Today I was frustrated by what I deemed the once again slightly inane, overly reductive opinions of callers to a popular Chanel 5 morning TV programme. The topic up for discussion was whether or not Colston Hall in Bristol, named in honour of a successful 17th century businessman named Edward Colson, should be renamed.
The renaming of Colston Hall was suggested in consideration of the fact that Colston earned much of his fortune as a result of trading slaves during the Atlantic slave trade. The opinion of most callers and indeed the programmes guest panel was that to remove Colston’s name would be to deny the reality of a rich, albeit occasionally flawed, history. One caller commented that Colston, who ended his days as a philanthropist, was probably a ‘kindly’ man who, like many others at the time, had been ignorant of the fact that the slaves that he bought and sold were human. I was surprised that this opinion met with general approval.
As a black woman whose descendants would have been amongst those bought, sold, tortured, raped and killed, all in the name of funding a prosperity that Europe and the US enjoy today, I was saddened by what has become a common thread in British attitudes (including Black British) towards slavery. It reminded me of an occasion during an A level psychology lesson my then tutor commented that the Holocaust was the single worse atrocity in history. Somewhat baffled I reminded my tutor of the four hundred year plight of Africans, whose response was ‘slavery is about economics, it isn’t the same thing.’ It would seem that my tutor felt that since those involved in the slave trade had been motivated above all else by money, the many atrocities committed were somehow less horrific than those committed by the Nazis. My tutor was able to reduce slavery to a matter of mere finances.
While the caller had chosen to view the likes of Colston as noble men simply distracted by understandable greed; men who were unaware that the people that they were subjecting to torture and often debilitating unpaid labour, were in fact human. That of course is utter rubbish and way too easy. If the 16th, 17th and 18th century trader had been oblivious to the humanness of their slaves, then:
- There would not have existed so many white abolitionists who vehemently protested against the inhumanity of slavery (how was it that they recognised blacks as human but not the slave traders?).
- Slave traders and their women folk would not have so often subjected their slaves to sexual assaults, sexual encounters that yielded countless offspring (would they have copulated with animals?).
- Softer natured traders would not have seen fit to free slaves, sometimes even marrying ex slave women.
- Traders would not have devised a meticulously cunning method of breaking the slave (a method that was based on the psychology of the slave thus the admittance by the trader that the slave owned human psychological processes that could indeed be broken).
Not to mention the fact that black people had lived throughout Europe prior to the slave trade; some had been merchants, others members of African aristocracy who visited Europe bearing gifts, others citizens who fought side by side with English men during war. Therefore the humanness of black people was very much part of European consciousness prior to the Atlantic Slave trade (a humanness conveniently forgotten in order to accumulate wealth).
With this in mind it is not only reductive but also abhorrent to dismiss the crimes of slave traders by pleading their ignorance. At the time of the Holocaust the German population experienced years of systematic brain washing and as such it could be argued that by the time that Hitler had risen to power and committed himself to the annihilation of the Jews, the German populace no longer felt that their former neighbours, friends, lovers, were human. The country’s media portrayed the Jewish people as less than human and carried out scientific studies that produced data solidifying the inferiority of the Jewish race (as was the case during slavery). Nonetheless, there are few that would use the conditions under which Germans came to find themselves the enemy of the Jew as justification for the horrific crimes that were committed. This is because regardless of the conditions of one’s society at any given time human beings usually have the ability to choose a certain course of action and as such whether the wrongdoer acts as an individual or collectively, responsibility must be taken for the consequences of such actions.
But what really riled me was that the said caller also stated that Britain could not continue to apologise for something that was not within their remit to control. This sentiment I hear too often whenever the topic of slavery is mentioned. What is curious is that the British often refuse to give an apology even when an apology has not been requested of them. There seems to be an unconscious guilt that manifests as defensiveness and thereby blocks any real intellectual discussion regarding both slavery and it’s legacy. This guilt and the defensiveness that results has led to a shame felt amongst black people, a resistance to mention that bleak part of our history for fear it will offend. Worse still, in order to overcompensate and reassure the white person that we do not want them to feel in the least bit guilty and to temper the defensiveness encountered black people often underplay the magnitude of the crime against humanity that was slavery. This was demonstrated by a caller who identified herself as black and who agreed that the name of the hall should not be changed, since to do so would be to distort history.
The irony that history had already been distorted by honouring a man, who due to his treatment of other human beings as mere commodities was not worthy of such an honour, was lost on the callers and the panel. ‘Remember that slavery was not a crime back then’, one caller stated, as if legality alone should decide how human beings treat one another (if applying that logic then apartheid in South Africa was not wrong until it was made illegal in the 1980s). It is unacceptable that the British should romanticise slave traders in order to hold onto other more appealing aspects of their legacy. While he may have seen fit to donate his considerable wealth to various good causes, Colston nevertheless obtained that wealth as a direct result of his involvement in a trade that inflicted unfathomable cruelty onto human beings and the idea of absolving him of his crimes on the basis that he was good to some should be met with outrage. What was endured under slavery should not be diminished and the only way to honour those who suffered and died under slavery is to allow their tragic story to be told in ways that are not reductive and that do not paint their masters, traders and often their executioners, as ignorant folk who simply didn’t know better.
If it were discovered that there stood on British soil a statue honouring a man who had financially supported the Nazi party (or indeed was a former active Nazi, who had ‘reformed’ in later life) there would be no question of that statue being removed. Nevertheless Colston’s status as a trader of human beings is somehow acceptable.
Am I the only person who finds this unpalatable? Surely it is only right that Bristol cease honouring a quite dishonourable man.