‘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 (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