The Guildford Lib Dem’s have announced plans to decolonise Guildford Museum. But what exactly is decolonisation? In this article I do my best to put this topic in context
Decolonisation is an important debate because it is all about how we present our past in a way that reflects the view point of all communities in our society. In particular it is linked to the need to remove all racism in modern Britain. There was a time when the only history that mattered was that of Kings and Queens but with the growth of democracy social and economic historical studies were introduced. Today, history is weighted too much towards a European viewpoint and this can an impact on how British people of non-European origin are perceived.
Decolonisation is a debate that has been going on many years and usually covers topics such as the restitution of cultural property. The Elgin Marbles at the British Museum are the most famous example of such a debate but we have a good example at Clandon House where the Maori House is being returned to New Zealand in a far less controverial way. Recently decolonisation has become tied up with the “Black Lives Matter” campaign which sprung out of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25th May 2020. It was during a BLM protest in Bristol on 7th June that the statue of slave trader, Edward Colston was pulled down and thrown in the docks. This popularised a wider debate about how we present out past and a website allowed people to vote for other statues that perhaps should be pulled down. However, many leaders in the debate question the advisability of this approach because it removes the evidence or rewrites history. That has not stopped many well meaning institutions from starting proceedings to remove statues and even rename places.
The Policy Exchange Think Tank has set up the new History Matters Project, chaired by Trevor Phillips to document what is happening. It observes that “At present, the evidence confirms that history is the most active front in a new culture war, and that action is being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past. “
Trevor Phillips, who is chairing the History Matters project, says: “Much of this action by mainstream institutions and public bodies is well-meaning. Some of it is happening alongside laudable and overdue efforts to increase diversity and tackle genuine racism. We all want to find ways to improve the life opportunities and outcomes for people from BAME backgrounds – and we want to find ways to build shared narratives and histories. But what concerns me about the current moment is the rapid and unthinking way in which large swathes of our public heritage is being effectively re-written, or erased entirely – much of it seemingly without much proper debate or forethought. It all adds up to a major transformation in the way in which we deal with history in the public square. At a minimum, we think there needs to be pause for reflection – and to consider what is being done, why and with what effect. My worry too is that this new culture war risks distracting from us from the practical steps that need to be taken to make a real and lasting practical difference to the lives of BAME people in this country. When even one the most distinguished contemporary African leaders, Graca Machel, argues that Rhodes should not fall, and should serve as a constant reminder of the history of which he was a part, maybe we should listen to her words”
The Term “Decolonisation”
Decolonisation originally referred to the handing over of former colonies to self-government as European powers relinquished their empires. However, in recent years it has been used to describe a change of attitude from a Western viewpoint to a more global and inclusive approach on pretty much any issue. There are calls to ‘decolonise’ physics, maths, medicine, art, architecture, healthcare and even diets. In between these broad concepts there are some very practical debates about the returning of cultural artefacts and the removal of statues.
According to one website, “For those demanding decolonisation, colonialism is not merely a historical wrong, but an enduring and pervasive feature of the present.” It is there in the way we present our history, in statues and in architecture, and in the insults and abuse they have to put up with.
Return of cultural property
For many years there have been debates over the return of cultural property wrongly taken during the colonial era. The Museums Association gave the topic top billing at its conference in October 2019. The International Council on Museums ran a session on “Decolonisation and Restitution: Moving Towards a More Holistic Perspective and Relational Approach” at its 2019 conference. The Arts Council announced in January that it is producing a checklist for museum and that there could be financial repercussions for any museums that do not investigate their collections.
Heritage England has issued a statement on contested heritage . The most famous topics for discussion are the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum and the Benin Bronzes taken from Nigeria in 1898. In Guildford the Maori meeting house at Clandon House and Guildford Museum has announced plans to decolonise its collections
Removal of Statues – Edward Colston
Decolonisation received new emphasis in May 2020 with the dreadful murder of the George Floyd. This produced “Black Lives Matter” campaign and as part of related protests the statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader in Bristol was pull down and thrown into the docks. Although some might question the issue the public order, Colston was a particularly symbolic example of the need for decolonisation.
He was a Bristol-born merchant who made much of his fortune from the slave trade, particularly between 1680 and 1692. He was an active member of the Royal African Company, and was briefly deputy governor in 1689–90. During his tenure, the Company transported an estimated 84,000 slaves from West Africa to the Americas (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America. Colston also invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ‘right’ to trade in enslaved Africans. Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.
He gave extensively to charities in Bristol and as a result is commemorated throughout the city in church windows and statues. Buildings have been named after him, a regional bread bun bares his name. A primary school is named after him and St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School has a house named after him. So he is much more than an offensive statue.
Discussions about putting a plaque on the statue had been going on for some years but indecision meant nothing actually happened until the issue got swept up into the “Black Lives Matters” campaign.
Removal of other statues
A website “Topple the Racists” has been set up allow people to identify other statues that should be removed. It has caused controversy because it includes names such as Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. For more on this story see this BBC article. During the “Black Lives Matter” protests in June paint was sprayed on the statue of Winston Churchill because of his belief in imperialism. The Policy Exchange has set up the History Matters Project to chronicle examples of institutions taking action.
Is removal of statues unnecessary?
The argument for removing statues is quite simple. Should we really be putting villains on pedestals simply because previous generations perceived them as heros? Of course not everyone is perfect and a debate is often required but if that is used as an excuse for inaction then it will lead to frustration and public action as happened in Bristol.
Temitope Ajileye, a co-facilitator of the “Rhodes Must Fall Campaign” says “the Rhodes Must Fall movement is about changing public opinion through democratic campaigning, rather than overriding it”. In other words it is not about a minority dictating to the majority but presenting the arguments. One common argument against removing statues of figures like Rhodes and Colston is that it amounts to erasing history. But Ajileye argues that statuary is often erected as propaganda. “What I’ve watched people do often is look at their public monuments and say, ‘if these people have monuments then they can’t have been that bad to begin with’. So those statues are still doing their propaganda,” he says.
But not all leading voices not calling for a wholesale destruction of statues. As Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London has said “there are some statues that are quite a clear cut. Slavers, quite a clear cut in my view. Plantation owners, quite a clear cut. But nobody is perfect, whether that’s Churchill, whether that’s Gandhi or Malcolm X. So there’s a conversation to be had about making sure that the national curriculum properly teaches our children about people’s warts and all and some of the things that we don’t approve of.”
In London some statues have been removed and Mayor Sadiq Khan has set up the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm which will review the city’s landmarks – including murals, street art, street names, statues and other memorials. As the Mayor said, “It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored. This cannot continue. We must ensure that we celebrate the achievements and diversity of all in our city, and that we commemorate those who have made London what it is – that includes questioning which legacies are being celebrated. The Black Lives Matter protests have rightly brought this to the public’s attention, but it’s important that we take the right steps to work together to bring change and ensure that we can all be proud of our public landscape.”
Example – Edward Dundas statue
In Scotland the Statue of Edward Dundas has drawn wide attention. The statue in St Andrew Square is the largest in Edinburgh. It was placed on its column in 1827 and funded by seaman and naval officers. But Dundas was controversial and delayed the abolition of the slave trade for 10 years resulting in the enslavement of half a million Africans.
Sir Geoff Palmer, a University professor has argued for years that a plaque should be placed next to the statue to make people aware of this act. The Council has deliberated for ages but the Black Lives Matter protests suddenly spurred them into action. Professor Palmer is an inspirational figure. Born in Jamaica his mother was part of the Windrush generation. He is Professor Emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and a human rights activist. He was knighted in 2014 for services to human rights science and charity.
In an interview after the Black Lives Matter protests he argued today’s racism could be traced to the treatment of black people as property and the sense of entitlement felt by slave owners. “This was the epitome of entitlement and derived from people who were racist and who actually believe that black people were inferior to white people. The consequence of that is Minneapolis,”
Like Sadiq Khan he does not see the removal of statues as the answer. He has said “I feel that if you remove the evidence you remove the deed. That’s what I’m worried about – removing and altering the past,”
Professor Palmer does not confine his views to the save trade. The same principles can be applied in the Highlands, where there have been repeated calls to take down the 100ft statue of the Duke of Sutherland which overlooks Golspie from the top of Ben Bhraggie because of his role in the Clearances.
“I think the concept is the same. The past has consequences and if we take the past down we may forget the consequences,” he said.
Nelson Mandela was once asked whether the statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed from Westminster Abbey. “Memorials like this must remain,” he said, “because we need to see history in the round. People must remember what was thought to be good at the time, even if later we take a different view. Only then can we learn lesson by taking the mistake with us as a reminder.”
Well meaning institutions take action
Despite views of people like Sir Geoff Palmer, who kick started these debates, there are many well meaning institutions currently taking action to remove statues and rename places.
The Policy Exchange has set up the History Matters Project to document what is happen. It observes
The Bank of England has “commenced a thorough review of its collection of images of former Governors and Directors to ensure none with any such involvement in the slave trade remain on display anywhere in the Bank”. The Rugby Football Union is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” by fans, as it is thought to have been written in the mid-19th century by Wallace Willis, a black slave. The Tate galleries, named after the industrialist Henry Tate, who made his fortune as a sugar refiner, reportedly may be renamed, despite the fact that Tate was not himself a slave-owner or slave-trader. Elsewhere, universities are actively considering the “decolonising” of curriculums; authorities are debating the removal of statues of historical figures from public squares; and other institutions – including the National Trust – are considering how to address their links to past wrongs. Across the board, the speed and scale of what is happening is striking – as institutions seek to insulate themselves from the charge of ‘being on the wrong side of history’.
Policy Exchange records the debate
Yet whose history is it? And how should it be written/commemorated in the public sphere? Few are stopping to debate these questions. And in this fast-moving debate, it is noticeable that the voice of the public has scarcely been considered. Polling commissioned by Policy Exchange finds that:
- 69% are proud of UK history as a whole, with only 17% saying it is something to be ashamed of
- 65% say “it is unfair to make judgments about people in the past based on today’s values” and agree that “statues of people who were once celebrated should be allowed to stand”
- 77% say “We should learn from history rather than try to re-write it”
- Only 20% agree that “we should question how we look at British history and no longer recognise success if it caused misery or suffering to some victims”
- 80% say Churchill’s statue should stay in Parliament Square, after a Black Lives Matter leader said it should be removed, with clear support for Churchill staying put across all age groups
- Serious concerns about role of police in protecting statues, with 75% saying they need to protect statues from violent removal
- And concerns that children aren’t being taught enough history, or well enough, to make value judgements about contemporary questions such as removing statues
- 60% think children should have to study history to GCSE
Policy Exchange’s History Matters Project – chaired by Trevor Phillips, Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, and launched today – will address these concerns, document the re-writing of history as it happens, and explore modern Britain’s treatment of its past. It brings together a panel of historians, thinkers and experts in public policy to reflect on the way in which history is being debated in the public sphere: how it is presented in our institutions, from statues in town squares to national museum exhibits; how it is taught in this country’s schools and universities; and how it can be used to create a shared sense of belonging and identity that befits 21st century Britain.
These notes represent my attempt to understand decolonisation. In conclusion I feel it a topic we need to embrace with enthusiasm. I don’t wish to water down the importance of Black Lives Matter but I think this issue is part of the gradual democratisation of history. In the nineteenth century history was all about politics but in the 20th century social and economic history Receive specialist treatment. In the late 20th century many social history museums were set up. Museums struggle to attract diverse audiences but the decolonisation debate shows how important history is in defining who we are. There is a real opportunity for museums to use this fact to engage audiences and help build a fairer more solid communities by presenting everyone’s story.
Wider links to racism
Behind all of this is the wider issue of racism in Britain today. The Labour MP Diane Abbott recently said that it’s important not to get “bogged down in debates about statues” rather than very real, current issues of injustice that protestors are raising.
Guildford is a polite middle class town full of well meaning people and it is tempting to think that racism is exaggerated. But in an interview to the Guildford Dragon local councillor Masuk Miah spoke about name calling when he came to Guildford in 1986 and examples of people missing out on jobs. He politely avoided sounding contentious but statistics show these to be two big issues.
I found the following statement in a Financial Times article very helpful as it sums up my attitude all too well. “Every now and then much of Britain discovers racism. The general awareness that it is out there collides with the urgent desire to find out where. People talk about it endlessly and carelessly, unsure of what to say or think or whether they are doing it right. They have lots of questions but, even if they did know whom to ask, they would be too crippled by embarrassment to reveal their ignorance. Everyone has an opinion but only a few have any experience. The interest never goes away, though its intensity wanes as they explore other things.The trouble is not everyone gets to move on. Black people, and other minorities, do not have the luxury of a passing interest in racism.”
A YouGov poll carried out in June 2020 found that two-thirds of black Britons have had a racial slur directly used against them or had people make assumptions about their behavour based on their race. More than half say their career development has been affected because of their race and about 70% feel the Metropolitan police is institutionally racist. As a result two-thirds of people feel there is still a “great deal” of racism today.
In a very informative article in The Conversation called “How racist is Britain today – what the evidence tells us” a recent survey found that 18% of Britons still believe that “some races or ethnic groups are born less intelligent than others”. I also attach the full article as a PDF as the information is worth keeping.
As the Policy Exchange says, this is a fast moving debate and the issues around heritage are currently the focal point.