Trashing statues and sanitising history risks hiding past wrongs from view - Christa Ackroyd

Above one of the huts of horror at Auschwitz are the following words: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

The statue of slave trader Edward Colston is seen being removed from the water in Bristol, where it was dumped by protesters last weekend. (Credit: Rob Browne / SWNS).

It serves as a reminder that we must never forget the evil that happened there, an evil based entirely on race and the quest for white supremacy.

This week I thought upon those words as I watched statues topple and others desecrated in the name of progress, progress which in this very column last week I called for when I said I stood alongside those whose battle is just. It still is. And I still do.

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So I will tell you my thoughts as the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was dragged down and dumped in the harbour in Bristol. I thought who is Edward Colston? And so I did what I promised I would do last week, I read about him. And I sympathised with the long ignored campaign to get rid of this monument to a slave trader who admittedly donated huge sums of money, made from the trafficking of human beings but only to those who shared his political and religious views.

The company he was involved in was directly responsible for the selling and transporting of more than 80,000 African men and women to work in the tobacco and sugar plantations of the Caribbean and America. Almost 20,000 of them died during the passage alone. The rest spent their lives as slaves.

And so I agree he is no man to be honoured. But, and it is a big but, in the pit of my stomach I knew instantly the vandalism, for that is what it was, would prove to be a huge distraction, and an excuse for the debate to switch to the rights and wrongs of a single act – not the wider issues still to be tackled in the here and now.

The more statues were defaced, including one of Winston Churchill in London and Queen Victoria’s in Leeds, the further some saw it as a reason to lose sight of what the largely peaceful protesters are trying to achieve.

To write the word ‘slag’ on the statue of a monarch is both crude and misogynistic, and it has resulted in nothing but division. I am hearing the word ‘them’ now used far too often to describe the campaign now when the word should be ‘we’.

I have read a lot about the background to the protests this week, about the understandable anger caused by the statue to Cecil Rhodes on the outside of Oriel College in Oxford, the man for whom Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was named.

He said about colonialism: “I contend that we are the first race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” The man was a racist. He should go.

I have also read about the argument that has raged over the statue, in Poole, of Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement, who once read Mein Kampf (as did many) and adopted the swastika on the badge of merit, in honour of Rudyard Kipling who put it on the cover of his book, Kim, as a symbol of Hindu spirituality, a book that was used as the formation of the cub packs we know today.

When it was adopted by Hitler as a symbol of oppression, Baden Powell removed it. Ironically he was one of 140 people the Nazi leader planned to arrest if his plan to invade this country was successful.

My point is this, we are allowed to admit when we get it wrong as long as we do something about it. So much of what was once accepted we know now is unacceptable. When we were young The Black and White Minstrel Show was entertainment. Programmes like Love Thy Neighbour and On the Buses were prime time television. They were racist.

This week Ant and Dec have apologised for impersonating “people of colour” and Little Britain has been removed from the archives for the same reason. Gone With the Wind has gone with the times too. And all I would agree with.

I have still to rewatch To Kill A Mockingbird and The Help to try and understand the debate over whether they represent the ‘white saviour’ movement. But I will do.

This week I have been going through the last of the things in boxes from the home of my late mother. Two of the items which I haven’t seen in 40 years caused me to react with a sharp intake of breath. I am sure mum didn’t even remember they were at the back of a cupboard. And yet they were as shocking to see as the racist emblems that once adorned our jars of jam years ago.

The connotations are unmistakable. So I have put away forever a deck of nursery cards which I played with as a child because of their racist rhymes. I have consigned to the loft a tobacco jar which belonged to the father of an elderly great aunt because it depicts a black woman who was undoubtedly a slave.

But do I destroy them, or save them for a discussion with my grandchildren in later years about what has changed and what still needs to change? Will Sir Robert Peel tumble in Peel Park in Bradford, or Captain James Cook in Whitby? And should they? We are certainly in uncharted waters as councils up and down the land promise to review hundreds of statues and place names.

This I believe. We can tear down and destroy all the remnants of our past which are based on wrongdoing and suffering.

But in sanitising our history we are simply hiding it from view. If we erase history, even the history we are ashamed of, we also erase black history. It doesn’t change the fact that it happened and more dangerously could be seen as an end to a debate we are only just beginning.

It is why I thought of the words in Auschwitz. Whitewashing history will stifle change, rather than ensure it happens.

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James Mitchinson