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To topple or not to topple? That is the question.

Workers remove the statue of Edward Colston from the Bristol Harbour, in Bristol, Britain June 11, 2020 Bristol City Council/via Reuters

I’ve just started reading ‘White Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys. It’s considered one of those must-read books. I picked it up from a charity shop many years ago but never got round to it. I won’t say anything more other than the narrative takes place in Jamaica in the 1830s.

In the opening chapter, there’s a reference to a place called Nelson’s Rest. In the notes at the back of the book, the name of the property identifies it with one of Britain’s heroes of the wars against Napoleon, Nelson. he married a West Indian heiress in Nevis (nee Frances Woolward) and opposed the abolition of the slave trade.

Given Nelson’s stance on the subject, should he therefore be torn down from his plinth in Trafalgar Square? Likewise should Churchill’s monument in Parliament Square receive the same treatment because he was an
arch-imperialist?

These two iconic figures possessed views which were de rigueur  during their time. Not wishing to whitewash unacceptable mores, all generations are influenced by attitudes and events which take place during their respective era.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, busts of Lenin and Stalin were torn down (one or two of the former still exist in certain public spaces in former satellite countries) and more recently that of slave-trader Edward Colston received the same treatment and was unceremoniously deposited in Bristol harbour.

I feel it’s surely a question of degree and one’s perspective. In the case of Nelson and Churchill, their deeds far outweighed and hence masked their attitudes. If I were a black man living in Bristol, I may well have joined the throng and hurled Colston into the drink.

Here’s an interesting slant. A few days ago I watched on television  a news item which featured a prominent black professor giving his views on the toppling of the Colston statue. He said that statues of such individuals should remain in situ but in Colston’s case a short history of his slave trading ‘activities’, as well as his philanthropy, should be affixed to the base of the plinth. It would be extremely difficult to better such a
measured statement.

For the record, I believe that Colston has since been ‘salvaged’ from the deep and his new ‘home’ will be in a museum. Whether his new abode will mollify the protestors remains to be seen.

Gavin Jones

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