n my way to Parliament Square for Saturday’s Black Lives Matter protest, I – for the first time – noticed the statue of Robert Clive in its place of honour near the Churchill War Rooms, a stone’s throw from 10 Downing Street and seemingly equidistant from Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster. One would imagine such a location ought to be dedicated to those who best exemplify British values.
On Sunday, as I watched protesters in Bristol dump the statue of Edward Colston into the harbour (Report, 7 June), the action an echo of the countless captive men and women whom Colston’s crews mercilessly threw overboard, I thought of Clive.
Few individuals in UK history have committed more treacherous, genocidal acts than Colston and Clive, the former against the populations of west Africa, the latter against the hundreds of thousands dead in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh through plunder and famine. What unites the two in particular is that their cruelties were done for personal profit and shareholder return. Their global corporate violence against people of colour makes them some of the most negative historical examples for our time, not the sort who should be immortalised as heroes in places that communicate British values to the world. Let us now ask this government to justify Clive’s ongoing glorification in one of Britain’s most revered places.
• While I understand the anger that led to the toppling of the Colston statue, we must accept that Britain’s rise to world dominance in the 18th and 19th century was built on the plantation economy and colonial exploitation. Trade in sugar, tobacco and cotton produced by slave labour and the wholesale looting of India generated the capital that fuelled the industrial revolution. Slavery and colonial exploitation has made us the nation we are today. We must acknowledge this. Rather than toppling statues and renaming streets, I suggest we put up information boards explaining who these people were, how they attained their wealth and power, and who paid the price for it. People walking down Buchanan Street in Glasgow might learn about his slave plantations in Virginia. People visiting a statue of Churchill might learn about Gallipoli and the Bengal famine.
• Your editorial (8 June) rightly says that discovering “how to remember the vicious business of slavery” and the UK’s “imperial project” is “not just a challenge for Bristol”. It’s clear that there are certain aspects of British history that have to be made compulsory in schools. Some of the key points that appear to have become distorted in recent years have to be given extra emphasis, like the roles of colonial soldiers in both world wars, the wealth gained from the slave trade paying in a large part for the 19th century’s industrial revolution, and details of how colonies were ruled and looted.
The truth can only be revealed by the opening up to historians of the 1.2m history files secreted away in the Hanslope Park archives in Milton Keynes. Facing up to unpleasant facts may be difficult, but other countries, notably Germany, have not only achieved it but also benefited from it.
• David Olusoga rightly points out (The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history. It is history, 8 June) that Colston financed his philanthropy by committing what would now be regarded as crimes against humanity. What he does not say is that this criminality, far from being exceptional, was Europe’s way of recruiting the labour required to satisfy its demand for New World products. Finding the indigenous population insufficient and Europeans unwilling to endure the hardships involved, it turned to Africa, with the result that, prior to 1820, African settlement exceeded European by a ratio of roughly five to one: 10 million versus 2 million. The typical American settler was not a puritan but a terrified slave, and what the figure looming over him had in his hand was not a Bible but a whip.
Emeritus professor of American history, University of East Anglia
• Brilliant to see the memorial to a mass murderer come down, but it’s not enough. Let’s replace it with a positive role model, whom everyone in Britain can be inspired by. Here are three suggestions: ex–slave Olaudah Equiano, who, with his searing autobiography, was a leading 18th-century campaigner in Britain against slavery and the slave trade. Frederick Douglass, the great black American anti-slavery campaigner, who toured Britain in 1845-46. Or Bristol’s own Paul Stephenson, who campaigned in the 1960s against the racist employment policy of Bristol’s bus company.
• I was not surprised that our home secretary was so incensed about the rough handling of a statue. But I was surprised to hear Keir Starmer and others repeating a similar mantra (Labour’s left uneasy with leader’s view on tearing down Colston statue, 8 June). They qualified their distaste by suggesting such statues should have been removed long ago in a dignified manner. This made me think. How many statues can readers suggest be removed with decorum? One of many I can think of is Henry Havelock in Trafalgar Square, at the top of Whitehall – the man lauded for “putting down” the Indian rebellion. Heads should fall in Whitehall.
• I rejoiced when I saw that statue come down. I taught history in schools in Bristol and south Gloucestershire for more than 30 years and I always taught about the slave trade. Anyone who knows about the horrors inflicted on countless numbers of innocent men, women and children cannot fail to be amazed that Colston is still celebrated in Bristol. I hope this event will make Bristolians delve deeper into their shared history. That statue should stay in the docks.
• Can those who defend Edward Colston because of his “philanthropy” – meaning he gave away money – remember that the money wasn’t his to give? It was wealth created by the forced labour of enslaved human beings. If it was anybody’s money, it was theirs. Like Colston, some mafiosi and drug barons are also generous with their extorted loot. Do Colston’s defenders want statues to them too?
• We cheered when the Berlin Wall was torn down. We cheered when statues of Gaddafi were torn down. We cheered when statues of Saddam Hussein were torn down. We are called thugs (Report, 8 June) when we tear down statues of slave traders.
• Now must be the time to establish the Garden of British Unworthies as a resting place for embarrassing statues and as a counterpoint to the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. Suggestions for sites welcome.
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