A Reflection on history

Friday, 12th June 2020

A Reflection on history

I have been watching the film of Edward Colston’s statue emerging from Bristol’s Floating Harbour. The statue stood on the city centre Watershed, perhaps five hundred metres from Bristol Cathedral, where I used to be the Dean. It was put there in 1895 more than a hundred and fifty years after he had died. At the end of the nineteenth century, Colston’s stock was high in Bristol. There was an alms-house, and a Colston Boy’s School founded in his lifetime. By the time the statue went up, there was a Girls School and a concert hall bearing his name. As Dean, I knew of a Colston Society and a Colston Street and I saw Colston imagery, dolphins and anchors in all sorts of places. He had become the model for philanthropy. I have read sermons in which he was praised and admired. Accounts of his death and funeral, describe streets full of mourners gathering in reverence.

Philanthropy the love of man. Colston gave away huge amounts of money, but philanthropy misses the mark. He was a member, later deputy governor, of the Royal African Society which held the monopoly on trade with West Africa. It was a trade in gold, silver, ivory and slaves. Colston’s wealth was built out of a terrible human suffering. As some of the commentators have pointed out, there was a kind of justice in watching the statue topple into the waters of the harbour. That was the unceremonious fate of so many victims who died on those ships. Dolphins and anchors are really only a very small part of the story.

Now Colston’s statue, they say, will stand in a museum. One report I read suggested it will be there, smeared with the paint and tied with the cables that were part of his downfall. He will become, in short order a very different sort of memorial, part of a very different history. That is an important point to register, Colston’s history shifts now. I wrote last week about the fact that I am a historian and that history is a demanding discipline. There has been a lot of talk about history and statues and Edward Colston. It is sometimes suggested that statues like his need to stay because they are part of our history. Keep them the argument goes, do not ‘hide’ our history. That was a debate I grew to know in Bristol and, of course, it is a debate that begun a long time ago and must go on being played out in Westminster Abbey.

I am new to the Abbey as we manage all the business of re-opening and the very significant financial challenge that affects every institution dependent on visitor income and international travel. I must make legacy issues, questions about memorialisation and the deep roots of racism an absolute priority. There is a lot of urgent work ahead. As a historian, I would make just a couple of points as I begin. The idea that history is static, that events happen and then more events follow and we just keep a record does not work. Historians are forever reassessing the significance of a moment or an individual, things come in and out of focus. Put another way, statues tend to have a life cycle, they come and go. We remembered Colston one way we will remember him another and in time perhaps differently again. Nor is history just a catalogue written with an iron pen. We get hot under the collar about this, but history is moral, or it is outrageous. We make judgements; we invite judgements. We do that carefully, knowing that we are compromised and value laden ourselves, we know those judgements can be challenged and may be overturned, but we do it. We become less than human when we think we can suspend our morality. We do not ‘hide’ history if we change our minds, we just write more history, different history, even ‘better’ history.

On Monday, we will open the Abbey again, for private prayer. It will be a while before it is open to tourists who can gaze, once more, on those monuments of heroes and villains, sinners and saints. We will be working on the way we tell their story alive to the errors of our racism, past and present. While we do that, because the Abbey is a church, we will be speaking of other things too. There is, you see, a temptation for a historian. It is the temptation to be a kind of hero righting wrongs, putting the record straight, becoming the hero bringing in the light of understanding. The truth is that we are all compromised. It is not just better history we need it is forgiveness, reconciliation, and a better and shared hope.