The destruction of Edward Colston’s statue is an act of living history

The toppling of the slave trader’s monument has taught us far more about the past than its survival ever did.

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The irony of historic preservation is that history itself is a process of creative destruction. We might think of a statue as the record of a moment frozen in time, but this isn’t a record that can simply be taken at surface value. If we are to analyse what survives of the past – a story of who we are – we also need to read between the lines. What, for instance, was the context in which a statue was erected in Bristol in 1895 in celebration of the slave trader Edward Colston, 174 years after his death, almost a century after Britain prohibited the slave trade and 62 years after it voted to abolish slavery in most British colonies? 

The 1890s was a time of profound anxiety about the future of the British empire. The empire had never covered such a large area and continued to expand well into the early 20th-century. But the economic rise of Germany and the US had led to fear that the UK was losing its industrial advantage, while the “Scramble for Africa” demonstrated that other European states had new imperial ambitions of their own. Many people worried, too, that the condition of life and work in Britain’s industrial cities was causing a raft of health and social problems and leading to the “degeneration” of an “imperial race”. The British people, it was feared, were becoming unfit to defend and maintain a global empire.

For imperialists, the solution was to buttress the empire’s shaky foundations with stories that could offer inspiration to a people whose national self-confidence was waning. Historians and policymakers alike retrofitted a narrative portraying empire as the fulfilment of the UK’s historic mission – the consummation of its Anglo-Saxon destiny – and offered tales of past heroism to inspire a new generation of would-be colonisers. History had clear lessons to teach, and those lessons were in how to defend and enlarge the British empire. This is the context in which to understand the statue of Edward Colston: its original creation was a piece of historical revisionism that sought to bolster British confidence and supremacy. 

But there is a further irony to the argument that the people who yesterday tore down Colston’s statue are “destroying history”. The 19th-century town centres in which these monuments to the “heroes” of the past were established were themselves completely new. The wealth that the UK extracted from its empire was used to tear down older town centres and rebuild them as monuments to British power and pride. Victorian “slums”, often remnants of Elizabethan architecture, were demolished in a wave of gentrification, with town planners heedless of the older communities and civic values they destroyed. Indeed, many elite social observers imagined working-class communities in similar terms as colonial subjects abroad, describing journeys into the unfamiliar terrain of urban slums as a voyage into “darkest Africa”.

While the new class of imperial capitalists was busy tearing down historic town centres, the end of the 19th century witnessed the birth of the historic preservation movement – on the radical socialist left. The textile designer and socialist activist William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in the 1870s, in protest at how the fashion for gothic architecture was causing people to strip away the layers of historic changes that made the built environment a true record of living history. Organisations sprung up to preserve traditional landscapes and townscapes, as well as manuscripts, folk customs, songs and dances: records that people worried might be lost forever amid the tumult of the Industrial Revolution.

Indeed, this process of destruction had begun with Colston’s generation at the turn of the 18th century. It was an age of unsentimental attitudes to historic monuments and buildings. Aristocrats and gentry used the newfound wealth they had derived in large part from slavery to tear down medieval halls and rebuild their estates as neoclassical palaces. Brand new Corinthian columns, Roman follies and Arcadian grottoes harked back to a “golden age” of classical civilisation, framing the British empire as its true successor. We might think of the English country house as embodying the virtues of timelessness, but we could just as easily read neoclassical architecture as a kind of 18th-century Las Vegas for nouveaux-riche slave owners.

We can always selectively choose the “lessons” we draw from history. There is rarely a definitive answer that can resolve the tension between the desire to preserve and the need for change – not least when the people whose memory we preserve were themselves concerned with erasing traces of the past. 

The same critics who ceaselessly decry the “destruction” and “revisionism” of those who seek to decolonise British history seem to forget that the UK’s foundation myths, too, are based on iconoclasm. The “birth” of the Protestant nation rested on the destruction of Britain’s Catholic heritage – we have always partly read history through the ruins that are left behind. The irony is that the destruction of Colston’s statue has taught us far more about private wealth and public history than its survival ever did.

Hannah Rose Woods recently completed a PhD in the history of emotions at the University of Cambridge, where she taught modern British history. She is currently writing a book on nostalgia in British culture.

This article appears in the 12 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt

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