The toppling and dumping of the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol yesterday ignited highly divided amongst the British public and political classes. Whilst those supporting the movement championed the demise of a racist legacy, others condemned what they saw as an act of “thuggery” on behalf of some activists, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel. The mayor of Bristol himself said that the statue was of no major loss, although it would be salvaged and placed in a museum.
The fact it has taken a shockwave of events from the United States for people to even contemplate discussing the legacy of someone like Colston speaks volumes at the indifference and lack of public consciousness concerning the legacy of British racism and colonialism. Although modern Britain is a country which as a general rule places growing emphasis on diversity and racial equality, longstanding issues remain concerning a willingness by the public, media and politicians at large in being honest and introspecting regarding the country’s past atrocities. This has proved a staggering block towards further progress. But after the fall of Colston, we cannot go back to business as usual.
Britain’s national identity prides itself on being a righteous nation which has been a force for good in the world. Whilst the flow of history has consolidated this perspective, with the United Kingdom has come out of two world wars victorious, and particularly against a German regime which is universally regarded as the epitome of evil, nevertheless, the reality has not always been so clear cut and binary. History is written by the winners, and the supremacy of the British Empire has, in turn, meant that it has never had to be politically “Held to account” for its brutal actions within Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, China and beyond, which on several occasions cost millions of lives.
As a result, symbols, monuments and legacies of British Imperialism and colonialism dot the landscape of the country with the public at large fail to illustrate empathy for what they represent, hence a figure such as Edward Colston was able to exist benignly as an icon of local esteem with little opposition. Yet this is hardly unique. One may point to the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, known as the architect of Apartheid politics in South Africa, one may observe the statue of General Havelock in Mowbray Park, Sunderland, famous for recapturing the Indian city of Kanpur in 1856 to quash a rebellion which saw over 800,000 Indians die in resistance to British rule. The list could go on.
Thus it is no surprise that in Britain, there is a clear gulf in perspective between the minority groups whose ancestors have suffered as a product of these legacies and the majority population who have long been taught that the country’s history is something to be proud of, who do not understand what it means to be on the “receiving end” of such history and to lack the racial privileges which they have. Therefore, instead of striking empathy with Black Lives Matter Protesters and seeking to understand, they focus their anger not on the injustices and crimes of the past, but over the destruction of a statue, benignly dismissing it as “history” as if it were no longer relevant as if the scars of these deeds and actions ought to just be forgotten.
Yet herein lies the problem: indifference and an unwillingness to confront these legacies. The United Kingdom has undoubtedly achieved many great things in its history. It is not a country to be ashamed of, as critics try and say those supporting the protests endeavour to do. However, it is a nation which nonetheless needs to be honest about who it is and its place in the world today. The prevailing mindset of Anglophone exceptionalism that portrays the country as an enlightened, superior and benevolent country which is god’s gift to the world, is inherently inaccurate and plays to the tune of its benefactors, rather than those who have suffered in its name.
It must earnestly confront its own Imperial and colonial legacy, if it is to move forwards as a country, rather than living on a nostalgia of Imperial glory. Still, whether the critics like it or not, the toppling of Edward Colston will be a turning point which will shine greater public scrutiny and debate on these legacies. This does not need to be done by acts of vandalism or destruction, but nor can those fighting for justice and equality remain silent any longer to appease the powers that be. Britain’s history has been whitewashed, both literally and figuratively, but now as Harold McMillan quoted concerning the end of the Empire itself in the 1960s, the “wind of change” is in the air.
Tom Fowdy is a Political Columnist for the Southern African Times. He is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain, and the U.S.