Why argue about statues and status?
The statues and status of certain historical figures have angered Black Lives Matter (BLM) supporters in the US and the UK. However, President Trump and others have again defended them passionately. I have argued recently that BLM might not intend to suppress history, but merely to re-evaluate it. I stand by that assertion and do not accept that the demonstrators are necessarily Marxists or unpatriotic. You are not being unpatriotic if you want to challenge a one-side view of the past or of the present.
Whose statues and status have people attacked?
In the UK the initial target of protesters was a statue Edward Colston. What is his claim to fame, or infamy? It seems that he made a vast amount of money from the slave trade and gave some of it to good causes in Bristol. Some say that is like a drug dealer or people-trafficker giving to charity today. The other major argument was over a statue in Oxford of Cecil Rhodes, who was a controversial figure in his lifetime. Rhodes promoted the military expansion of the British Empire in Africa among other things. In the US the main targets have been statues of Confederate generals and politicians.
Why do we need perspective and proportion to evaluate statues and status?
Some protesters have turned their attention to historical figures whose legacies are more mixed. This antagonises many people for whom these ‘villains’ are heroes. Winston Churchill, Robert Baden-Powell, William Gladstone, Francis Drake. In the US, the targets include several former presidents and the Founding Fathers. This is problematic, as nobody is perfect. Almost all heroes have their faults and make mistakes. Should we deny the good things people did just because they did or said bad things too?
Why are statues and status harder to evaluate when we go back further?
Most people are products of their time and absorb ideas and attitudes from their contemporaries. Almost everyone who lived in the UK or US before the abolition of slavery would have condoned or accepted that institution. Even many people who disapproved of it could not see how it could be abolished without bloodshed and economic disruption. In Britain the solution was to pay compensation to the slave owners, whilst in the US it was a civil war. Most Britons thought the Empire was a good thing,and that it benefited the people of Africa and Asia as much as the British. Am I defending the indefensible? I ask for historical characters to be understood in their context.
Was it difficult to have clean hands in the past?
Most rich people made money from the slave trade indirectly if they invested in sugar, cotton, tobacco or shipping. Many poor people worked in the British cotton industry. Few of any class had any real knowledge of the realities of the slave trade or of life on the plantations. In my novel Highwaypersons, Book II , The King’s Justice, I show how some of the characters come to a knowledge of the slave trade, whilst they had previously been unaware of it. Although the book is fiction, I believe that element was realistic.You can get a taste of it in some sections of Geoffrey’s Historical Shorts.
Are we getting too obsessed with the past?
I love history and write about it. We need to understand where we come from to understand where we are and who we are. I see that a statue can make a statement. However, there is a danger that we can focus on the wrongs of the past rather than on those of the present. If anyone wants to defend Cecil Rhodes, I will be less bothered than if they defended racism by the police today. I hope we can put right the present to give us all a better future.