Colston and the Myths of History

24 June 2020, Category: politics



Every country is deluded in how they narrate the past. No history is complete and each history is a story shaped to make the narrators feel better. But I think here in Britain, we are more deluded than most. As a nation, we pick and choose the ‘good’ parts of our history, ignoring all the others. We ignore the destruction our empire left in it’s wake, ignore our part in the international slave trade, ignore our history of institutional racism and environmental destruction. Certainly when I was growing up we weren’t taught about the British Empire at all, other than passing references to ‘the sun never setting’. Instead, we focused on recent successes such as winning the second world war. No wonder we have an impression of ourselves as the victors of history.

The toppling of the Colston statue in my adopted town of Bristol a couple of weeks ago is a perfect example of our collective ignorance. Only when I moved to Bristol did I learn about Edward Colston and his role in shipping thousands of people across the Atlantic ocean for profit. And yet he was glorified in the city, with a statue and buildings named after him, because of his charitable donations. The reason it was torn down was because of inaction from the authorities for years and frustration at the continued deification of a man who made his money from blood. I’m glad it’s gone, but the subsequent handwringing and opinion pieces about ‘losing our history’ shows our national ignorance and outright denial of the suffering we have caused. It is not erasing history, it is rectifying it.

This belief in the myths we have written is not just an abstract debate. It has implications on the present. What was Brexit but a denial of the current reality, a vote for the UK to be ‘great’ again? Racism is still built into the structure of British society. Look no further than the Foreign Secretary wilfully misunderstanding the protest of taking the knee to see the ignorance in full effect. If we do not confront our past we will continue to act from a position of ignorance and continue the suffering. The only way to tackle systemic problems is to acknowledge them, which Britain is refusing to do.

History is nuanced and never fits into simplistic explanations. But in the United Kingdom, we are not looking at the full set of facts. Colston is a perfect microcosm of the problem. Bristol has focused for years on his charitable giving, but has ignored how he came by such vast funds. It’s picking the facts that are most convenient to favours the wealthy and the powerful and to cast Britain in a positive light. It creates myths, not reality. By not accepting all of the facts of our history, by ignoring the destruction we have caused, we harm our present.

Bonus: here’s the always excellent Bristol city Poet Vanessa Kissule with a brilliant poem about the toppling of Colston.