Sunday 7 June 2020

Brexit Bowdlerisation of History: British Mob Destroy Grade II Monument [UPDATED]

Vandals gather in Bristol, attack 19th century statue as
"protest", hundreds stood by and passively watched
(One News Page/ Wochit Business video still)

Arms of the British Royal African
Company 1660-175
2, on which
 a lot of British wealth was built 
As Trump's America goes mad, we see a copycat rampage through a British city centre by a mob of people frustrated by lockdown rules that ended in destruction of cultural property. A 125 year old fin de siècle statue by versatile Manchester sculptor John Cassidy (1860-1939) was thrown to the ground, broken and then thrown into the river Avon (Harron Siddique, 'BLM protesters topple statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston' Guardian Sun 7 Jun 2020). The statue depicted the merchant and Tory MP Edward Colston (1636 - 1721) who had endowed schools, hospitals, almhouses and churches in Bristol, London and elsewhere. Colston was associated with the London-based Royal African Company that functioned between 1660 and 1752 and whose principle investors included members of the British royal family (Charles II, James II), Samuel Pepys, John Locke, George Villiers, John Banks, and a whole lot of other notables of the period. Bristol, the urban area of which today has a population of 724,000 was, together with Liverpool, one of the centres of the commercial activities of this company, and Colston was just one of many hundred people that were enriched by involvement in the three-way trade on which Britain built its wealth.

Posted on You Tube by Guardian News 7 Jun 2020.
Demonstrators attached a rope to the grade II-listed statue on Colston Avenue on Sunday before pulling it to the ground as crowds cheered. They then jumped on it and rolled it down the street to the harbour before pushing it into the river Avon. 
"Stay alert": Colston's
tomb in All Saints
church, the next target
for British mob violence? 
Possibly very few of this lynch mob had read W.A. Pettigrew's " Freedom's Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672–1752" (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and were thus unable to see its erection in 1895 in its wider context. For it does have one, but lynch mobs are composed of people cognitively unprepared to see that. The British mob saw in this statue a cardboard cutout anti-hero on which the whole of the colonial evils that fill the history of the Brexit nation and its "rise to greatness" could be ascribed.
The 18ft bronze statue, erected in 1895, has long been a focal point for anger at the city’s role in the slave trade and the continued commemoration of those who were involved in it.  A petition to remove it had garnered more than 11,000 signatures.
In a city of 724 thousand people (equivalent of 1.5% of the city's population) which has not been a focus of any particular bouts of institutionalised violence against the 4% black population.

What I found exceedingly difficult to understand was the number of archaeologists on my Twitter feed applauding this action, "the people taking their past into their own hands" as one of them put it ("Like the metal detectorists you lot also support" is my thought on reading that). Some of the 'socially woke' archaeological commentators were from the other side of the Atlantic who, it transpires, had very little idea where and what Bristol was. Some of these archaeologists got rather aggressive when their jubilation was challenged in the terms of the wider heritage debate.

Trying to erase a past (brown folk version)
These archaeologists are the same people that, asked in a different context, would deplore brown-skinned folk in far off lands driven by similar motives of cleansing the space around them of what they see as 'undesirable' monuments. So, it seems one set of principles applies to 'us' ("righteously angry" about the heritage of the past and wanting to put it out of sight and out of mind) and 'them', how dare they try to do the same thing? This is precisely the same white privilege (Bristol is  84.0% white/ 77.9% 'white British') that this same mob declared itself to be protesting. In reality these people gathered together under a US slogan (Black people are not gunned down as a matter of course in British streets as they are in the US) out of frustration at being asked to "Stay Home Save Lives" - seeing the slogan as giving a bit of a rampage some legitimacy. Many of them will have picked up the CV infection in that thousands strong crowd and will be filling Bristol's hospitals (a cause to which Edward Colston also donated) in the coming days.

The whole underlying premise of the Brexit over half the population of Britain supports is exactly the same backward-looking "Make Our Country Great Again" junk ideas as MAGA. In both cases, this requires a whitewashing of the uncomfortable bits of the past. What many Britons brought up in a previous generation want is a recognition of some kind of British Exceptionalism - "we had an Empire on which the sun never set" type logic. The fact that this Golden Age of British supremacy was built on oppression, exploitation and human trafficking is why you'll see colonial history NOT being taught properly in British schools, and an attempt to whitewash the past. People are praising this vandalism not because it in some way actively improves the lives of ethnic minorities in Little Britain, but because it represents the removal of an uncomfortable reminder, not only of Restoration and Jacobian  British exploitation, but also its continuance into the Victorian era, when this statue was erected and the townscape it formed an integral part of were also created as part of Bristol and Britain as a whole continuing to benefit from the Scramble for Africa.  Are the mobs in Britain going to take the bull by the horns and eradicate all traces of the processes (The Kop, Pepys' Diary, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, Koh-i-nor, Gibraltar, Falkland Islands included), or will there be instead a deeper self-examination about the context of British racism and xenophobia?

UPDATE 8th June 2020

Those of them who were wearing masks will have less chance of having their faces recognised from the many photos and videos that were made during that event, I hope that those responsible for the destruction, for whatever "reason", of a Grade II historical monument are identified, caught, named and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We have planning and conservation bodies in place to decide what is to be preserved and how taking into account a wide range of factors, a lynch mob should not take matters into their own hands and begin destruction of cultural property just because it does not suit their own personal tastes.

Avon and Somerset Police have now issued a statement from Bristol Area Commander Superintendent Andy Bennett 

In the George Floyd case this whole rampage was supposed to be about, not only Derek Chauvin, should be being charged for what he did in Minneapolis, but also Thomas Lane, J. Kueng, and Tou Thao for aiding and abetting second-degree murder. In the same way here, it is not the few that actually laid their hands on the statue who are culpable, but every single person that stood by and let it happen. The organisers of this march should also be arrested and charged for failing to prevent criminal damage (in Poland when anti-government demos are organised, there are also sizebaable groups of wardens precisely to prevent such trouble, I did not see anyone here acting as such, which is simply irresponsible of the organisers). 

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