The articles in last week’s excellent issue by Jeremy Cliffe, Ian Leslie and Emily Tamkin all revitalised my thinking about Black Lives Matter (A World In Revolt, 12 June). It prompted me to ask myself some difficult questions about whether or not I had been drawn into discussing the violence during the marches, which a small minority always spoil, and that surrounding the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, rather than focusing on the fuller meaning of these historical events we are living through. The columns and articles were hopeful and encouraging, hence my use of the word revitalise. For a 72-year-old reader, this is necessary. One can easily become disheartened by images that take one back to the events of the 1960s and think that little has been achieved through either peaceful or violent protest.
Hannah Rose Woods’s history lesson on the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue was timely (Observations, 12 June). She contextualises the event within the anxieties of the 1890s when the statue was raised, and avoids the melodramatic individualising of personified evil that lets too many associates of Colston – indeed a whole society – off the hook. There have been several proposals for a new plaque to make clear that Colston was a trader in slaves, replacing the one that memorialised him as a benefactor of Bristol’s institutions, however none has been agreed.
In this light, some mixed feelings about what happened to the statue might be allowed, and not because slavers should be memorialised or that there can be any equivalence whatsoever between an assault on a metal statue and an assault on the body of a slave.
Neither Woods nor other commentators have seemed to appreciate the alignment in Bristol’s central square of Colston and the politician Edmund Burke (MP for Bristol for six years). The two stood in dialogue within the context of a modern multicultural city, focusing on the now morally questionable but then pragmatic role played by Burke in helping to end the trade by the state’s buying out of British slave owners. Perhaps Colston’s should be replaced with a statue of a slave: a different kind of dialogue with Burke.
Peter Wilby suggests that “a bigger monument should be raised nearby to the tens of thousands transported into slavery or death by a company of which Colston was deputy governor” (First Thoughts, 12 June). Either through editorial mischief or astonishingly good luck, the reverse of that very page features a photo of Colston’s statue descending into the harbour against a background of Pero’s Bridge – a monument that is dedicated to a slave, and is indeed much bigger than the statue. Since many Bristolians and political commentators seem unaware of the bridge’s meaning, it is perhaps not surprising that more radical action was taken to address the imbalance.
Solihull, West Midlands
Peter Wilby is correct that statues can be objected to, both at the point of their erection and at later dates for the very opposite reasons they were erected. He is also right that Colston’s memory is not wished away through the tearing down of his statue. I am less sure about his suggestion that a better course of action would have been to plan the building of a bigger monument nearby Colston’s in memory of slaves. This ignores the reason the statue was torn down at this specific time: the murder of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matters movement. Wilby could have profited from reading Hannah Rose Woods’s article in the same issue. She echoes his point that we can choose the lessons we draw from history, but adds that the destruction of Colston’s statue “has taught us far more about private wealth and public history than its survival ever did”.
Elslack, North Yorkshire
As a callow 19-year-old, I found myself ensconced in the Rhodes building in Oriel College, Oxford, in 1967. My rooms faced St Mary’s Church and Rhodes’s statue was visible when I leaned out of the window. Frankly, as a lad from Liverpool I was more than content to be in such august surroundings.
I had a vague recollection that Rhodes had bought mining rights in Matabeleland and other territories from Lobengula, king of the Ndebele tribe, for the monthly price of £100 and 300 rifles, and never looked back. In 1967 that did not intrude on my consciousness. More than 50 years later, I am not in the same place. Rhodes’s legacy was important to him; many have benefited from Rhodes Scholarships. But whatever he left behind, he was a ruthless imperialist.
You cannot undo his deeds but they can be contextualised. Rather than take down his statue, why not set up a statue of Lobengula in St Mary’s church yard, opposite Rhodes?By parliament, Jan Smuts’s statue has Mandela as a neighbour, and Gandhi keeps Churchill company. Why not juxtapose Rhodes and Lobengula and let people know exactly what he was?
I considered suggesting to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, that there should be a statue of Keir Hardie in Parliament Square on the grounds that he was an internationalist. Reputedly Hardie couldn’t stop talking about injustices worldwide. He wasn’t just the founder of the Labour Party but much more. In today’s atmosphere I hesitate lest someone be offended.
In time, public opinion may judge the reverence for a statue’s subject undeserved, as with Colston. It is obtuse to think that statues, once erected, shouldn’t be reviewed in line with public opinion.
A piece of public sculpture that stirs the emotions is the one to the partisans of Warsaw, so moving that it is a shame it isn’t better known. It records an event of heroism, not homage to an individual.
New Malden, Greater London
In the balance
It takes a journalist of Peter Wilby’s experience to aver that “journalism has become so partisan, and its readers so embedded in their ideological silos, that nobody understands the concept of publishing a paper that offers a wide range of opinion” (First Thoughts, 12 June). He cites what has happened to the Guardian as an example. At last, a respected commentator has declared what I’m sure a lot of old Guardian readers like me think: that all too often it lacks “reliability, even handedness and open-mindedness”. I get vexed by the rants on politics, race and gender. I know where I stand politically. I want a range of opinion. At the very least, I want to be cogently and dispassionately informed about what the other side thinks – that’s why I read the New Statesman.
I suspect that you will be overwhelmed by letters denouncing Peter Wilby’s comment pairing the Guardian with the Daily Mail. I am shocked that he should name them as being equally unreliable and lacking open-mindedness given the number of apologies the Mail has had to issue in recent years, and that recent polls have shown it is the newspaper the British public trust the least.
I had to reread Peter Wilby’s column this week to test my eyesight. I wonder if the New Statesman staff and readership agree with the assertion that Tom Cotton’s New York Times piece should have been published? I have my disagreements with the magazine from time to time but this stopped me short.
On the case
Am I the only NS reader to be shocked by the lack of empathy in Megan Nolan’s column on the recent developments in the case of Madeleine McCann (Out of the Ordinary, 12 June)? The case was huge – and an unsolved mystery as tragic as this one was is always of interest. Moreover, it seems the German police have evidence to bring closure. All they lack is corroboration, and for that they need publicity. To call it a distraction is demeaning.
Graeme Youngson claims that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, “has until very recently slavishly followed the UK line on the pandemic” and blames her government for deaths in care homes (Correspondence, 12 June).
First, I’m puzzled as to why people blame the government for the failures of privately owned care homes. I would expect responsibility to fall on managers and owners, who must have been aware of the vulnerability of their residents. Second, perhaps he has not heard of the “four nations strategy”. If Scotland was independent, a four nations pandemic strategy would still have been possible, but we would not be relying on the UK chancellor’s furlough scheme. For the moment, we have to live with Westminster controlling most of our economy.
I read David Lammy’s Diary (12 June) with interest. I always find him good value and he is fearless in raising his head above the parapet. It was a well-written Diary and I agree with him about the new format for BBC Question Time; it is rather surreal. If this is the new order of communication, his item on the new voting procedure is spot on: it is as anachronistic as its proponent, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Judith A Daniels
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
I am now in my fourth year as an NS subscriber. Not knowing too much of what had gone on before, I dug deep and splashed out £20 for a copy of the book Statesmanship: The Best of the New Statesman, 1913-2019. By the time that I had reached page ten I knew that my money had been well spent. It is proving to be a highly entertaining read as well as an educational journey. So far,the only disappointment is that Hunter Davies is yet to file his copy on the 1913 league title race.
New Milton, Hampshire
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This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars