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Why we should prefer history to hysteria

2020 June 11
by Paul Vallely

When a Roman patrician donated a new bathhouse, aqueduct or road to the city he would often have a prominent stone inscribed D.S.P.F or de sua pecuna fecit. It meant ‘paid for with his own money’. In return his fellow citizens often put up a statue to him. When the great man fell from public favour the statue was often torn down – a practice, I learned while researching my forthcoming book on philanthropy*, which became a great symbolic gesture in any revolt or sedition.

The lessons of history go far wider than that, as we have seen this week with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, once lauded as the city of Bristol’s greatest philanthropist, but now reviled as a slave trader. The event tells us something about the nature of history, the need to remember, the danger of forgetting and the fact that we do not stand detached from history but are part of it.

The need to remember is perhaps the easiest of these lessons to learn. Colston gave the contemporary equivalent of about £25 million to build schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches, though he excluded as beneficiaries the Catholics, Dissenters and Whigs his politics led him to despise. But his fortune was built upon the sale of 84,000 slaves, of whom 19,300 died in the ships he used to transport human beings from Africa to the Caribbean and then bring tobacco, sugar and rum back to Britain. It is hard to argue that such tainted money can ever be fully redeemed by good works.

The danger of forgetting is clear from those who fail, or refuse, to understand that at the time slavery was generally condoned by the educated church-going classes. John Locke, that most celebrated philosopher of liberty, was a shareholder in Colston’s company. The protester who sprayed “Churchill is a racist” on his statue in Parliament Square may remember historians’ revelations that Britain’s wartime leader privately used derogatory anti-black language – but appears to have forgotten that the choice in 1940 was between Churchill’s slang and Hitler’s genocide.

After the fall of the Soviet Union several East European countries took down their statues of infamous Communist dictators but, rather than destroying them, placed them in statue-parks so children could learn something of the context the past gave their present. History is a better option than the hysteria on display in Bristol this week. Liverpool, whose splendid array of Grade 1 listed architecture is a testament to another city whose greatness was built on slavery, has responded to the complexity of its own history with a Slavery Museum in which future generations can learn to comprehend the complexity of their own chequered past.

In such ways do we make our own history in an honest and healthy fashion. Colston died in 1721. The notorious statue was erected only in the era of Victorian imperialism – almost 200 years after his death. Removing the statue to a museum would merely have been another stage in the way city makes its history – and one from which its children could learn far more than this week’s attempts simply to erase the past.

* Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely will be published by Bloomsbury in September

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