In the Shadow of Shame
Statues matter. I remember this being indelibly etched into my consciousness as a small child. One day my dad shouted, “Come quick. There’s a unicorn coming down the street!” And sure enough, there was. Sitting regally erect aboard an open topped council lorry.
It was the early 1960s and the council were about to widen Melville Drive, which then, as now, ran through the Meadows and a pair of grand pillars at either end were in the way.
Perched on each were a lion and unicorn, facing each other. Down came the pillars and the four fine beasts were transported to the builder’s yard at the foot of our street. One by one they were chauffeured slowly past our house.
A childhood memory to savour, but also an edifying experience which has continued to resonate with me…
We solemnly accompanied our unicorn to its destination whereupon my dad engaged the workmen in serious discussion.
Over the months that followed he became the self-appointed guardian of these fine beasts as they languished in a corner of the yard under council sanctioned tarpaulin.
They were eventually and begrudgingly re-instated by council officials where they continue to preside over the now widened Melville Drive. I learned something about my dad that day - and about the powerful impact of making a fuss.
Statues matter, as recent events in the Black Lives Matter protests have shown, and rightly so. My dad’s motivations were borne of a desire to protect the aesthetic craftsmanship of these fine heraldic beasts and a deep mistrust of the city’s planners’ motives in the sixties. Both, you’ll agree, noble sentiments.
He was a ‘protector’ of statues. Others want to tip them into the sea. Much like the immortalised Edward Colston who cast overboard unwanted cargo. His was kidnapped African men, women and children, still alive, but unlikely to fetch a good price at market.
Why would the Bristol of today want to keep such a very public celebration of a man who grew rich off the blood and forced toil of millions of kidnapped Africans, and whose ancestors live in our midst to this day? What can there possibly be about his life that is worthy of such an honour?
I don’t care how many libraries and museums he built. Would we today be ‘protecting’ a statue to Jimmy Saville because at the time of his death most people thought he had performed many good deeds?
This act was not a wiping out of history, quite the reverse. It was a glorious spectacle that created a new history. The Colston toppling has indeed assured his place in our memories, but this time for his wickedness. He shares his fate with Saddam Hussein – toppled in Baghdad in 2003, and the Stalin statue disembodied in Budapest in 1956 just before the Soviet tanks rolled into town.
But defacing the Bruce because he had fought in the Crusades. Really? Let’s remember what the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement is all about. It was the chilling sense of entitlement displayed by Officer Derek Chauvin, chatting whilst he knelt on the neck of a black man until he was dead, that unleashed the anger.
A stark image of the casual disregard for the life of another human being, mirrored in the conviction of his own racial superiority.
After all it’s there in black and white - in the US Constitution. In Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, the section covering the requirement to hold a census, every person in each state must be counted – ‘with slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a free person’. Yes – a black person was officially 60% the worth of a white person. And we wonder why the cry, Black Lives Matter, echoes through the ages.
Segregation was the law and lynchings commonplace in the Deep South when I was at primary school. The slave and segregation days are officially over, but we should not be surprised when a benevolent legal edict doesn’t change generational prejudices overnight.
Here in Scotland it’s too easy, certainly these days, to feel superior to the States. The shadow of shame that is slavery is ours too. Before the ‘Founding Fathers’ came up with that three-fifths rule, the Colonies were part of the British Empire. Throughout the 18th century, Britain was Europe’s chief slave trading nation, and after the Union in 1707 we Scots took full advantage.
In disproportionate numbers the Scots headed for the Caribbean, in particular Jamaica, where there was a high concentration of plantations and therefore slaves. They accounted for 85% of the population in Jamaica as against 30-40% in the Deep South. Ambitious Scots assumed the mantle of jailers in this powder keg of an environment. Jamaica became a place to get rich quick before returning home to spend and invest their blood money here in Scotland.
Crudely put, it could be said that Britain’s part in the Caribbean slave trade was as follows: the English captured, chained and shipped Africans across the Atlantic and sold them as slaves for profit. The Scots then drove the slaves to their deaths on the Jamaican plantations. And the crops the slaves laboured for - cotton, tobacco and sugar – were then shipped back to Britain, lining the pockets of all the white men in on the racket on the way. Quite possibly, some of them on the voyage home were dreaming of a statue for all their good works one day.
I’m actually pleased that the statue of Edward Colston survived in Bristol until this year. In a time when young people all too often leave school with a knowledge of history that doesn’t extend much further than Henry VIII and Hitler, such statues have been thrust into the limelight and in the process have rekindled our own awareness of Europe’s historic violation of Africa.
That’s why history matters – and statues too.
The issue of statues is a very emotive one signalled by these opening lines from a work by Vanessa Kisuule, the resident poet of Bristol, which captures the moment when Edward Colston’s statue was toppled:
You came down easy in the end.
The righteous wrench of two ropes in a grand plié.
Briefly, you flew, corkscrewed, then met the ground
With the clang of toy guns, loose change, chains, a rain of cheers.
Standing ovation on the platform of your neck.
Punk Ballet. Act 1.
There is more to come.
Edward Colston symbolically ‘shackled’ and The Unicorn of Melville Drive