Edward Colston’s Statue Needs to Be in a Museum to Educate People About Slavery

Last week, the BBC local news for the Bristol area, Points West, reported that the statue of Edward Colston had been put on display in the M Shed, one of the city’s many museums. The statue was famously pulled down last summer by Black Lives Matter protesters and thrown in the docks. It’s being put on display, along with an old tyre that was also hauled out of the docks with it and a plaque. The M Shed is asking the Bristolian public what their views about its display are.

I think it needs to go on display along with an explanatory plaque. I don’t think the statue will be particularly missed from its plinth on the city centre. It’s naturally been controversial for decades, and there have been campaign to have it pulled down since the 1990s. But it needs to be retained and displayed because of the uncomfortable facts about the slave trade and those who dealt in it.

If Colston was only a slaver out for his own profit, then there would or should be no objection to the tearing down of his statue. But he was more complex than that. He gave most of his money away to charity, so that there have been schools founded on his bequests. I remember my old secondary school celebrating Colston Day each year, in which a few selected pupils got to attend a special service and receive a free bun. This was very definitely not a racist school. We had regular sermons against racism and the colour bar in school assemblies and the regular church services at Christmas and the beginning of term. Mike told me of one incident where the headmaster gave one boy a roasting for calling one of the Black lads a ‘N***er’. The school building was already crumbling, and the headmaster was so loud telling the lad off that bits actually flaked off.

One of the problems with slavery, and indeed much history, its that the morals of the past are very different from our own. This was first noted by the 18th century Italian historian and philosopher, Vico, and then by Nietzsche and his ‘transvaluation of values’. It’s extremely difficult for us to understand how otherwise good and decent people could perpetrate the most terrible atrocities, like slavery. But they did, and this needs to be recognised and understood. If nothing else, it helps to explain why it took William Wilberforce and the abolitionists so long to have it banned, and why decent people respected and defended Colston and his statue. History needs to be understood on its own terms, even when its controversial. Especially when its controversial.

We falsify it and create new dangers if we try to present it simply so as to fit modern morals.

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4 Responses to “Edward Colston’s Statue Needs to Be in a Museum to Educate People About Slavery”

  1. Brian Burden Says:

    It’s reckoned also that when characters in Dickens and Jane Austen are referred to as “in trade”, or making their money by trade, as often as not this means the slave trade. It’s not the case that everyone in the 19th century regarded the slave trade as an inevitable fact of life. Longfellow, Whittier, Walt Whitman all regarded it as an abomination. Mark Twain is an interesting case. He is clearly on Huck Finn’s side when he hides Jim from the hot-pursuers, but he also seems to regard slavery as essential to the fabric of Southern society. I recommend his Puddenhead Wilson, which deserves a wider readership.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks, Brian. I wasn’t aware that ‘in trade’ could also be code for involvement in the slave trade. I’m sure that many 19th century writes hated the slave trade. Some writers detested it, but didn’t seem to feel it could be abolished. I think Clarkson or Wilberforce remarked that in Bristol, everywhere execrated the trade but no-one thought of abolishing it. One of the eighteenth century French philosophers, it might have been Voltaire or Diderot, really despised it and talked about how it stained humanity with blood, could he could see no way it could be ended. And so he turned away from the subject in disgust. As for Huck Finn’s ambivalence towards it, one of the Beeb history documentaries years ago was on one of the southern Confederate generals, who actually despised it. But he felt that if it was forcibly abolished it would destroy the south, hence his participation as one of its leading soldiers.,

      • Brian Burden Says:

        It didn’t destroy the South, though, did it? The South still has a disproportionate influence over the running of the USA.

      • beastrabban Says:

        No, you’re right there!

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