Kept as they would dogs

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‘Kings, ministers, aristocrats, the rich in general, kept the people in poverty and subjection; they kept them as they kept dogs, to fight and hunt for their service.’
— Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard

A statue has been pulled down in Bristol, my former hometown and, as is usually the case with events that capture news headlines, a number of narratives have been put forward to account for this symbolic act.

These narratives serve different agendas, many of them totally opposed, though some occupy a sort of No Man’s Land.

As I have a personal, even an emotional, investment in the city that witnessed this incident, I’d like to add my own narrative into the mix in the hopes that it may throw some light on the matter, but not add to the fuel.

Apart from the first decade of my life I lived in Bristol from the late fifties to the first few years of this century. I grew up, was educated, married and had a family in various neighbourhoods — Filton, Bishopston, Cotham, Clifton, Redland, Montpelier — until a move to Wales. That half century saw many changes — environmental, social, political — many for the better but also much that harked back to a less than salubrious past: in particular Bristol’s participation in and profiting from the slave trade.

Many of the fine Georgian buildings and urban developments were only possible because merchants had made money from an arrangement that brought in sugar, wine, tobacco, cocoa and other goods obtained from shipping Africans across the Atlantic to North America and the Caribbean. The last Bristol house we lived in, in the early 19th-century suburb of Montpelier, was adapted from the former coach house to a fine double-fronted property; situated in a street named after the Duke of York, the commander-in-chief during the Napoleonic Wars, it overlooked the city’s central area, later much blighted by Victorian factories and chimneys.

For the quarter century we lived there voices were increasingly raised legitimately questioning the city’s legacy based on the degradation of fellow humans. Living in a multi-ethnic area like Montpelier and the neighbouring St Paul’s meant we could not but be aware of that despicable past and its continuing impact in the present.

Edward Colston

Edward Colston (1636–1721) is held up by apologists as a local benefactor who founded schools, hospitals, almshouses and churches in Bristol and elsewhere, and though he actually spent most of his life in London his name was until recently still attached to streets, schools, almshouses and a concert hall, and his tomb effigy can still be seen in a Bristol church where he was reinterred. The precise involvement of this Tory MP in the slave trade is disputed but it is a statement of fact that he rose to high office in the Royal African Company led by an earlier Duke of York, later James II, and which transported more Africans as slaves than any other institution.

Colston’s statue was erected in a prominent position in Bristol’s city centre in the late nineteenth century. In recent years attempts to persuade the authorities to remove it because of its associations had been resisted despite the city’s established multi-ethnic population; even the proposed wording for a plaque explaining the historical context was opposed by the Society of Merchant Venturers, of which Colston had been a member, which wanted to downplay his part in the slave trade.

So what’s clear is that the statue, shorn of a full historical context, was a symbol, a sacred geegaw for vested commercial interests and their supporters; simultaneously it represented an insult to those citizens whose ancestors had profoundly suffered at the hands of colonialists and commercial exploiters. The Black Lives Matter movement, given more urgency from the horrific death of George Floyd, found its focus in the controversial statue after years of frustration. Is it any wonder that protesters took inspiration from the toppling of hated effigies in Iraq, eastern Europe and elsewhere, and — perhaps remembering the 19,000 of 84,000 stolen African men, women and children who’d died en route to the Americas, consigned or escaped to a watery grave — decided to unceremoniously dump Colston’s statue in the city’s harbour?

Was it wrong of them to do so? Bristol’s elected mayor Marvin Rees, responded to this accusation better than I ever could. “Today’s protest,” he said,

saw around 10,000 people take to the city streets to stand against injustice and racism. I know the removal of the Colston Statue will divide opinion, as the statue itself has done for many years. However it’s important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity and make the legacy of today about the future of our city, tackling racism and inequality. I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.

The UK’s Tory government have demanded both that the perpetrators be identified and prosecuted and that the Bristol police be censured for not breaking up the gathering or preventing the protesters pulling down the statue; if this doesn’t indicate where the government’s true interests and sympathies lie I don’t know what does.

I’m currently learning from Maria Sachiko Cecire‘s closely argued study Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century about the imperialist, colonist and racially tinged nature of much fantasy influenced by what she identifies as the Oxford School of Fantasy. Her line of reasoning is well presented and at times leaves me — quite rightly — uncomfortable regarding my enjoyment of medievalist and child-centred fantasy (as I shall eventually discuss in a review). But it does underline how important it is to question and critique narratives that rely on pre-modernist modes of thinking, thinking which incorporate imperialist and colonialist attitudes and even barely concealed assumptions about white superiority. This is certainly the kind of narrative that lies behind certain government policies in the UK, predicated on beliefs in English exceptionalism and oligarch privilege.

Keeping with the topic of literature, you’ll have noted that I opened this post with a quote from Joseph Conrad. It’s undoubtedly the case that what Conrad has written about Africa and Africans (as in Heart of Darkness, for example) has elements of racism in it, as Chinua Achebe, among others, has strongly argued. But in terms of imperialism and colonialism Conrad’s depiction of “kings, ministers, aristocrats, the rich in general” using their might and monetary power to keep citizens, of whatever ethnic origin, in poverty and subjection is percipient enough.

In many countries where autocrats have been foolishly voted into power they cruelly maintain that power by picking on the poor, those with perceived or imagined difference, those who hold different views or those who oppose the perpetuation of power achieved by dubious means. Black or white, female or male, young or old, hale or vulnerable, we are all in danger of being treated like working dogs.

I’ve illustrated this post with images created using a neat little app, the Penguin Classics generator which, despite its name, allows one to also generate Oxford World’s Classics titles

35 thoughts on “Kept as they would dogs

  1. These things change slowly and piecemeal, but they do change. Even in the US some mayors are ordering Confederate statures to be taken down. As for Boris and his merry men, if the tide of public opinion is moving in Britain as it is in the US, maybe it will dawn on them that they’re on the wrong side here, and will just let it all fade away quietly. Oh sorry, forgot about Jacob Rees-Mogg!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree that things do change for the better, even if slowly. But we also see that it works both way, with incivility, lack of compassion and downright cruelty becoming the norm in several nation states. I just hope that despite a rump of diehard bullying reactionaries the tide, as you say, is turning and more fencesitters realise they were duped: people currently in power really don’t care if their electorate live or die.

      And as for that anachronism that is JRM there are several words for describing him which I don’t wish to commit to text…

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Great post. We certainly do live in interesting times. If we can survive them we may see a new world unfolding.

    I’m interested in that perspective on the Oxford School. Those books shaped me so much and I can’t deny their value, yet increasingly I become aware of discomforting elements that must be addressed too. Part of what makes our times interesting – we have to learn “how to be both,” how to discriminate rightly and embrace consciously. I always appreciate your efforts there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a pragmatist, Lory, even if in my bones I’m an optimist, and I think the new world unfolding may not be the one we would wish for, for ourselves or the generations to come. But if enough people accept that there are massive iniquities and inequalities which have to be tackled as the result of current events then our own vested interests in humanity may yet trump the vested self-interest of the few.

      The Cecire book is one which, even though I haven’t quite finished it, I would recommend to any lover of fantasy without hesitation or reservation. Learning ‘how to be both’ is a thoughtful way of putting the work many of us need to address.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. A superb post, Chris. I agree wholeheartedly with all you say. How I wish our world would change for the better but, like you, I’m a pragmatist trying hard to be an optimist. Let’s just say, if I was a betting person I wouldn’t have my money on the decent folk. 😟

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Paula. I feel that anger sustains me and stops me giving way to despair, as legitimate ways of registering one’s disapproval of the direction things are going seem to be rapidly closing off.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautifully put, Chris, and thank you for the ‘insider’ insight into the Bristol situation. I’ve been wondering how come that statue (and others) have been allowed to remain, when we’ve been trying to claim our place as a modern and equal society for at least the past two decades.

    I heard the Marvin Reese interview, at the weekend, and could not imagine how anyone could unblushingly argue against his assessment of the situation. Leaving it in place was an affront, to all of us, regardless of race or colour. We shouldn’t need to have this conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely agree, Cath. There are too many mischief makers and bad actors around I feel, which make it difficult to have a rational discussion: it feels pointless questioning ministers as they give answers that bear no relationship with what’s being asked; it feels fruitless arguing politely with people online as they just throw insults and falsehoods and whataboutery back; and it seems almost a waste of energy shouting in a virtual echo chamber with friends and family who have the same point of view. Rarely have I known so much expenditure on words to little effect.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yes, Conrad knew the pitfalls of autocracy intimately, unfortunately.
        As for the racism in colonial times, I’m quite torn on that subject. We should not anachronistically assign our own knowledge and motivations to the past – and there was a time when nobody was racist, as the world was more divided than now and people generally kept to their own, and there was a time when nearly everybody was racist. It wasn’t long ago when the Church was racked by the rabid infighting on the topic of the possibility of soul possession by South American Indians…

        Liked by 2 people

        1. “A time when nobody was racist … and a time when nearly everybody was racist”. A good point, Ola — except that I know from my psychologist partner that we, along with much of all sentient beings, are hardwired to notice difference, whether for propagation of the genes, or individual and group security, or from mere curiosity: not being born with or developing awareness of difference could quite literally mean the difference between life and death.

          This is the crucial moment when discrimination (from discrimire, to separate, distinguish, make a distinction) can acquire either a positive or a pejorative meaning. But, of course, we both know this!

          Liked by 3 people

          1. I agree with your assessment, Chris, our minds work in a way that differentiates in order to understand and survive. Yet I believe that seeing a difference and assigning value to this difference is not one and the same. And yes, one follows the other but is not inevitable. Racism is not inevitable, as we both well know.

            Liked by 3 people

  5. piotrek

    I live in a country with no obvious colonial past (reality is more complicated, modern historians find colonial patterns in what happened under Polish rule in Ukraine and Belarus in XVI-XVIII cent., and even in how nobles treated Polish peasantry up to late XIX cent. Personally, I agree in both cases) and with population 99.9% white…

    The closest thing we have to what you write about is traditional Polish anti-Semitism. There are (or were, before the current right-wing regime) occasional discussions about removing anti-Semitic art, usually from churches, and they were heated.

    I’m hesitant to support removing of any traces of history. I usually prefer the idea of providing some context, explanation… when we have a painting of Jews killing Children for religious rituals, I would think no XXI-century human being would actually believe them to represent reality. It’s, of course, naive, as there will always be a minority of total idiots. Would attaching a board nearby, explaining how untrue the accusations were, and how many people killed because of them, be enough? Removing what remains of the bad things in our history, won’t it make it harder for future generations to see how complicated this history was?

    I don’t want to defend an artistically mediocre statue of a hypocrite, who treated people of one skin colour as tradable objects, and funded schools and hospitals for those who looked more like him. Statues, street names – there are not only history, but also statements about current values of people who maintain them. There I share the sentiment of Britol’s mayor. But I always feel at least conflicted when I see destruction.

    That is purely from a history buff point of view. Politically, it might be that things are so bad the regular political process is insufficient and the mass action is needed to get things moving. We’ll see if the militarisation of US police will be at least scaled down… deeper changes in economy will be much more difficult to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this measured response, Piotrek, and as usual much to think about! For example, isn’t it true that Poland’s boundaries fluctuated so much, as has its status? I’d imagine that might complicate matters but, yes, antisemitism was/is an issue that I remember from a little study of European history quite a few years ago.

      The situation in Bristol was that all attempts at putting up a permanent plaque not only contextualising what Colston stood for but also heightening the contrast between the philanthropy and the inhumanity were frustrated by the Merchant Venturers whose proposed rewording of a previous proposed inscription was thought to water down its impact. The fact that nothing had been decided for two years, along with the eruption of anger at Floyd’s killing under the banner of Black Lives Matter, meant that something in Bristol had to give. (This piece, one of a series, gives some of the background in 2018:

      Bristol has had a very chequered history up to recent times regarding the treatment of BAME citizens, not least with riots there in 1980 when we lived adjacent to the epicentre of the troubles.

      Even if the statue is never rescued let alone reinstated in, say, a museum, Colston already has a monument to him in All Saints Church, one I remember seeing when I used to haunt Bristol historic buildings learning about their past and their architecture: As for the defunding of US PDs, let’s see what happens when things start to quieten down as they inevitably do: I’m not holding my breath that justice in a hurry…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        I see. So an honest attempt had been made to contextualise, and there was too much conservative resistance. Although it would be cool if he was left there with a plaque and the red chains we can see on one of the photos in the article you linked 😉

        Poland – yes, you’re right. Anti-Semitism now is all the stranger – and sadder – as there are almost no Jews. As to our borders… they did fluctuate a lot, for a time there was no Poland, but actually Polish nobles continued with their exploitation of Polish and non-Polish peasantry within Russia or Austria. There are a few books that analyse the social history of Central Europe through the lenses of theories developed to analyse colonialism – and that proves quite fruitful.

        And Russia, isn’t it a large colonial empire that stayed in Siberia, or Caucasus, but due to lack of a sea between the metropolis and the colonies it’s easier for us not to see this?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep, the imperialist ambitions of Putin are no different from the Tsars before him or, closer in time, Stalin et al. I wonder if there are any official Putin statues and what, if anything, will happen to them when history reveals him to his worshippers as the inhumane tyrant he really is instead of the Russian Messiah?

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Being from the US, I have been following the removal (both forcibly and not) of the various statues and the argument from both sides about what to do with them. I tend to fall on the side of remove the statues altogether but can see the point of keeping some of them and adding context in the form of plaques next to them. Or moving them to a museum. A small part of me thinks “I don’t even know who these statues are of so who cares” because they just become part of the background. I have lived in over ten states in the North and South each with their own viewpoints of how to handle history. I get why it’s fraught. I very much enjoyed yer viewpoint in one such figure and why people care. I don’t however believe that whitewashing the historical figures should be done. Yes, you can learn about why the behavior was “valid” at the time and still engage the modern audience in why that behavior was wrong or should be changed. I don’t really know if I am making any sense here but highly enjoyed the post and comments. Thanks matey.
    x The Captain


    1. You’ve made absolute sense here, Cap’n: I think that what you’re saying is that such symbols — and statues are symbols, standing in place of a person and/or their ideas and deeds — should form a conversation about values but that where and how they’re placed to have that conversation really matters. The Colston statue, in a very central public space in Bristol, only marked his local philanthropic acts (laying up store in heaven, as it were) without mentioning the anonymous trafficked African bodies that formed the basis of his wealth, and that didn’t represent an honest dialogue.

      Such statues (and this one had little artistic merit) are better off in museums these days, part of an exhibition encouraging nuanced debate and understanding historical context, not as a symbolic Local Hero or Great Man hiding his feet of clay. Similarly with despotic monsters and Confederate generals: I hope after Colston’s ceremonial defacement and drowning he is retrieved, left in his sorry state, his personal history explained and he himself exhibited at floor level, not high on a plinth. That would be a fitting symbol, would it not?


  7. Hello Chris, and thank you for the post. I quite enjoyed the toppling of Colston. I thought throwing him in the sea was poetic and fitting. And I hope that Bristol might see its way to establishing a museum which examines its role in the slave trade.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, Helen, I agree. When I used to live in Bristol there was a maritime section to the Industrial Museum for a time which did highlight Bristol’s shameful role in the slave trade, but the whole building, one of the dockside sheds, has since been reorganised a few times and I’ve no idea how the subject is now treated.

      There was from 2002 till 2013 the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum housed near Bristol Temple Meads train station which aimed to show the history Empire and British colonial rule impacted on the rest of the world and which ran a Breaking the Chains exhibition to mark 200 years since the abolition of slave trading in 1807.

      Some of its exhibits were given to the Bristol Museum but I’m afraid I don’t know anything further as apart from occasional visits we haven’t lived there since 2004, but I’ve no doubt that Bristol’s sordid part in this inhumane activity is exhibited somewhere in the museum’s several buildings.

      As you say, fitting the statue should be chucked in the Floating Harbour but I see that it’s since been retrieved and stored somewhere secure with the object of displaying it, suitably labelled one expects.


      1. That’s very interesting! I have never been to Bristol and I had no idea that there had been a British Empire and Commonwealth Museum so shame on me for leaping to assumptions there.

        I am a little disappointed that Colston has been fished out though I expect it’s all to the good really. I read that statues of Churchill, Mandela and Gandhi have all been boarded up in London to protect them from demonstrations this weekend. It’s all quite amazing that these statues, which most of us pass without a second glance, have suddenly gained such potency. And of course wearying that Tommy Robinson and his ilk have decided to turn this into something tribal, ‘our’ statues and ‘your’ statues.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I see on social media that anti-protest protesters chanting Ing-uh-land and not bothering to physically distance have been pelting the police by the boarded up London statues, no doubt buoyed up by a Prime Minister who’d kicked Churchill’s grandson out of the party tweeting in favour of his idol and model orator. But I won’t get on my political hobbyhorse…

          If the damaged and daubed Colston statue is exhibited in this condition with a full, honest and accurate explanation of the context I have no problems with its retrieval — done anyway because it was a hazard to harbour traffic. I do hope that’ll be the case…


          1. Yes, it was beyond weird to see them doing Nazi salutes just down from the Cenotaph. It seems that teaching history by statue is perhaps not the best way to teach history after all… 🙂

            It was, of course, also beyond depressing to see so many of them behaving so horribly and demonstrating why the BLM struggle continues.

            Completely agree about the Colston statue and I think that probably is the best solution.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. ‘Education, education, education’ was the mantra of a former PM as a corrective to the malaise of the late 20C. I think even another 20 years of education without party political interference may not be enough to correct the mistaken view that statues and other symbols are all that history is about.


  8. Chris, thank you for this informative piece along with the fascinating and equally informative comments which it has generated. I have just drafted a reply of sorts but it’s just way too long for a blog comment. I shall keep it: the process of drafting it has helped a lot in my own thinking on this situation.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. This movement and these events, like many recent political developments, were I felt too important for me to merely ignore in a blog primarily dedicated to literature, Sandra, and I’m glad this post has elicited the response that it has.

      Remembering that Calmgrove’s strapline is ‘exploring the world of ideas’, albeit through books, equalities of all kinds can and should be addressed here — and if Conrad’s writing provides a suitable entry to wider discussion then it’s all to the good is my opinion! Maybe if it would actually make a difference that would be even better.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I get you on the children’s / fantasy books that so many of us have loved so much. (Heck, it’s not even always ‘barely concealed,’ and I remember first seeing the phrase ‘white man’s burden’ in an E. Nesbit story, though she was kind of poking a bit of fun at it.) It’s a great topic of discussion. I tend to fall on the side of thinking that all books have the weaknesses of their times and authors, and we can take the good and learn from the bad…but also, I’m just as happy that Tintin in the Congo has not been in print in the US. (I was 16 and in Europe when I first discovered that there was such a thing. That was quite a shock. Tintin comics all have their issues, and I love them anyway, but that one I’m happy to throw out.)


    1. Interesting points, Jean. First things first, I think Nesbit’s use of the phrase ‘white man’s burden’ was in The Story of the Amulet (1906) and while, as you say, she used the term ironically — she was a founder member of the socialist Fabian Society — she was quoting Kipling’s frankly racist and imperialist poem of the same name, published in 1899. But yes, we have to recognise that writers are of their time, prone to the common prejudices prevalent then, whether antisemitism, colonialism, sexism or what have you.

      The key, as always, is education, but education free from political interference: only today I read it reported that our appointed education minister declared that education is solely about preparing children for employment. This is a really Victorian capitalist attitude that I thought had been largely superceded in the late 20th century… 😕


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