Tearing down Statues isn’t Vandalism. It’s at the Heart of the Democratic Tradition

The statue of Bristol slave-trader Edward Colston is torn down. (Photo: via Twitter)

By Jonathan Cook

It is easy to forget how explicitly racist British society was within living memory. I’m not talking about unconscious prejudice or social media tropes. I’m talking about openly celebrating racism in the public space, about major companies making racism integral to their brand, a selling-point.

Roberston’s, Britain’s leading jam-maker, made their orange marmalade sweeter to generations of (white) British children by associating it with a “golliwog”. One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood breakfasts was collecting golliwog tokens on the jar label. Collect enough and you could send away for a golliwog badge. More than 20 million badges were issued. I remember proudly wearing one.

Most white children, of course, absorbed – with the unquestioning trust of a young, unformed mind – the racist assumptions behind those golliwog figures. There are still Britons, like this Conservative councilor in Bristol, who never grew up. They continue to celebrate their breakfast-time lessons in racism – and can count on a newspaper, like the Metro, to give their views an unchallenged airing.

Racism was not just a feature of my childhood breakfasts. Friends had golliwog dolls in their beds and Little Black Sambo storybooks on their shelves. Leisure time was spent watching TV shows like the BBC’s Black and White Minstrels Show – black-up as family, round-the-campfire entertainment – or comedies like It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (with grinning, ridiculous locals providing the exotic backdrop to a nostalgic romp around the British empire) and Mind Your Language (with simple-minded “immigrants” from the former colonies struggling through English-language classes).

Victims of Empire

Britain’s education system played its part too. History and other subjects took it as read that Britain had a glorious past in which it once ruled the world, spreading enlightenment and civilization to the dusky natives. The only significant event I can recall from lessons on Britain’s colonial involvement in India is the Black Hole of Calcutta, a dungeon so cramped with prisoners that many dozens suffocated to death one night in 1756. That event, from more than 200 years ago, was obviously explained to me with such impassioned horror by my teacher that it left an indelible scar on my memory.

Many years later, overlaid by my much later leftwing politics, I recalled the Black Hole deaths as referring to British crimes against the native Indian population and saw it as a hopeful indication that British schools even in my time were beginning to address the terrors of colonialism.

But when I looked it up, I found my assumption about the episode was entirely wrong. It was native Indians rebelling against the rule of the East India Company, a trading corporation that became more powerful than the king through its pillage of India, who forced British mercenaries into the Black Hole. Paradoxically, the East India Company’s foot-soldiers – there to oppress the local population and plunder India’s resources – died in the very dungeon the firm had built to punish Indians.

History classes were designed to impress on me British victimhood even as Britain was in the midst of raping, pillaging and murdering its way around the globe.

Jar Sales versus Complaints

Until I researched this post I had also assumed that Roberston’s quietly shelved the golliwog badge back in the early 1970s. But no. Apparently the badges were still available for children until 2002. In the tiniest of makeovers in the 1980s, Robertson’s reinvented the golliwog as a cuddly “golly”.

It is hard to imagine a spokeswoman for a major corporation – in this case, Rank Hovis McDougall – defending the use of the golliwog now as they did back in 2001:

“We receive around 10 letters a year from people who object to the [golliwog] character. That compares to 45m jars of jam and mincemeat sold annually.”

The scales of trade: 45 million jars a year weighed against 10 killjoys. Golliwogs were simply good for business, given the cultural climate that had been manufactured for the British public. In a way, you have to appreciate the corporation’s honesty.

The linked Guardian article is worth reading too. Less than 20 years ago the country’s only “liberal-left” newspaper felt quite able to report the dropping of Robertson’s golliwog character in faintly nostalgic terms, an example of “Gosh, how the times, they are a-changing” journalism, instead of the unalloyed disapproval we would now expect.

Corporate Sloganeering

Those approaches contrast sharply, of course, with today’s sloganeering from Nike, Reebok, Amazon and many other corporations as they hurry to show their support for Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin late last month.

Have the assumptions of the corporate world changed so dramatically over the past 18 years, or have their priorities remained exactly the same: to make money by making us identify with what they need to sell us?

Golliwogs no longer shift product. What does is empty corporate slogans about equal rights, humanity, and dignity – as long as corporations don’t have to deal with inequality in their boardrooms, or, more importantly, recognize the humanity of laborers in their Third World factories or their local warehouses.

Have the assumptions of the corporate world changed so dramatically over the past 18 years, or have their priorities remained exactly the same: to make money by making us identify with what they need to sell us?

Golliwogs no longer shift product. What does is empty corporate slogans about equal rights, humanity and dignity – as long as corporations don’t have to deal with inequality in their boardrooms, or, more importantly, recognize the humanity of laborers in their Third World factories or their local warehouses.

The Trade that Built Bristol

All of this is a prelude to discussing the pulling down at the weekend of a statue in Bristol to Edward Colston, a notorious slave trader in the late 17th century. He helped to build the city from the profits he and others made from trafficking human beings – people whose lives and suffering the traders considered as insignificant as the animals many of us consume today.

Slave traders like Colston headed a business that had only two possible outcomes for those who were its “product”.

For countless millions of Africans, the slave trade forced them into permanent servitude in conditions set by their white owner, who did not consider them human. For countless millions more, the slave trade meant death. Death if they resisted. Death if the traders lacked food for all of their human cargo. Death if the slaves fell ill in the appalling conditions in which they were transported. Death if their bodies could no longer take the punishment of their enslavement.

Colston’s slave trade – and related trades like the colonial plunder run by the East India Company – built cities like Bristol. They funded the British empire. These trades enriched a political class whose descendants are still educated in private schools venerating that ugly past – because those same schools produced the merchants that once ruled and pillaged the planet. The same children then go on to attend prestige universities where they are still trained to rule and plunder the world – if now largely through transnational corporations.

Some even go on to become prime minister.

Spotlight on History

The ignominious removal of Colston statue’s and its dumping in Bristol’s harbor are being widely condemned from all sides of the narrow political spectrum: from Sajid Javid, until recently chancellor of the exchequer in the ruling Tory party, to Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour party.

The rationales for opposing this act of rebellion by ordinary people against the continuing veneration of slave traders and white supremacists are illuminating. They tell us more about how we are still shaped by our golliwog upbringings than we may care to admit. After all, by today’s standards Colston would qualify to stand trial in the Hague on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide.

Some have compared the tearing down of his statue to the 2001 destruction of the Bamyan statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Others see in it the equivalent of the book-burning by the Nazis. But obviously the erasure of Colston’s statue in a shared public space – a central square in Bristol – neither disappears a work of art nor does it erase Colston from history.

Those who value the statue as a historical record – or even as a work of art – are fully entitled to dredge it up from the harbor and install it in a museum, ideally one dedicated to the horrors of the slave trade and British society’s long ignorance of its own imperial history and crimes.

Those who fear censorship or the erasure of historical knowledge should not worry either. They can still find out all about Colston in history books and on the internet. Here is his Wikipedia page. None of that has been erased or is ever likely to be.

In fact, far from erasing history, the protesters managed to shine a very bright spotlight on a part of British history our political elite would much rather was glossed over or ignored. 

Who to Commemorate?

Other critics suggest that it is wrong to impose modern standards and values on a man who died 300 years ago. And that if we did the same more widely, there would be no statues left in Britain’s city centres. It is the tyranny of political correctness, they argue. Instead, we should acknowledge that cities like Bristol would not exist without the trade that enriched it, and that the British public would not be able to enjoy our cities’ public parks and grandiose buildings.

Except Colston did not simply abide by the standards of his day, appalling as we view those standards now. There were abolitionists prominent when Colston was around. He made a choice, an economic choice to be on the wrong side of history. He made a decision to put profit before conscience, as many of us do to this day. He set a terrible example to those around him, as many of us do now. His is an influence we should wish to oppose and diminish, not venerate and emulate.

True, there is no point in judging Colston himself all these centuries later. He was a product of his time and class. But we should judge those who wish retrospectively to approve a decision taken in the 1890s to erect a statue to Colston, more than 170 years after he died, when slavery had long ago been abolished in the UK. We should also judge those who think it fine to gratuitously insult today, through the elevation of a statue, the many people in Bristol whose ancestors suffered unimaginable horrors and suffering because of Colston. That has nothing to do with democracy; it is race hatred.

The choice we can make now is to celebrate in our most public, most collective, shared spaces the values we hold dearest – not values that appeared acceptable to our ancient forebears. No one would oppose Russians pulling down a statue of Stalin, or Germans destroying statues of famous Nazis. Nor, we should note, did most westerners object in 2003 when a group of Iraqis were helped – by US and UK troops after an illegal invasion – to pull down a giant statue of Saddam Hussein on primetime TV.

The public square is public. It should represent values that can be embraced by wider society, not just those who cling to a narrow, ugly and outdated idea of Britishness – or still cherish, like our Bristol councilor, the role of slave traders like Colston in building his city.

Shared Values in Public Space

Even without Colston, Britain will continue to commemorate its imperial past – and obfuscate its historic crimes. Books and artworks in this vein litter libraries and art galleries across the country. But those are different spaces from the public square. We choose to read a book or enter a gallery, but we cannot avoid our city centers. By definition, a statue in a public park or square commemorates and venerates the person it depicts and the actions associated with them. Books and art galleries are where we contemplate, study, and discuss. If an art exhibition is well-curated, the products of imperial and colonial history should not glorify the past to visitors, but clarify and contextualize it.

Rather than oppose the protesters for targeting Colston’s statue, or worry about the fate of similar statues, critics should consider why it is that so many British cities are stuffed with artworks commemorating Britons who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.

What does that say about our supposedly glorious past or about the wealth that paid for our cities? Is that a history we should continue to glorify? Should we shrink from the truth, pretending it never happened? Or is time we confronted the past honestly? Should we not wonder what it tells us about the present that we and our parents have been so insensitive to the hostile spaces we created in our major cities for those descended from the victims of our imperial crimes?

And even more challenging, should we not wonder how far we have actually moved on from the imperial “adventures” of slave traders like Colston? Are modern Britain’s foreign “adventures” – now called “interventions” – in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq so very different? Like Colston, we have tried to shape black and brown people’s destinies in our interests, with little regard to the death and suffering we have inflicted on them in the process. Exposing Colston’s crimes hints at the crimes to which we are party too. 

Fear of the ‘Mob’

The concerns of those opposed to the pulling down of the Colston statue aren’t really about erasure of history or about anachronistic values. Their worry is located elsewhere.

For some, it is the sense that a part of our collective nostalgia, our evenings warmed by a cathode tube as we watched It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, with us imagining that our Britishness – our identity, culture and institutions – represented something wholesome and good has been snatched away. We do not want to feel bad, so we cling on the past as though it were good.

Our cuddly golliwog has been kidnapped from our bed. How will we ever be able to go back to sleep?

But for others, I think, the concern is more contemporary than nostalgic. It is sublimated into the criticisms of Javid and Starmer that the crowds who pulled down the statue were lawbreakers, they were violating the democratic process, they were taking the law into their own hands, they were unleashing chaos and anarchy.

There is an obvious rejoinder. People in Bristol had spent many years trying to get the statue of Colston taken down through democratic means. They should not have needed to. It should have been obvious to the city’s authorities that it was offensive to revere a slave trader in a public square. The city should have taken action without prompting. Instead, it did nothing.

It is a sign of the absolute failure of the democratic process – its calcification – that popular pressure could not bring about the removal of Colston’s statue. Had Bristol’s councilors really been sensitive to the issue, had the local media really represented the values we all profess to believe in, Colston’s statue would have been removed long ago. The lack of any urgency to end his elevated status in Bristol only emphasizes how Britain’s political class actually relates to imperialism and colonialism.

Stripped of all rationalizations, what this is really about, once again, is a fear of the mob.

Progress through Protest

In his TV series A House Through Time, historian David Olusoga has been documenting Bristol’s history through a single grand house, built on money earnt from the slave trade. Last week he considered the period when it was the abode of John Haberfield. In the early 19th century Haberfield twice had a role – first as Bristol council’s legal adviser and then as mayor – in dealing with activists who would soon become the Chartists. They were the “mob” of that time who believed political corruption should end and that they, and not just the gentry, should have the vote.

Bristol’s leaders tried to jail the ringleaders in 1831 but that provoked larger demonstrations. The protesters took over Queen’s Square. Notably, paintings from the time disapprovingly show a drunken man carousing on top of a statue to a venerated public figure (Colston’s statue had yet to be erected). Bristol’s leaders responded by sending in the dragoons, the police force of the day. The dragoons charged towards the crowds on their horses, using their sabers to cut down dozens of the protesters for demanding a right we all take for granted today. Some 100 protesters were put on trial, and four men hanged, despite a petition from 10,000 of Bristol’s residents appealing to the monarch for clemency.

It seems Bristol’s political class today are a little more responsive to the popular will than they were 200 years ago.

The point is that the gains made by ordinary people, and conceded so reluctantly by the establishment, always came through confrontation. Rights were won because of events termed “riots”, because of popular protest, because of disobedience. Protest – violent and non-violent, explicit and threatened – was at the root of everything we now identify as progress.

Comforting Illusions

It is a comforting illusion that things today are so very different from 1831. We want to believe our voice now counts, that we have the power, that we are in charge, even though the vote our ancestors struggled so hard for has been stripped of value, our voices silenced. We are given a choice between two political parties equally captured by corporate money and interests.

We want to believe we have a free press even though the media is owned by billionaires. Its job is to keep us uninformed, docile, disorganized and divided. We want to believe that our police forces are there to serve, even when they prevent demonstrations and use violence against us (and against some of us more than others). We want to believe our societies no longer exploit and enslave, our willful blindness helped by corporations that keep modern slavery out of sight in far-off lands. Goods are sold to us on the basis of the deception that all lives matter.

All lives will matter when the weakest among us, the poorest, the most oppressed and the most exploited are given the chance for dignity and the right to flourish. That cannot happen when we live in deeply unequal societies, when we reward bankers before nurses and teachers, and when we refuse to address the historical injustices that continue to shape both our understanding of the world we live in and our opportunities to succeed.

Colston and his statue represent everything ugly and debased about our past and our present. If British leaders are still in thrall to the poison of our imperial history, then ordinary people must show the way through protest, defiance and disobedience – as they have done down through the ages. As they did once again at the weekend.

This essay first appeared on Jonathan Cook’s blog: https://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/

– Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His books include “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle. Visit his website www.jonathan-cook.net.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)