase ‘culture wars’ has, for some, become a proxy for those seeking not to engage in debate but to silence disagreement or dissent. Individuals and self-organised groups have proclaimed themselves the sole arbiters of truth. They decide what the ‘correct’ view is and any attempt to deviate from that singular set of ordained truths is denounced and deplored by those for whom the complex nature of individuals and historic events are just too difficult.
Which brings me back to Lord Horatio Nelson. When a freedom of information request to the National Maritime Museum discovered that the curators of their exhibitions had discussed reflecting the contemporary issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement in their exhibits, the world exploded. One MP decried in response: “We are fighting this left-wing ideological nonsense every single day in this country.”
And the newly formed “Common Sense Group” of MPs took to their social media to denounce any deviation from the national narrative as an affront to all things British. Their intent was clear: to prevent a museum from publishing or promoting something that they didn’t agree with. This is a form of censorship and it wasn’t even based on fact.
Beyond the anger, the truth about this exhibition was a very different story. You only had to spend three minutes listening to Paddy Rogers, the director of the Royal Museums Greenwich to realise, as he said, that this was a “storm in a tea clipper”. Nelson remains a much-loved figure at the museum and the main exhibits will do nothing to undermine that, rather they will use his persona as a mechanism to explore our current identity and British values.
But the reality isn’t the key aspect here; Nelson’s legacy isn’t the issue, but rather the concept of “culture war” is, with some people trying to build a narrative which sows division and instills a chilling effect on our public space. History is not set in stone. After all, many people’s stories are never told and our perceptions rightly change as we discover more about people’s journeys. Museums and libraries are temples of education and learning. They should be homes for debate and exploration, free from political interference and able to examine every aspect of history and culture without reprisal.
This is especially the case when you consider how some repressive regimes are using their ‘soft’ power to try and launch a real culture war in Europe – using their money and influence to try and re-write history.
In Nantes, France, the Chinese government has intervened to stop an exhibition on Genghis Khan and the Mongols – an issue we’ll be covering more in the weeks ahead. But if we allow one group of people to dictate what should happen in museums, we open the floodgates to all kinds of interested parties to do the same and that is not a path we want to go down.
Here in Britain, we thankfully live in a free society. People are entitled to not go to an exhibition if they think it will offend them, or they can take to social media to write negative reviews of it, but they aren’t allowed to ban it because they don’t agree with the facts presented to them.
Thankfully that isn’t acceptable in a free and tolerant society.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, which has since been taken down. Credit: Philip Halling
The most apt description of the impact of the death of George Floyd, the 46-year-old African American man who died on 25 May when a police officer leant on his neck and back for eight minutes and 46 seconds, came from a child. Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Ginna simply said: “Daddy changed the world!”
She’s right. Floyd’s death has sparked large-scale, public Black Lives Matter protests around the world, including in the UK. And it was in the UK that Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston last weekend. It was then rolled through the city centre and dumped in Bristol Harbour.
Colston was a member of the Royal Africa Company, which had a monopoly on the slave trade at the time and is believed to be responsible for an estimated 30,000 African deaths.
The toppling of the statue has been both celebrated and criticised. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, for example, condemned the manner of the statue’s removal, though he admitted that the statue’s presence was an “affront” to black people in the city.
Some have attacked the action as one that is silencing and could set a bad precedent. But was it?
Removing a statue is symbolic and as the national debate about history, slavery and empire shows, it also very significant. The prime minister and other officials have stressed that it is important to follow process in these matters. But the people of Bristol had tried. For years, there had been an ongoing discussion about removing or adding a plaque to contextualise the statue. All efforts had reached a stalemate and frustration grew as suggested language for a plaque was watered down in efforts, some felt, to minimise his crimes. In the end, the whole thing came down and those who tried to stymy efforts to tell a fuller version of history found themselves swept aside as history was made.
It is perhaps in an effort to forestall similar actions that local Labour councils across England and Wales have indicated that they intend to set up commissions to look at other monuments and explore which ones ought to be taken down. This is not a bad thing, but if the public is not engaged in the process then a valuable moment for public education and civic participation could be lost. The act of tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue arguably did more to further a public discussion of slavery, history and racism than the statue ever did standing serenely in place all these years.
It’s an important discussion because putting up a statue is also a political act. Those who decry the removal of statues as erasing history might consider that in the many cases where statues represent editing or curating the past, that is itself a form of erasure. Colston’s statue was erected long after his death and is not even his true likeness. The honouring of the man has less to do with the facts of his life and career than the fact that he had given a lot of money to his home town, for which he was described in no less glowing terms than as one “of the most virtuous and wise” sons of Bristol.
Statues are also about who we wish to hold up for admiration and that is where history is dialogue with the present. It makes sense to discuss to whom we want to draw our eye upwards, to stand head and shoulders above the rest of us? There is potential for a rich discussion on which statues could be added, moved to museums, contextualised or quietly brought down to earth.
Parliament Square is now home to a statue of Nelson Mandela, who was once considered a terrorist by the Conservative government, and Millicent Fawcett, who as a suffragette endured much opposition and criticism of the group’s methods of direct action. With the passage of time, views on these historical figures have changed. The graffiti artist Banksy has suggested putting Colston back on his plinth as part of a new sculpture depicting Black Lives Matter protesters pulling him down. We may yet see public art memorialising these protesters in years to come.
Where will it end? Some ask. The answer is it never ends. Humans are dynamic and creative creatures, always making history and looking back over it. The prevailing view on Colston’s removal is one of broad agreement with the result but not the methods, the familiar “Yes – but not like that.” But if it was comfortable, it wouldn’t be a protest. Nobody advocates violence, but there is another familiar saying: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
The issue of statues is by no means the most important thing at this moment. But it’s not without significance, otherwise he wouldn’t have been there in the first place. We need more discussion about statues, their symbolism and the history around them, not less. Colston’s removal has done that.
Kiri Kankhwende is a freelance journalist who writes about politics, race and human rights
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