The Despicable Past

The Despicable Past

Unsurprisingly, historians point out that we cannot cancel the past. Some argue that we can and should challenge the mythologies of official history. Removing certain statues, plaques and street names is, they say, part of that process.  Is this what’s going on?  If only… 

The Brighton Society is troubled by the prospect of Removal Committees. In the first of two think-pieces, Adrian Hart hopes to get the conversation started. 

Early in 2015, just a week or so after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, I gave a talk to a class of journalism students in London. I had wanted to talk about an article in Brighton’s Argus newspaper some 18 months earlier but the events in Paris overtook the lesson I’d planned. The students wanted to discuss the 12 murdered cartoonists and journalists and what it all meant. However, the classroom session I’d originally prepared hadn’t exactly been irrelevant. My choice of the Argus example had been about illustrating the growing climate of hostility toward freedom of expression and the right to be offensive. I wanted students to explore the implications of a press article that had seemingly led to an outrage mob intent on revenge. Compared to the Charlie Hebdo attack, my small example from Brighton felt crass. But events in Paris entailed the same discussion point writ large – in a free society no-one has the right not to be offended. I will return to the Brighton example in a moment.

Just over five years later, in June 2020, the preoccupation of UK local authorities and campaign groups with the rights and wrongs of removing an “offensive” statue became emblematic of the culture wars raging that month. Arguably, in 2020, cool-headed and informed discussion was in short supply as emotion took the wheel. Coming as it did in the middle of a pandemic, June was a tipping point as thousands of mainly young people broke free of lockdown and gathered in protest. Those phone-camera images from Minneapolis showing us what looked exactly like a callous police killing of an unarmed black man were indeed shocking. The protests and disorder that followed, spreading across cities in the US and across the world, included one in Bristol that saw the statue of a slave-owner toppled and rolled into the harbour. While media conveyed images of this moment far and wide a number of city councils and organisations resolved to take official action. Days later, in London’s docklands, a statue of another slave-owner was removed. (1)

Various UK councils started to carry out ‘anti-racist audits’ of statues, plaques, buildings and street names – anything associated with the slave trade or colonialism. It is unsurprising that many officials, members of the public and activists themselves had little or no awareness of the existence of these items (or a clue about many of the historical figures commemorated). In this regard, an online map (a guide to Britain’s statues and plaques we ought to be offended by) provided must have been a huge help. In the 1930s, the writer Robert Musil famously noted that, despite their attempted grandeur, ‘there is nothing more invisible to the human eye as a monument’. ‘They are impregnated with something that repels attention’ wrote Musil, ‘causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment’ (nothing could be truer of the Victoriana scattered around European cities). (2)

(Above) The statue of Queen Victoria, Grand Avenue, Hove (installed in 1901) and now. A petition of (so far 366) urges the council to go the ‘retain and explain’ route urging information on the impact of empire to be added alongside this statue (See Argus here). (Clockwise from bottom left) Prince Regent George IV; Brighton’s Royal Pavilion; decoration typical of its interior (some regard the results of the Princes fixation on eastern imagery as an early example of ‘cultural appropriation’). University of Brighton (UoB) activist-academics describe the Royal Pavilion’s Orientalist architecture (and its architectural references throughout the city), as ‘colonially derived exoticism’ that obscures wealth derived from slavery. This wealth, they write, is ‘congealed in the city’s brick and flint’. We might presume, from this standpoint, every 18th and 19th century structure becomes worthy of condemnation and at risk of attack from either protesting crowds or the actions of BHCC officialdom. In ‘The future of Brighton relies on us evaluating the past’, the then Council leader Nancy Platts states ‘…it is time to create a new history…’, but has the UoB work led her to re-cast our city’s past as equivalent to the former slave ports of Liverpool or Bristol?

In June, students and staff at the University of Brighton demanded action on two plaques (Admiral Codrington and Gladstone). Issued on June 10th 2020, the open letter to BHCC titled ‘Remove slave trade plaques now’ had 499 signatories including an academic whose work the then council leader Nancy Platt’s cited. We can only hope that the current leader, Cllr Phelim Mac Cafferty, replies to the contacts he has received from local historians who are not associated with UoB’s ‘Decolonising the Curriculum Student-Staff Collective’. The Brighton Society is aware of historians, thus far ignored by Cllr Mac Cafferty, who dispute the work of activist scholars (and wholly reject the Council’s interpretation of it). (3)

Most of us have noticed a certain vogue for deliberately seeking out something as ‘offensive’. Today, distinct from a genuine feeling of being offended, offence-seeking is more likely to express political outrage than psychological hurt. We might take note of the Liverpool students who had lived in Gladstone Halls of Residence for two whole years before they realised William Gladstone had family links to slave plantations (or realised who he was in any sense). Once his unsavoury connections were known, the students became instantly offended and thereafter active in efforts to rename the building. (4) However, it would be a display of bad faith if we assumed emotions are always confected. In her 2017 book, the African British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge recalls her second year at university during which she selected a study-module on the transatlantic slave trade. She took a trip to see the former slave-port of Liverpool. ‘Standing on the edge of the dock, I felt despair’ she wrote, ‘Walking past the city’s oldest buildings, I felt sick. Everywhere I looked, I could see slavery’s legacy’. (5) Many similar expressions are contained within Eddo-Lodge’s hugely influential book (it roared to the top of bestseller lists last summer). Her eloquent prose is moving but also bleak. For Eddo-Lodge, the horrors of 200 years ago seep into today’s social fabric, posing an existential threat. Yet if buildings can transmit offence regardless of any plaque fixed to them or any statue close by, what, besides demolition, could ever be done about this? If the built environment of Liverpool were to be properly ‘audited’ by ‘removal committees’, its slave trade connections would mean the city centre torn down brick by brick.

Nor, it seems, will buildings without obvious slave trade connections escape the perception of offence. The Mayor of London’s adviser on housing regards Georgian architectural style itself to reek of colonialism and imperialism. (6) Student activists resident in Brighton, calmed slightly after googling ‘was Brighton a slave port?’, may find their sense of offence reactivated by such considerations. Historical illiteracy would be forgivable if it were not so brazenly heralded; the tunnel vision of academics and activists who harness horrors in the past merely to bolster political fights in the present is remarkable. On slavery they would do well to note the veteran African American writer Thomas Sowell when he reminds us that slavery has been an abomination throughout human history. All human population groups have been both slaves and slaveholders at some point in their histories. (7)

‘Can we agree that the past is horrible?’ asks Shelagh McNerney. Hailing from a Liverpool-Irish family, McNerney has no time for painful historical reflection. ‘I know the facts, I can tell you all about it. I can tell you about the millions of people who died…I can tell you why my family ended up in Liverpool…it’s painful, it’s despicable but it sits in the past. (8) Her perspective reminds me of the young refugees and asylum seekers I worked with 20 years ago. Youth theatre groups had funding to work with this cohort but the clichéd themes of ‘identity’ and ‘who am I?’ led many I worked with to adopt the refrain ‘Don’t ask me where I’m from; ask me where I’m going’. Iraqi Kurds, Somalians, Bosnians, Sierra Leonians – mostly from war zones, many with family and friends killed – were bemused by the proposition that their past should actively reward them with a certain ‘victim kudos’; bemused too at suggestions that the sanctuary they now sought in Britain was in fact drenched in racism (thus rewarding them with more victimhood they didn’t want). (9)   

Liverpool City Council’s enthusiasm for an audit of street names connected with the slave trade raises the curious case of Penny Lane. Historians had always known that the road made famous by the Beatles song commemorated Liverpool merchant and slave ship owner James Penny. Dr Cheryl Hudson of Liverpool University points out how, seemingly, ‘when the Council audit got to Penny Lane they thought oh crumbs this brings us a lot of money’. She describes how the eagerness of the Council to respond positively  to Black Lives Matter (BLM) u-turned where Penny Lane was concerned, switching in haste to a hunt for any kind of alternative history to justify retaining it. ‘This isn’t about history’, says Hudson, ‘it’s about a battle over the values of the present’. (10) The Council was eager to be seen as serious about its audit but in this instance it risked looking ridiculous. Lampooning the saga, a friend commented ‘Why not remove the sign that says ‘Penny Lane’, named after the slave trader and replace it with a new identical sign that says ‘Penny Lane’ named after the Beatles song?’

(Above) The defaced sign for Liverpool’s Penny Lane (as of June 2020); and a surviving sign for a Brighton terrace named after Gladstone. BHCC know they have to tread carefully: ‘There are a number of processes by which road and place names can be changed, some of which must be led by residents and some of which mean residents may incur costs’.  On its black of flats ‘Gladstone Court’ BHCC say ‘The intention is to engage with the local school to identify a new name for the building, as well as to increase awareness of the diversity of the city’s history’.

Of course, when it comes to removing commemorative items, not every council, campaign group or marauding crowd have incoherent reasons. Few of us would be anything other than repelled by figures – like the American John C Calhoun for instance – an ardent supporter of slavery despite a sizeable movement against it. As others have argued, the fact that these figures lived out their days believing black people should remain in bondage while encouraging others to believe the same strikes me as a compelling reason for a campaign to de-memorialise. In these cases, removing ‘the dignity of ongoing commemoration’ need not require any more than subverting the veneration through displays of historical fact. Yet even the ‘retain and explain’ resolution is a powder keg as this fascinating article points out. (11) Depressingly, informed arguments on how we might respond to specific instances of commemoration are rare and seldom poll the public or deploy an academically robust process. Targeting the likes of Gladstone (who, following an anti-abolitionist period in his youth, became opposed to slavery), hints that historical accuracy is far less important to activists than adopting a virtuous pose. Alas, if council leaders are in the grip of activism the same applies here too.

The vanity of student politics would seem a poor explanation for why grown-up vice chancellors concede, as in the case of the Liverpool student demands over Gladstone Hall of Residence. And yet, from the University’s official explanation, it seems vanity rules the day. The act of renaming represented a ‘recognition of the strength of feeling evoked in our student community by the Gladstone family’s historic ownership of enslaved people and their profiting from the transatlantic trade in enslaved people’. (12)

However, the febrile atmosphere of 2020 led several other university leaderships to become as ravenous for glib anti-racist actions as their students. (13) Examples of the disinterest of activist-academics in historical accuracy flourish. A recent discussion organised by Churchill College Cambridge on the subject of ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ saw academics (including historians) make schoolboy errors such as muddling Aneurin Bevan with Ernest Bevin. Unbridled claims such as ‘[Churchill] was the perfect embodiment of white supremacy’ and ‘The British Empire was far worse than the Nazis’ suggests academic rigour has been all but abandoned. It seems the focus for the new activist-scholars is on furnishing their student audiences with the bite-size historical rhetoric that justifies activism. (14)

In June 2020, when Brighton and Hove’s Labour administration announced its first act as an ‘anti-racist’ council would be to remove anything deemed racially offensive, few could have imagined it inaugurating the policy by removing itself. Labour Party in-fighting had thrown up revelations of alleged anti-Semitic racism. In July, this led to the resignations of the offending councillors and the loss of overall control (the Green Party took the helm). (15) The Greens have little to say about the commemorative items removal process. ‘Links are being made with all relevant groups …and local historians’…’ say town hall officials. But who are the relevant groups? Which local historians? Will the council simply consult its favoured activist-academics at the University of Brighton? And will it be so glib as to regard a few favoured ‘BAME’ consultees as representative of the thousands of black, Asian and minority ethnic residents of this city? Do they imagine their appointees can speak for all ‘BAME’ citizens?) (16)

Irrespective of which political party or officer elite runs it, our council is aloof from the people it is supposed to serve. It’s ideas and priorities exist in a bubble. It convinces itself that luxury apartment blocks address the housing crisis (replete with the double-speak ‘affordable housing’ as a phrase for unaffordable housing). Lately, council leaders speak of ‘anti-racism’ when in fact they have become disciples of ‘critical race theory’ (CRT). (17) Allegiance to CRT makes for an erratic, undemocratic entity when it comes to ‘anti-racism audits’, ‘removal committees’ or any other form of showmanship imagined as the hallmark of a ‘progressive’ council. This is the subject of part 2 ‘Cancelling the Past?’  

In the remainder of this part, I use the example I had intended to use in my 2015 talk to the London journalism students. The hounding, in 2013, of one of Brighton’s hardest working, longest serving and oldest elected councillors offers a glimpse of the emergent and extremely divisive identity politics so warmly embraced by our council today.

(Top) Protestors in the former slave-port of Bristol topple the statue of Edward Colston as onlookers record it on their phones. The statue of slave trader Edward Colston only came to exist in 1895 (170 years after his death) because philanthropic groups connected to Colston’s good deeds hoped to generate positive values for Bristol (and displace its slave trading past). (Bottom right) Doing their bit, Brighton and Hove City Council facilitate the destruction of the Codrington plaque; (Bottom left) Britain’s Georgian buildings – pictured here in Brighton – considered problematic by a consultant advising London’s Mayor simply because they symbolise colonialism and imperialism, amounting – as some put it – to an offensive ‘architecture of oppression’. (18)   BHCC confirm ‘In Rottingdean (burial ground at St Margaret’s), June 2020 the Diocese removed the headstones of music hall performers G H Elliott and Alice Banford where inscriptions referred to their ‘blackface’ act and stage names’.

The hounding of Dawn Barnett                                                                                                                            For the local press, the summer of 2013 was much like any other (2020 excepted). Dubbed ‘silly season’, reporters find that the newsphere (especially political news) withers away, leaving them hunting for eye-catching headlines. For Bill Gardner, then an ambitious reporter at the Argus, a story came along that offered up an eye-catching headline: ‘Councillor backs golliwog sales in Brighton shop’. It had begun with a shopper at the kitchenware and gift shop Bert’s Homestore contacting the Argus having felt offended by a retro style drinks coasters on sale in the store. This moved quickly to a more lurid story once Gardner had contacted Councillor Dawn Barnett for comment. (19) What followed was a level of town hall procedural bullying so unedifying that by the end of that year Gardner himself, now a reporter at the Daily Telegraph, was tweeting ‘When I wrote Dawn Barnett golliwog story, never thought she’d be hounded like this. What a waste of money and time. Get a grip BHCC’.

(Above) – the photograph used in the August 30th 2013 Argus report. Here, Bill Gardner   holds the offending drinks coaster that sought, like many gifts in Bert’s Homestore, a  nostalgic interpretation from customers. While views on the old Robertson’s marmalade  advert divide opinion, few would disagree that the shaming of Cllr Barnett was a low point for BHCC, its facilitation of a pitch-fork mob and an anti-democratic process that ended  with a Star Chamber. The Robertson’s ad-campaign ran from 1928 to 2001.

Cllr Barnett – a grandmother in her 70s – spoke to Gardner and recalled the ‘golliwog’ dolls she had as a child. On the question of the offending drinks coaster being ‘racist’, her opinion (which she assumed she had a right to) was that they were ‘nostalgic not racist’. Complaints by shopper(s) were, she thought, a case of ‘political correctness gone too far’. Within days, activists inside and/or connected to the council had mobilised the complaints procedure to take aim at this hapless councillor. (20)

Younger generations may wince at elderly relatives when they use outdated terms (or seem innocently unaware of cultural sensitivities) but most of us recognise the tyranny of sacrificing all context to a ‘zero tolerance’ (what next? a crackdown on ‘racist’ grandmas?) It sounds like a bold claim but anyone reading the 70 page hearing investigation dossier in the Councillor Barnett case would have to conclude that her detractors wanted to destroy her. (21) In an 8,000 word letter to BHCC (dated just 10 days after the offending Argus article appeared), one of the four complainants demanded Barnett be ‘expelled without delay’ because her words in the Argus had ‘directly led to racial tension, antagonism and disharmony in my personal life’. Barnett’s racial hatred has, informs the letter, been reported to the police. Because Cllr Barnett had described objections to the drinks coaster as ‘political correctness gone too far’, the complainant concluded that ‘the Councillor’s true intention was to incite and create racial tension’ against ‘the black community’ because ‘it was we who complained to Bert’s store’. This and one other complainant accused Barnett of racist acts in the past but failed to substantiate these claims. (22)  

One of the four complainants triggering the complaints procedure was its own in-house forum (the Black and Minority Ethnic Workers Forum). The forum was immediately successful in pressuring the council to abandon any intention to simply require a public apology but instead subject Cllr Barnett to a full hearing. Outlining its views in an email to the investigating officer (‘mistakenly’ copied to the Chief Executive and various other staff forums and leading councillors), the forum’s complaint signed off with ‘we will not hesitate to consider using external channels if a more acceptable outcome cannot be achieved’. Two full hearings later (the final one held in secret away from press or public scrutiny), Dawn Barnett was very lucky that the blood-hounds pursuing her failed to win the severe punishments they hungered for. Accusations of contravening the councils equality duty or criminally inciting racial hatred simply couldn’t be established by the hearing, despite its best efforts. Indeed, when asked, the police confirmed to the Council that it saw no evidence at all that Cllr Barnet had intended to stir up hatred – which, arguably, is more than can be said of her accusers. The only judgement served on Cllr Barnett was that she’d brought her office into disrepute (an irony given that the council had, by now, brought itself into disrepute). (23)

Not only had the saga been a punishing ordeal for Dawn Barnett, it had acted as a show-trial. Although chosen by electors, it became evident that a councillor can be scolded and defamed and possibly removed from office at the behest of an unelected cohort claiming ‘offence’. One letter to the Argus summed up the stifling pressure on elected representatives to check their words and refrain from speaking freely: ‘Do experienced councillors really need to be told what to think? If so, why do we bother voting them in? Why aren’t they just appointed?’  

The relevance of this story? This may become clearer to readers after reading part 2 of this essay, Cancelling the Past?  One observation is that our Council can be complicit in a witch-hunt and get clean away with it.  In relation to the city’s future discussions on commemorative items in the public realm, on what is or isn’t ‘offensive’ and on democratic, well-informed decision-making, we can only hope that our council will listen to its citizens and consult a spectrum of expertise. Sadly, the machine-like entity ‘Brighton and Hove City Council’ appears wired to do exactly the opposite.

An excellent piece on how forgetting the past was seen in classical times here: DON’T LOOK BACK IN ANGER: ON REMEMBERING TO FORGET and a reflection on offense, censorship and the ‘new puritans’ from Joan Bakewell here.

This essay and the companion piece to follow (Cancelling the Past) are presented as opinion pieces, not necessarily reflecting the views of the Brighton Society but published in the spirit of open, free-thinking debate. 


  2.                              I am grateful to The Future Cities Project – an online discussion last summer has proved invaluable throughout this essay. See:  
  3.            Local historian Peter Crowhurst has attempted to reach out to Cllr Mac Cafferty (alas, six months on still no reply). His contention with press accounts relying on UoB academics formed part of this article:
  8.                                                                        Independent built environment consultant Shelagh McNerney contributed to the Future Cities discussion:                                                                                                          
  10.        Prof Hudson contributed to the Future Cities discussion (ibid).
  11.                                                                                                                                         The Brighton Society supports English Heritage’s guidance on contested statues and sites. This is:        “. . . not to remove them but to provide thoughtful, long-lasting and powerful reinterpretation, which keeps the structure’s physical context but can add new layers of meaning, allowing us all to develop a deeper understanding of our often difficult past.” However, this still begs the question ‘who decides?’. See:
  12.                                                                                                                     (It is impressive to see at least one of the University’s academics brave enough to balance out the reputation of Gladstone). 
  16. 2011 Census records 20 per cent Brighton and Hove population were ‘BME’ (53,351 people)

    On the toppling of Colston, Bristol’s directly elected Mayor (Marvin Rees) said, ‘…in this country we settle our differences democratically and if people wanted the removal of the statue there are democratic routes which can be followed’. See:

  17. CRT is discussed in part 2 but a good critique can be found here:  and here:
  18. Just as Victorian era civic leaders scattered statues and street names about their towns, their modern-day counterparts – as of June 2020 – want to celebrate and be associated with the right values and the right causes. Today, ‘cause-related marketing’ (a term invented, appropriately enough, by American Express) refers to the rewards that can be accrued in this way. It only comes unstuck when the avarice and opportunism of it all is exposed.
  21. The author holds a redacted copy of the original report, which is presumably available to anyone via freedom of information to the council.

    Naturally, everyone has their own view on the golliwog – see endnote (25) ‘History and Context’ – Personally, I think the bygone image of the ‘golliwog’ is, thanks largely to Enid Blyton, so drenched with racist connotations it feels irredeemably tainted. British Hindu’s wrestle with something similar; the ancient Sanskrit swastika was tainted when the Nazis stole it).

    • Ibid
  23. In the Dawn Barnett case, the Investigating Officer took the view that if the golliwog image is ‘widely’ known to cause racial offense then Dawn’s failure to know this cultural reality and speaking to the press as she did was itself racially offensive. The officer reminded the judging panel that BHCC has a ‘commitment to zero tolerance of racist attitudes and behaviours’. The panel evidently agreed with the official advice. The complainants, it seemed, had to be appeased. In any case, the panel view was likely to be sensitive to the need to be seen as responsive to allegations; a councillor accused of racism could not be allowed to escape with at least some official sanction.

  24. (Above) The Brighton Society recommends a recent Future Cities Zoom discussion on Cancelling the Past: Statues, public space and democracy The power of the discussion came from its diversity of outlook as academic and other accumulated knowledge interacted to produce the kind of nuanced thinking that local authority review panels will likely lack. Top row: Panellists Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernan and academic Pippa Catterall (both former London councillors); heritage consultant Pauline Hadaway and architect Ike Ijeh. Shelagh McNerny and Cheryl Husdon pictured second row 3 and 4. The discussion took place in July 2020 – view it here:
  25. History and Context

    One useful lesson from the Dawn Barnett saga is that it exposed the indifference of the council not just to freedom of expression or democratic process but also to any serious attempt to consult existing knowledge on – in this case – the 19th century blackface minstrelsy in the US which likely inspired the golliwog doll character. Had the many weeks of research carried out by the investigating officer devoted a few hours to look into this history, both he and the panel of judges may have realised that they were as ignorant of shifting historical meanings as Dawn Barnett was presumed ignorant of how the doll is typically seen now. Background on the origins of the golliwogg (then with two ‘g’s) via Florence K. Upton’s 1895 book can be found here at Save Hove’s site and at another local site here.

    A few years ago, my own research (for a chapter of a book) convinced me that it was Enid Blyton’s 1944 re-boot of the golliwog character that established an explicitly racist characterisation of the golliwog that carried forward from here. Significantly Blyton’s racist characterisations continued through the 1950s and 60s in tandem with a society in which everyday racism was at its zenith.

    Today, controversies over golliwogs exist in a changed social context—less one of racism, far more one of racial etiquette. The swing from a time 30 years ago when Robertson’s marmalade sold in their hundreds from supermarket shelves (each displaying the golliwog logo), to a time when a mere vestige of that image triggers offence, illustrates the shift to a new etiquette perfectly. We now have a culture of offence-seeking and etiquette enforcement merging with a fear of breaking its rules. At its most febrile, the image of the golliwog is imagined to transmit racism all by itself as if it were some kind of demonic talisman. In the current social context, and well demonstrated in our universities, malign talisman-like forces become associated with a litany of images. In turn, this generates something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, students at a UoB online event last year complained bitterly of the trauma they experienced when lecturers routinely fail to give a ‘trigger’ warning ahead of certain teaching materials (for example a clip from Tarantino’s 12 Years a Slave or an extract from Hearts of Darkness). Professors and other academics attending the event applauded the students for speaking truth to ‘epistemic violence’ and supported their campaign to decolonise the curriculum and rid it of ‘trauma pornography’.

    But the shift from such etiquette to extremes of offence-seeking is even more remarkable. Speakers at university events report members of the student audience causing a commotion by hyperventilating in response to something that has been said. Could this pure form of physiological ‘trigger’ effect become our very own ‘culture bound syndrome’?   

    Regrettably, our council here in Brighton is so immersed in this culture, so enmeshed in the new social activism, that aggressive demands to dismantle, remove or cancel offending images, words, statues, buildings or people have gained traction like never before.

    Did you know?  as told by to Pippa Catterall. (With thanks to The Future Cities Project)

·         Statues (and other memorialisation in the public realm) provided the Victorian elite with a way to celebrate what they wanted and were seldom provided via any democratic local decision making.

·         Statues, plaques etc are not history. History is a narrative about the past constructed from its residues. Representations of the past can be erased or censored but we should remember that many statues can’t really be accurately described this way.

·         After Royalty, only 3 percent of British statues represent women?

·         More statues are torn down by officialdom than by mobs? The 1960s building boom saw statues, plaques, street names removed (statues re-located, put in storage) and all with very little democratic consent.

·         There is a place where people who are responsible for murder (mass killings too) are ghoulishly celebrated (it’s called the London Dungeon).

·         We cannot take buildings down once a connection with slavery is highlighted! Stately Homes come to mind (as might Brighton’s numerous seafront mansions). Would you agree to the demolition of Warwick Castle because of its connections?


2 thoughts on “The Despicable Past

  1. While it is true that all human populations have been slaves and slaveholders at some point in history, it was the industrial scale of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that makes it so horrific. That and its relative recency in history means that it sits uneasily in our national consciousness. For that reason it is, and always has been, important that the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is told, thoroughly and without bias. But it is unclear to me how that cause is helped by condemning historic architecture and design as symbolising colonialism or as cultural appropriation. It is of course true that the money for many of the Georgian buildings in certain British cities came from the profits of slavery. But the artistic genius did not. Architects, along with all designers and artists, have always been inspired by other cultures. Much of Georgian architecture was neo-classical, inspired by the designs of ancient Greece and Rome re-invented by the likes of Palladio. Many Victorian buildings include features inspired by Moorish architecture. Monet was inspired by the art and designs of Japan. Art Deco was inspired by designs from ancient Egypt. It’s not ‘colonialism’ or ‘appropriation’ to admire and imitate the art and craft of other cultures. More importantly, all the time and effort that is going into whether statues and plaques should be removed, streets re-named and old buildings denigrated does nothing whatsoever to address the injustices, discrimination and bias in our current institutions. It’s a distraction. It gives us the false idea that, by removing traces of the past we’re solving the problems of today.

  2. Excellent points Gill. A steadily growing ‘presentism’ marks the past few decades. Whatever historical issue is discussed it is likely to be assessed through the prism of present-day values. We could argue ‘twas ever thus’ but I think this tendency reached excessive levels over the past 12 months. A greater awareness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is a good thing until the study of it is co-opted into the objectives of identity politics. Notions of offence and trauma tempt a generation to view the present as under attack from the past and conclude that sheltering from or ameliorating its insult is urgent (this is why I liked Shelagh McNerney’s future-orientated standpoint so much). Edinburgh Council’s ‘Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group’ seek to ‘rectify the glorification of slavery and colonialism’ and, I think, exemplify the threat posed by municipal stupidity. Items commemorating Charles II, Lord Nelson, David Hume, Queen Victoria, Henry Dundas, Adam Smith’s grave (!!!) and even Robert Burns all appear on their list. Urging gung-ho council’s to refrain from removing a statue or vilifying an old building with a giant information board (Nicola Sturgeon’s residence, Bute House, is on the list) seems riddled with problems too. Oliver Dowden’s policy of ‘retain and explain’ – as applied by Edinburgh Council to Henry Dundas – ends with explanations that appease demands for social justice while also being untrue. As with Brighton (if its committee snaps into action), historically illiterate removal committees who only consult activist-historians will fit info-boards with facile explanations. Will we be treated to BHCC ‘trigger warning’ plaques that point out the ‘colonially derived exoticism’ of the Royal Pavilion.

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