‘Ethnic cleansing’ in the mayor’s office: carry on Cleo

Don’t you just love it when people get a bit of power and think they can rewrite history? Especially when they appear to think that this will also promote their own ideologies. And even better, when they get to boost their own view of the hierarchy of victimhood. With a nice bit of ‘intersectionality’ thrown in.

The mayor of Bristol has been (ethnically) ‘cleansing’ her office of tainted art again.  In June this year she removed a portrait of one of Bristol’s significant historical figures, Edward Colston.  Now she has also removed a Gainsborough portrait of Robert Craggs-Nugent, an Irish peer who was also MP for Bristol for 20 years in the 18th century.

Not only has she removed these portraits which depict white men who had substantial and influential roles in the history of the city of which she is now mayor, but she has replaced them with more acceptable-to-her images.

“I do not think that such portraits should grace the walls of the office of the first citizen of a forward-looking, creative and diverse city like Bristol,” Ms Lake apparently told the news website Bristol 24/7. “They do not resonate anything positive to me personally and have no connection to who we are as a city today nor the vision for our future.”

Ms Lake apparently belongs to a group called Countering Colston (‘Demanding an end to the public celebration of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol’), which aims to ‘decolonise Bristol’.  Oh joy.  Activists.  For which read either ‘people with too much time on their hands’ or ‘religious fundamentalists with or without a religion’, or worse, both at the same time.

Many years of academic life on the staff of a UK university taught me that whenever you are approached by a dangerous number of ‘activists’ (one) then run as fast as possible in the other direction.  For your sanity.  All the ‘activists’ I met while at university as a student or as an academic were either full time students or living on benefits while ‘unemployed’.  Or being bank-rolled by Mummy and Daddy.  Strange how you don’t find many activists who have to spend their time actually earning a living.  I am sure there are some out there, but generally they don’t seem quite so noisy as the rest.  Ms Lake, it seems, must be one of these excellent, virtue-signalling individuals.  She evidently has the time to run a city and ‘decolonise’ it at the same time.  Apparently this means changing a lot of street names and so on.

Shall we ask the obvious question?  Is it appropriate for an elected mayor to maintain a role in a protest organisation during her tenure in office? Answers on a postcard, please.

So, back to poor old Colston.  Because we don’t like him (he is a man, after all and a dead, white one at that so there’s no danger of a right of reply), let’s not give him any credit for his many good works.  Let’s just say that all of his beneficence to the poor, sick and uneducated around Bristol – worth millions of pounds in today’s money – has been rendered null and void because of his involvement in the slave trade.  The fact that the whole country was involved in the slave trade in one way or another during his lifetime is just an irritating irrelevance.

Let’s ignore the fact that at the time, the slave trade was legal, and considered normal and good for the economy. Let’s assume that most of Colston’s money was made from the slave trade, when in fact we don’t know what proportion of his wealth was derived from it.  Let’s not consider the fact that his massive charitable donations, which funded almshouses, schools, churches and other causes, were arguably ‘doing good’ with his (unspecified) profits from the slave trade.  Let’s ignore the fact that some of his charitable works are still operating today.

After all, he was a slave-trade supporter!  That wipes out everything else he ever did!  The man is tainted!  Get him out of my office! Ms Lake was quoted as saying that she “simply couldn’t stand” being in the same room as Colston.  Leaving aside the fact that the mayor of Bristol apparently can’t tell the difference between a painting and a person, we are led to believe that her sensibilities are so delicate that she has simply had to remove this ogre from her presence. Maybe he was watching her.

And what about poor old Robert Craggs-Nugent?  What did he do to incur the wrath of Ms Lake?  Well, this chap had the gall to allow himself to be painted while holding a copy of an Act of Parliament that set up the African Company of Merchants – involved in the slave trade.  Not only did Nugent represent Bristol as its MP for twenty years, he also held a number of government posts during his substantial parliamentary career (he became Father of the House in the Commons), including First Lord of Trade.  So never mind the benefits his activities brought to Britain – he was a slave-trade supporter and was therefore A Bad Person.  Let’s get rid of him too!

Ok.  We’ve established that Ms Lake doesn’t like dead white men who had anything to do with the slave trade.  Fine.  So having removed Colston and Nugent from her office walls, what did our very busy mayor replace these travesties with.  Are you ready?

Colston was replaced with a picture of a lion.  No, me neither.  Apparently it was bought at an auction to help the homeless.  That’s ok then.

Nugent was replaced by a painting of Henrietta Lacks.  This was produced by a Bristol-based artist who was very excited that her work was replacing a Gainsborough.  Not for its quality, I suspect, but who knows?

What these two artistic representations have to do with Bristol is anyone’s guess.  Given that our busy mayor removed the portraits of Colston and Nugent because “They do not resonate anything positive to me personally and have no connection to who we are as a city today nor the vision for our future”, one wonders what resonance and connection to Bristol Ms Lacks and the lion offer.

For those of you who are not familiar with Henrietta, here’s what you need to know.  She was a black woman (of course) from the US who had the misfortune to die of cancer in the early 1950s.  Despite this tragedy, an amazing outcome of her life and illness has been the ‘HeLa’ cell line – a self-reproducing line of cells derived from her body when she was diagnosed with cancer – that has been used for major medical research in the past and is still used today.  Using Henrietta’s cell line has enabled scientists to produce many vital advances in medicine and medical research.  Yes, there are ethical issues around this today, but nothing unethical was done at the time, when medical practices were different.  The same ‘injustices’ also happened to a lot of white people.

Ms Lacks’ cells, without doubt, have been a huge benefit to humankind and the advancement of human health.  Nobody would dispute that.  But is Henrietta a relevant person to ‘celebrate’ on the walls of the parlour of the mayor of Bristol?  Why?

But let’s get back to our busy mayor’s protesting activities.  What exactly does Countering Colston want to do?

Their website tells us that:

In Bristol today, the major historical slave trader Edward Colston is publicly celebrated.

We are a network of individuals who believe that this is wrong and we demand that it should end now.

Instead, we call for action to achieve and perpetuate the following positive aims:

  • Remember the full, true history of transatlantic slavery, colonialism and exploitation;
  • Commemorate and mourn the people who suffered and died as a result of the slave trade, and recognise the coerced economic contribution that they made;
  • Celebrate the people who courageously resisted slavery and fought for abolition and emancipation;
  • Acknowledge and repair, as far as possible, the negative effects in the present day of historical slavery;
  • Promote ideas of human dignity, equality and freedom

We do not deny that Colston gave an exceptional amount to charity. However, historically Colston’s charity has been celebrated uncritically.  This does not fit with the ideal of remembering history ‘in the round’. Presenting Colston as a philanthropist is deeply disrespectful to the tens of thousands of people whose enslavement he helped to fund and organise.

Got all that?  Let’s ‘unpick’ some of it, shall we?

In Bristol today, the major historical slave trader Edward Colston is publicly celebrated. We are a network of individuals who believe that this is wrong and we demand that it should end now.

I would argue that anyone who gave the equivalent of millions of pounds to help the vulnerable in a city and its environs in the past is worthy of some celebration.  Why is that wrong?  And who are these activists to ‘demand’ that such celebration should ‘end now’?  What authority do they have to demand this?  And can we define ‘celebration’ please?  Is naming a street after someone a celebration that requires ‘decelebrating’? Who will benefit from name changing?  Of yes – the activists, of course.  They will have won a victory!

Instead, we call for action to achieve and perpetuate the following positive aims:

Remember the full, true history of transatlantic slavery, colonialism and exploitation;

Ok – can I just stop you right there, folks?  I’d love to help you with this one.  It’s a valid point and has been overlooked for years.   Let’s look at the ‘full, true history’ of the trade, shall we?   Just how, exactly, did most of those poor unfortunate slaves get taken out of the interior of Africa to the west coast?  Oh yes.  They were enslaved by other black groups and sold on to the evil white traders, weren’t they?  These other black groups included the Akan of the kingdom of Asante in what is now Ghana, the Fon of Dahomey (now Benin), the Mbundu of Ndongo in modern Angola and the Kongo of today’s Congo, among several others.

The Boston University historians John Thornton and Linda Heywood have estimated that 90 percent of those shipped out as slaves were actually enslaved by Africans and then sold on. Without this mutually beneficial relationship between black and white traders, slaves could not have been taken away on such a scale.  And all this was recognised at the time and during the subsequent slave period in the US.  So by all means, let’s get this ‘out there’ and recognised, shall we?

Next!

  • Commemorate and mourn the people who suffered and died as a result of the slave trade, and recognise the coerced economic contribution that they made;

Commemorate, yes.  Who can argue against that?  Slavery has been a taint on all civilisations in the past and still goes on today.  Let’s keep it at the forefront of social awareness.  And who can counter any argument against recognizing the economic contribution slaves made in the past?  Agreed.  A worthy aim.  But mourning?  How exactly are we to do that?  Are we to read promoting white guilt for mourning?  No?  How about a bit of white privilege bashing?  Sounds more like it?  I’m just keen to know what sort of mourning we are supposed to be engaging in.  Might it be operationalised as er, money, by any chance?

  • Celebrate the people who courageously resisted slavery and fought for abolition and emancipation;

Well, again, folks, bring it on.  Who could disagree with that?  But what do we see?  Instead of replacing Colston and Nugent with likely candidates who would fit this criterion, our busy mayor chose to celebrate by putting up pictures of a lion and a black American lady who made a completely unwitting (even though valuable) contribution to medical science.  The fact that Ms Lacks was no doubt descended from slaves is irrelevant to her contribution.  The HeLa cell line could have come just as easily from a white woman descended from slave owners.

Is it possible that Ms Lake has never heard of Hannah More? She was an 18th century  Bristol woman who became a prominent abolitionist and friend of Wilberforce and his associates in their campaigns against the trade.  She was also an educator, writer and social reformer who was widely recognized at the time for her works.  She set up over a dozen schools and other learning establishments for the poor and promoted reading and education for poor children.  She was a female activist operating under an oppressive male patriarchy and ahead of her time!

Why not have a portrait of Hannah More in the mayoral parlour?  She was a woman.  She helped poor children get educated. She was an abolitionist. She wrote a substantial output of works to help the literate poor live more fulfilled lives.  Over two million copies of her short pamphlets were sold or given out.

So why is Hannah not now featured on the wall?  Could it be because, even though she was an abolitionist, she promoted old fashioned Christian values that encouraged poor people to be content with their lot and to work hard?  Because she disagreed with women working and studying to the detriment of their family responsibilities?  Because she apparently had Methodist tendencies?  Because she was a ‘moralizer’?  No wonder she doesn’t fit the bill!

So that puts a bit of a dampener on celebrating at least a certain intersectionality among the people who courageously resisted slavery and fought for abolition and emancipation, doesn’t it? If you are white, dead, Christian, traditional and promoted a moral lifestyle, your efforts don’t count – even if you were a local!  Even if you were a woman!  Had Hannah been black, I suspect she’d have been up on that wall before you could say ‘cultural paradigm shift’.

  • Acknowledge and repair, as far as possible, the negative effects in the present day of historical slavery;

Ah.  That wouldn’t have anything to do with compensation, would it?  If not money, what other resources could be used to repair the negative effects of slavery?  A bit of affirmative action? No?  Any other ideas?

  • Promote ideas of human dignity, equality and freedom

I’m sure we’re all for that.  But what are the activists doing to promote these qualities in the areas of Africa where most slaves were, er, enslaved by fellow Africans?  Anything?  Not a lot of noise about that, is there?  Why ever not?  Surely Countering Colston doesn’t want to limit itself to changing street names, building names and preventing schoolgirls wearing Colston’s favourite flower at school events? (Google it and be amazed).

However, historically Colston’s charity has been celebrated uncritically.  This does not fit with the ideal of remembering history ‘in the round’.

Well, while we’re being critical (in the postmodern sense of the word), let’s look at history ‘in the round’ shall we?  Colston was a man of his time, functioning in a society that operated on different values to those we hold today.  As was Nugent.  We may not like it, but it happened.  They also did a lot of good.  And the other way to look at things ‘in the round’ involves critically assessing the role of Africans in the enslavement of Africans.  Doesn’t it?

According to The Guardian, our busy mayor insisted she did not want Colston to be airbrushed out of history. “Not at all. More needs to be known and understood,” she said.

No kidding.  More needs to be understood.  Can’t disagree with that.

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