Editing the past is a tricky business…

SHOULD we edit those bits of the past  we don’t like? The question is a recurring one, and it arises again because in Bristol there is a campaign to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets and buildings of the city.

The first ‘victory’ in this crusade was the announcement last week that the concert venue Colston Hall would be renamed in 2020 following a major redevelopment. The venue stands in Colston Street and perhaps that will be re-christened or perhaps it won’t.

It is fair to say that there were good and bad sides to Edward Colston: as a 17th century philanthropist, he gave a fortune to the city that honours his name, but that money was made from the slave trade.

The boss of Colston Hall, Louise Mitchell, appeared on the BBC News last week to explain the decision, saying: “It’s very important to us as a progressive, forward-looking arts organisation that we include everybody, and people felt uncomfortable entering the building because of the perception that it had in some way profited from the slave trade.”

A decent sentiment, if tinged in corporate-speak pieties, and it is true that the Bristol band Massive Attack have always boycotted the venue because of its name.

But is it right to airbrush the past in this way, to remove evidence of past sins that now offend modern sensibilities? This is an impossibly difficult padlock to unpick. The slave trade was one of the greatest iniquities in history, but we cannot deny that it happened, or ignore the ways in which the forced movement of people shaped the world as it is today.

Katie Finnegan-Clarke is an activist in the Counter Colston campaign, and she has an answer to the airbrushing claim. “I think the organisations that hold him in that honorary position are the ones who are airbrushing history,” she tells the Guardian. “He was one of the most powerful slave traders in Britain: 85,000 Africans were kidnapped and enslaved while he was running the Royal Africa Company.”

Again, this is true: but the tricky aspect to this is what happens after you have removed all evidence of people from the past who sinned against the sensibilities of the present. One answer, surely, would be to have a museum of slavery in Bristol – one that accounted for the sins of the past and placed the monumental cruelty of slavery in an historical and continuing context.

It would be quite wrong, in Bristol’s case, to remove all evidence that Edward Colston ever existed, but maybe he doesn’t need to be commemorated quite so widely. I guess that Massive Attack and Katie Finnegan-Clarke avoid eating the Colston bun, which a quick Google reveals to be a sweet, yeasted treat akin to a large hot-cross-bun

In a sense, you could argue that painting over the past in  modern colours does a disservice to those who suffered in the past. We cannot change the past but we can change the way we think about it. Don’t remove all the names or topple all the statues, but instead think how the past connects to the present (one of the purposes of studying history, some would say).

I wonder if part of this wish to erase evidence of our cruel past lies in our over-developed modern sensibilities: people become offended about everything nowadays, seeing offence wherever they look, and being ‘offended’ by the past may be an extension of that tendency.

In search of another way of looking at this, let’s head to Hull and home to the great William Wilberforce, the deeply religious parliamentarian and social reformer, who spent 18 years campaigning against the slave trade. Wilberforce retired from politics in 1825, having failed to achieve his aim, and died on July 29 1833, shortly before the act to free slaves passed through the House of Commons.

The Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation bears his name, and carries on his work, too. On the University of Hull website, you will find explanations of what the institute does, including the work of the Antislavery Usable Past project.

A statement about this project says: “There are approximately 36 million slaves alive today: more than at any point in history. Our interdisciplinary investigation into antislavery legacies, across history and multiple geographies, shows that applied knowledge of the antislavery past offers a way to ‘care for the future’.” A short film from Professor Kevin Bales explains some of the themes of the project’s work.

But just think again of that statement: there are more slaves alive today than at any point in history. Changing names and toppling statues is only one approach, but it is surely more productive to concentrate on modern injustices, too.

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